How to Learn to Think Better

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We are increasingly called to make decisions with often imperfect information or not enough data. We are also under pressure to choose more frequently — a product, a service, but also a course of action to recommend at work — often without enough mental space to consider options.

The better we are at learning to solve problems under ambiguous conditions, the more effective we become. Asking better questions to gain perspective is a good skill to have beyond its utility in providing us guidance at a time of personal crisis. Perspective can help us in business, too. (We don't want to be that person.)

This leads us to the need to increase our capacity for dealing with change. Which means affecting out mental habits. But it's not enough to know or become aware of something to change our behavior. It takes practice to learn new mental habits.

The Center for Applied Rationality, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, CA, with the mission of developing, testing, and training people in strategies for reasoning and decision-making lists six skills we can practice to acquire good habits:

1. Reacting to evidence, surprises, or arguments we haven’t heard before and flagging beliefs for examination

2. Questioning and analyzing beliefs (after they come to our attention)

3. Handling inner conflicts; when different parts of us are pulling in different directions, we want different things that seem incompatible and our responses to stress

4. What we do when we find our thoughts, or an argument, is going in circles or not getting anywhere

5. Noticing and flagging behaviors (habits, strategies) for review and revision

6. Revising strategies, forming new habits, implementing new behavior patterns

Along with a guide we can use to exercise those skills. Careful thinking is not enough to uncover our own biases and assumptions. As the Center for Applied Rationality says:

Over the past fifty years, science has discovered common human error patterns — cognitive biases — whereby people of all levels of education and intelligence will misjudge reality, fail to achieve their goals, and make all kinds of self-defeating mistakes.

And these biases are so basic and pervasive to human thinking that we’re all making these mistakes every day without even noticing.

Julia Galef, co-founded the center after becoming interested in “mental technologies” — concepts, or ways of thinking, that help humanity improve our world.

Why it's important to learn to think better

Christopher Butler has a good weekly letter titled don't think about the future. This week, he shared something I have been thinking about as well, which goes to why it's important to learn more about mental technologies:

The future is a giant bubble inflated by our expectations, doomed to burst and leave us with little else than floppy bits of worn balloon. Because we think the future is about technology. But the future is not about technology. The future is about whoever lives in it. People. Animals. Plants. We're paving the road to our future with back-lit Corning glass mirrors while we should really be thinking about something other than our own reflection for a change. Because when we run out of fuel and food and water, the last thing we're going to want to look at is ourselves.

We're not going to look to good then. No amount of avatar preening will help. No network effects will mold society for the greater good. Unless, of course, by network effects you mean who you know that knows how to garden, or make fabric, or has leftover medicine, or who can fix things that break. A purely technological future is bankrupt. It borrows from the future to pay for the present. We ask too much of the future when we imagine it to be just like today, but more. Instead, we need to ask more of today for tomorrow's sake.

My contribution to this conversation about learning to think better is a newsletter I publish weekly — Sunday morning. I'm experimenting with formats and will continue to evolve it based on your feedback and the direction of my projects. Subscribe to Learning Habit weekly here (an example from last week.)


[image via Austin Kleon newsletter]