Independent Thinking

I have been thinking a lot about the topic of knowledge-based labor markets, where you are rewarded for developing the most creative solutions to difficult problems. One of the things that strikes me as odd is that even though the value of an idea is increasing, the notion of thinking for oneself appears to be less common. Most people are basing their thoughts on the information provided to them by others, rather than spending time alone to develop their own unique insights.

In order to be seen as “wise”, one needs to have experience in something specific that they have derived a lot of value from. The other component in being wise — which a lot of people neglect to think about — is the amount of time these people spend synthesizing their experiences, reflecting, and developing thoughts based on their own experience, rather than outside opinions and influences. Stoics would carefully articulate their thoughts and spend long periods of time considering something they were writing about because they understood the importance of incorporating one’s experience in writing — it is what made them so prolific.

In today’s society, independent thinking is becoming more of a rarity. Sure, there will be people who say that they think independently, but most of them actually work on the opinions of others. I would like to see more people who think for themselves, and spend time reflecting on their own experiences in solitude. Their thoughts are the byproduct of their knowledge and experience, not outside factors.

The thing about independent thinking is that it is really difficult. We think that thinking by ourself is easy, but in actuality, we are always considering lectures and ideas we have already seen when making a decision, pursuing an idea, or conveying a thought.

If society were to have more independent thinkers, we would start to see more people being referred to as “wise” in our culture — people would be evaluating their thoughts in the same way that the Stoics did. From a personal perspective, I often base my thoughts and essays on a Tweet or a conversation someone has had with me, but I try to spend time writing about everything else that has not been inspired by outside people. I prefer to share my honest and raw thoughts, and seek being wrong, than reading the thoughts of others and using that to help me make a more informed argument. That is not to say I don’t value the opinions of others — they are incredibly important, and help us gain more comprehension over a subject matter — but rather I see them more as a guide than full inspiration.

Steve Jobs famously stated “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.” Most of our institutions have been developed by people who are no better than us, which means that we should reconsider their exact value in our lives. We should be thinking about how we can improve our lives and society, based on our experience and instinct, rather than merely going with the grain in pursuit of full social acceptance. If there is a meaning in life, it is to make a difference, and the best way we can do that is to use our independent thoughts to make the world a better place — even if our thoughts are only read by a few people (like you are doing here in this post, right now!).

There are a few reasons I attribute to society valuing independent thinking less. One reason that is specific to ambitious people is that they are looking for validation in their path, especially if they are subverting cultural norms in pursuit of their idea. It is easier for someone to say “X person has pursued this path, and learned Y”, than for someone to say “I am the first person to ever pursue this specific path”. Yet it is in pursuing those unique paths where more wisdom lies — independent thinking would yield invaluable insights on less certain and established paths.

Another reason I think has caused this is the rise of social media, which has exposed us to more “micro-thoughts” from experts. Experts are like an API now — we can go on Twitter and see their thoughts on almost everything, without having to talk with them directly. Access to these short snippets of information makes it easy for you to work on the opinions of others, rather than considering our own thoughts. I think that validation comes into this in a different way as well: people would rather work from an established opinion with traction than think for themselves and risk their work receiving no recognition. The always-on nature of society also makes it more difficult to synthesize and develop independent thoughts. We consume so much now and don’t take any time to reflect on our own thoughts.

The nature of our education system also impacts the way we think. Schools value your ability to comply with the system, rather than to act on your own curiosity and develop your own perspectives. Students are taught to a specific syllabus which schools believe will help people prepare for the “big, bad world”, and independent thinking is not integrated into the syllabus. Indeed, in a classroom environment, if someone has their own thought that does not comply with the syllabus, most teachers would be hesitant to provide a forum for thoughtful discourse because it may confuse others and cause students to deviate from the syllabus that will dictate their grade.

Independent thinking is about developing your own thoughts, and speaking your mind, rather than working from an established opinion developed by someone else. Successful people are often those who are willing to seek social disapproval — at least in the interim — and in exchange be able to share their idea, rather than those who work with the already accepted norms. Society needs more independent thinkers. As Steve Jobs said, “think differently”.

This post was originally written on June 16th, 2019, and published on July 10th, 2019.