In the spirit of originality, let’s begin not with the perspective of this book’s author, but with yours.
When you opened this book, you had a few expectations about what you’d find inside, as well as some idea of why you were reading such a book. These expectations may be unconscious, or you may be more aware of them. But whatever they are, they’re an excellent starting point for the themes and ideas we’ll be exploring in the chapters that follow.
The Levels of Mastering Independent Thought
In choosing this book, you’ve already shown a desire for, or interest in, independent thought. Some part of you is already independent. And yet, ironically, in picking up a book that guides and teaches you how to be more independent, you must necessarily already lack this characteristic. If you were truly independent, you would not need the book, right?
Take a moment to imagine in your mind’s eye everything you associate with an “independent thinker.” Imagine it now, before you read on. Imagine what it looks like, sounds like, and how you envision you’ll be once you are a more critical thinker, a more authentic individual and self-governing agent able to live in the integrity of their ideals, instead of other people’s.
Now, this somewhat disheartening start is simply to illustrate that many people are merely imitating autonomy in the personal development world. They have a picture of what they think this looks like, and they try their best to perform that image.
Level 1: A patchwork Identity
Maybe in your mind, you’re attracted to the “cool guy” aesthetic that certain celebrities, authority figures, historical personages and fictional characters put forward. Maybe you like the attitude of the rebel, who is confident, a little arrogant, and so, so appealing. Maybe, without realizing it, you mimic the mannerisms, beliefs, thoughts, and speech patterns of people you admire. Or maybe you buy into certain shared cultural ideals of what intelligent, independent, enterprising or creative people ought to look like.
Teenagers are masters at mimicry and creating patchwork identities from bits and pieces they find in their world. It’s as though you show up to the great Identity Marketplace, being a blank slate yourself, and pick and choose the costume and role you like best. It’s not a personality so much as a curated collection. While a 13-year-old going through a goth phase in the 90s may be a blatant example of this, we all do it to some extent. We even do this when we’re explicitly trying not to do it (i.e., “I want to be a truly unique individual! Now, let’s Google some other people who are doing that and see how it’s done…”).
This is the first level on the path of independent thinking.
Level 2: Developing trust in the self
If you’ve been in level 1 for any length of time, you’ll notice something obvious: it’s uncomfortable, and it doesn’t really “work.” You don’t feel like yourself because you aren’t yourself. No matter how compelling and well-crafted the patchwork is, it’s still just a mask, and it doesn’t contain you. Now, this isn’t a problem. Humans are social creatures, and imitation is a normal and healthy part of engaging the external world. But eventually, as we develop and mature into our authentic selves, imitation is not enough.
In level 2, you gradually experiment with being and acting in the world as yourself, without a mask and the influence of other people. You begin to tire of other people’s filters and interpretations and become curious about your own, which you realize are valid. In all honesty, becoming an independent thinker can feel scary, awkward and outright weird. It can also feel lonely, like you are suddenly far away from the warm, comfortable crowd and have to suddenly take full responsibility for your own reality.
So, in this stage, you are experimenting with being more independent, falling back into convention, playing with trial and error to test your perceptions, and developing resilience for being truly autonomous (yes, autonomy is a muscle that needs to be strengthened!). You realize that dependence on the external has its advantages and that it comes with a cost. While it can be intimidating to tune out other people’s opinions, culture, society’s expectations and so on, it can also be incredibly rewarding to remind yourself of your own sense of right and wrong, your innate feeling of what you want, and your deepest core values.
Level 2 can be tricky, because it’s here that we start to encounter our own mindsets, biases and assumptions at a level deeper than their superficial presentation. We realize that we, like everyone else, possess a reality filter. We don’t encounter reality, but reality as it appears after it’s been pushed through this filter. The filter takes shape according to our past experiences, family history, cultural environment, religion, education, the historical period we live in, and class…
We all take in the same data, but we come to different interpretations of what that data means because of our different perspectives. The question at level 2 is, are the filters working for you? What do you want the filters to be? Can you live without filters at all…?
Level 3: Truly independent thought
Follow that line of reasoning long enough, and you start to understand something important: choice. As an individual, you can choose what material you take in, choose how you respond to it, and choose what you wish to create and put out into the world. And in that act of choosing, you express and experience your own perspective, desires, and will. When you choose, you self-create. When you allow others to choose for you, then they create you.
When we are independent thinkers, we have our own weight and gravity, and stand strong in ourselves, regardless of what others are doing or thinking. We are tuned into our inner compass, values, and selfhood. We look within and evaluate actions and ideas according to our own criteria, and not criteria we’ve borrowed from others or had foisted on us when too young to realize.
We are free, and we are consciously participating in our life rather than passively receiving it, pre-digested by others.
We take responsibility for our worldview and perspective (yes – it’s our responsibility to know and maintain the state of being we choose) and engage with the external world with an unshakeable sense of our own dignity and value. We are comfortable testing our own assumptions and the assumptions of others. We don’t just think but reflect on our thinking (i.e., metacognition), and we realize that we always have the power to choose our behaviors, thoughts and beliefs. We try to understand things from the inside out rather than happily believing everything we’re told. We are no longer an echo of someone else’s values or actions or perspectives, but our own original voice.
Sounds great, right?
“Think for yourself” is something people say, but it is an incredibly difficult thing to do. The world is filled with readymade opinions, untested assumptions, unintelligent biases, lazy thinking, denial, escapism, imitation, and unchecked ego. Ask yourself, when was the last time you had a truly independent thought? Something that your own mind generated, and which didn’t come directly from more forceful personalities and ideologies around you?
The conventional, unadventurous thinker goes out into the world and asks, “what are the rules of the game here? What am I supposed to be doing?” In this way, he passively asks for the external world to tell him what to value, focus on, feel, and want.
The independent thinker goes out into the same world and instead asks, “what can I create here? What’s happening, and how can I learn more about it? What could potentially be? What do I want to do?”
There is only one way to think and be for conventional thinkers, and they figure that out by looking outside themselves: other people’s opinions, culture, politics, whatever. But to think independently, you need to turn within and generate your own original response, your own authentic perspective and your own view on life. This is infinitely more valuable than anything you’ve simply been told, because you value yourself, and you trust what you know, and what you’re capable of.
It's a guarantee that almost all the content you encounter out there in the world is, essentially, telling you what to do, think, feel, or focus on. News headlines, social media noise, junk on the TV, advertising pasted on every square inch of your life, peer pressure, endless political squabbling... You just drift along and go with it without your own independent thought. But the next time you see a talking head on a pixelated screen, realize that you have a choice. You can become conscious in that moment and ask yourself, “this is what this person is creating. That’s them. But what do I think? What do I want to create?”