⇠ Essays

On Thinking

There’s much debate over what constitutes thinking. Despite the nuances, “thinking” has become one of the virtue signaling buzzwords amongst the Very Online. At risk of aligning with this renaissance, I find Cartesian dualism quite appealing and believe the “conscious cognitive process” of thinking can be reduced to Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum” — I think therefore I am.

What demarcates good thinking? I believe there are 3 qualities that make for good thinking.

Clear Thinking

Simple, consistent reasoning. Without fail, every single hyper-successful person I’ve met, interviewed, or heard speak, speaks in simple and concise terms. Not only are they able to boil complex topics down to simple terms, but they make a habit of it.

If you pitch a world class investor a business idea, their first questions will not be about the nuances of how your technology mines asteroids using liquid hydrogen — it will be something along the lines of “okay so you buy the rockets, refuel on Mars, mine using new robots, and then sell the stuff for a fraction of the price?”

There are many apocryphal quotes attributed to Einstein that say if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. Richard Feynman did actually say “I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.”. The concept is clear, if one cannot describe something simply and clearly, the quality of thinking needs improvement.

The other leg of clear thinking is consistency. Two people hold the same opinion and both switch their opinions to the exact opposite opinions. If one person does so with consistency in their reasoning, while the other does so in an inconsistent manner, that makes all of the difference in the world.

Independent Thinking

Thinking for oneself. One can reach all of the right answers but have been driven there by others. When it’s time to find their way home they will be lost. Thinking for oneself, from first principles is imperative.

The best way to test if one is an independent thinker is one’s ability to steelman their position. If one cannot articulate the exact inverse of their position as well as their own, they likely do not hold a truly independent thought.

Another simple heuristic is — when one’s tribe diverts from a position they hold, do they hold the line or toe it? This event is most powerful when there is some bit of information present that is radioactive to the tribe. For believing in heliocentrism, Galileo was convicted of heresy and sentenced. Only a truly independent thinker would tell the world they’re wrong about the cosmos in the face of the Catholic Inquisition. It cost him the rest of his life.

If one has skin in the game, and conviction in what they believe to be true despite the obvious risks, the thought (independent of its merit) is likely to be independent.

Meta Thinking

Seeing the whole board. Perhaps the most difficult for any thinker to see. The level at which one is thinking is as, if not more, important than any other characteristic of good thinking.

Am I playing the right game? Understanding the meta context in which the thinking occurs makes or breaks one’s thinking at the outset. The canonical example of playing the wrong game is school.

Many students in today’s world optimize for their test scores, not their education (or thinking). On its face, it’s not irrational. The game to be played is to get the best gpa to get into the best college to get the best job to, ideally, get the best life. But what’s lost in the carousel of test taking is that the world outside of scantrons is not two dimensional. Steve Jobs carried a 2.65 gpa in high school. Around the same time, he cold called Bill Hewlett for spare computer parts which led him to an internship at HP. Quentin Tarantino didn’t even finish high school! But he was obsessed with film and worked at a video store.

There’s nothing wrong with getting good grades, there’s everything wrong with not understanding the precepts and why.

When thinking through anything, understanding the metadata associated with the idea at hand is invaluable.

Cogito, ergo sum. What is the quality of life without the quality of thinking?

First published on March 29, 2022