When I was a teenager and just becoming aware of the possibility of independent thinking, I got into the habit of mistaking cynicism and distrust for critical thinking. I had correctly learnt that the media often lied, and so every time someone mentioned a news article, I would say something like, “come on, you don’t honestly believe everything you read, right?”
This annoying habit had come from the unconscious belief that if I wanted to stand apart and be independent, all I had to do was push against the popular opinion. I would never have admitted it at the time, but I assumed that intelligent, switched-on people were necessarily argumentative and oppositional. However, I was a contrarian, and not a truly independent thinker.
What’s the difference?
The clue is in the name: a contrarian is contrary to, or against something. You know the bratty two-year-old who will tell you the sky isn’t blue just because you said it is? This is the position that has, as its essence, the fact that it’s not some other position, but that’s all it is. It’s the “anti” position.
However, an independent thinker forms their opinions and ideas from scratch, not merely in opposition. They do not care about what they disagree with or dislike. For them, critical thinking is not a competition with a winner or a loser. Something within them guides the formation of their opinions – their own experience, logic, reasoning, desires and values. Sure, the outcome is often at odds with convention. But being at odds is not the goal.
There’s usually a hearty dose of emotional bias, excitement, passion, or ego driving their resistance for a contrarian. For independent thinkers, though, the thought process is less flashy, more reason-driven, and, well, not as glamorous! Meanwhile, for contrarians, the goal may be to bolster a certain ego-image, or it may be a deeply unconscious psychological need to dominate, to be heard, to stand out, or to protect against assumed attack.
The focus and direction of such thinking is external – it pushes against other people and attempts to certainly affect other people. Some find them fun and interesting and creative and brave, while others find them annoying and get tangled in arguments with them. But for independent thinkers, other people are… beside the point. The goal is to understand. To figure things out. What other people think? Largely irrelevant.
Now, contrarians and independent thinkers often arrive at the same conclusions, but the question is why they end up there. They’ll often do the same actions (for example, “question everything”) but for very different reasons. Often, a genuinely independent thinker will win the admiration of others, who then attempt to mimic that person (see level 1 above) and attach themselves to that worldview to be contrarian. But the independent thinker does not consider the popularity of his position as an indication of its value – he isn’t interested in fame, but he also doesn’t relish notoriety!
The Fundamentals of Independent Thought
Let’s look at ways to develop autonomous, critical thinking in ourselves. Independent thinking is not a personality trait or fixed behaviors but a continually refined attitude expressed in habits.
Habit 1: Critical reading
To practice and strengthen your ability to generate your own opinion, you need to take in information from various sources and engage with it. Passive reading merely absorbs the content with no individual response. But critical reading is where you practice passing the material through your filters, turn it over in your mind, and examine it on many levels. There are two ways to read:
Reading the words (i.e., comprehending the surface level meaning being conveyed), and
Reading beyond the words (i.e., not automatically assuming the words are a perfect and truthful representation of reality, and becoming curious about how and why the words have been written as they have).
For example, you may read a popular current events magazine piece about the dazzling new frontiers of cryptocurrencies and how tech empires are being built to reshape the digital world. If you are just reading the words, you merely try to comprehend and absorb the material as it’s given. You assume the excitement and optimism in the piece is natural and obvious, and the author’s opinion is an objective reflection that this topic is exciting. At the end of the piece, you think what the author thinks.
Or you could read the words, and also read what isn’t written:
What is fact, and what is just presented as fact? What are the assumptions the author is making?
In what ways is the reader being led, convicted or even manipulated?
Why was this piece published and not literally any other piece?
Who is this author, and what is their incentive – economically, psychologically or culturally?
Who benefits from you reading this article and going along with its premise?
What is the evidence for the view being put forward?
Independent of what the author thinks, what do you think about this topic?
You could read to find out what other people’s opinions are so that you can have them too. Or you can read to gather information, analyze it, and use it to inform your own position. It’s a mistake to think that “critical reading” means exposing yourself only to that material you already like and agree with. But an independent thinker is not threatened by low-quality or challenging information – because they trust their ability to appraise and evaluate whatever is in front of them.
Habit 2: Not getting too fond of your own perspective
Don’t be the person who finds their position and then clings onto it forever after, no matter what. Humans have a natural bias for protecting and defending the opinions they already hold. They naturally seek information that confirms these opinions, and work hard to discount everything that directly challenges it.
To be an independent thinker, you need to get into the habit of poking holes in these cherished opinions. Now, this is not a cognitive or intellectual exercise. It’s a psychological one. Most people have ample brain power to see the plain truth. However, even ultra-intelligent people jeopardize themselves when allowing bias, ego and fear to control them.
Getting too attached to your perspective means you don’t abandon it when you should – i.e., when confronted with ample evidence that something is rubbish. Many people like to style themselves as smart philosopher types yet only seem to invoke their vast intellectual powers to reinforce sloppy beliefs and opinions they formed without a second thought. Be independent of other people’s opinions, but free yourself from the chains of your own outdated opinions, too. This takes two things: humility and curiosity.
Thinking novel, original thoughts means we have to go outside our comfort zone. The biggest threat to generating a truly unique and new idea is the assumption that you have the best idea already! Independent thinkers can think outside themselves and try different worldviews for size.
They genuinely want to see the world through the eyes of people different from them. That means that they don’t engage others to argue or win them over but to actively expand their own understanding. They don’t read new material, get into conversations about the idea that they need to defend themselves, or forcefully make their point until the other person recognizes them as the winner!
Habit 3: Being OK with being disliked
Independent thinking means thinking that is not dependent. But, dependent on what? The thoughts, opinions, reactions or behavior of others.
So, you think what you think even if other people don’t agree, don’t understand, or actively don’t like you because of it. It comes down to how you view the purpose of thinking:
For conventional thinkers, an opinion or thought is an identity marker, or a stick to beat others with. It’s something done to win other people’s approval or comply with norms and fashions. They engage at the superficial level, i.e., within the realm of other people’s thoughts about reality.
For independent thinkers, the primary goal is always to learn, understand, and directly engage with reality. Therefore, having their thoughts and opinions disliked is not a problem.
It’s far more satisfying to be respected than to be liked. Being the same as people around you can outwardly make you feel safe and accepted. Isn’t it better to witness and appreciate the differences in one another and still respect them and cooperate, not in spite of differences, but because of them?
Mature adults can disagree without it threatening their relationship or causing trouble. They also don’t expect everyone else to be identical to them as a condition of their friendship or affection. They enjoy and relish challenges and differences. They like the friction and find it useful and generative. A group where everyone thinks the same is not experiencing true harmony and closeness; rather, they have all merely agreed to mimic one another in non-threatening ways.
There is one big difference between the contrarian thinker and the independent one: the ego.
For the former, the most important is the ego, and their way of thinking and being in the world is present to serve that. Meanwhile, the most important thing is genuine insight, understanding, creativity, and mastery for the latter. If the selfish ego hinders that, then that ego is dropped, every time.
Habit 4: Always staying curious
The ego wants to have all the answers, like a precious possession to be hoarded and guarded from others. Conventional thinkers prefer the feeling of being seen to be right than they do actually being right. One final habit that sets independent thinkers apart is their commitment to curiosity, instead of clinging to assumed “facts” and never questioning them.
Genuinely questioning the world is a lot harder than it looks. How many of us assume that if someone quotes a scientific paper in their argument, this is automatically sound and has to be accepted? How many of us see statistics and assume that it is correct – because numbers are more trustworthy than words, right? How many of us believe that if a PhD expert in their field says something, it must be true?
Well, this information may be true. But if it is true, it’s not because it was in the right publication, or written by the right author, using the right terminology. It’s true because we could find enough sound evidence to support the fact. This is a subtle but major distinction. As independent thinkers, we question everything, including the ingrained and culturally sanctioned methods of questioning what others have taught us!
You are most at risk for sloppy and useless thinking when you are most blind to your own shortcuts, assumptions, prejudices or expectations. It’s great to challenge all the biases you’re already familiar with, but what about all those biases currently invisible to you? How are you going to uncover them?
Independent thinkers are driven not by the desire to conform and win everyone’s approval, but they are also not reacting defiantly by being automatic rebels. Instead, they care most about real, valuable ideas, thoughts they generate themselves, and using that power of thought to its maximum potential. Independent thinkers are driven by a passion far greater and more lasting than the compulsion to aggrandize the self – they want to improve in life, learn, grow, and bring illumination and understanding to the world in general. It’s a much bigger prize, isn’t it?