How To Think Better
Illustration by Mr Paul Reid
Five tips for more constructive procrastination.
We are much worse at thinking than we think. At least, that’s what the American essayist and academic Mr Alan Jacobs thinks. According to his book How To Think, Mr Jacobs believes that if we can learn how to think better (and better understand how others think), we can change how we interact with the world around us. Especially in our digital age of instant gratification, this kind of “thinking about thinking” is not easy; the mind lazily jumps to conclusions, and doesn’t want to be forced to walk outside of the paths it has trodden for itself. But, it turns out, confronting the ways you think could change your life, and potentially the world. Speaking to us from Waco, Texas, Mr Jacobs told us more about his book, and we distilled our conversation into a checklist of ideas that will put you on the right path to becoming a more enlightened thinker.
01. THINK SLOWER
“Thinking slowly is something that all of us need to do, but I feel that it’s especially important given a social media environment in which the currency of social media is response, to like or to retweet or to save or to respond,” says Mr Jacobs. “Our very first responses aren’t often the most reliable ones. We’ve all been in that situation online when someone posts something that you think is outrageous and unjustifiable, and then 30 minutes later you find out that the story isn’t quite what you thought it was. Give a few minutes of reflection before you decide to respond. When you respond instantaneously, you can add heat, but you can rarely add light. You’re not illuminating the situation; you’re just fanning the fires. It doesn’t do too much for our social order, and it doesn’t do too much for your blood pressure either.”
02. DON’T ALWAYS THINK FOR YOURSELF
Mr Jacobs argues that learning to think with others is what we should be aiming towards. He cites the story of Ms Megan Phelps-Roper, the woman who, after being brought up in the super-religious and notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, left her family after engaging with patient strangers on Twitter. “She changed her mind and became more thoughtful, and reflected on and considered her inherited beliefs, all because she had to encounter people who were different. She dealt with people who were unfamiliar and strange to her, but she could tell that those people were decent and well-meaning.” So, Mr Jacobs says, listening to the thoughts of others can be a valuable and enlightening experience. “Thinking with others is a way for us to arrive at a sometimes really important truth that we would never get to on our own. So even if it were possible to think for yourself, I don’t think it would be desirable, because you’re limiting yourself to your own resources.”
03. DON’T JUST “TALK FOR VICTORY”
When we talk about arguing, we often use metaphorical vocabulary associated with warfare. “Attack”, “defend” and “opponent” are just a few classic examples, and Mr Jacobs says the mentality of treating an argument as a fight is unhelpful. “If you’re arguing like that, you’re not thinking, you’re just asking yourself, ‘What’s the thing that I can do that will win this particular exchange?’” According to Mr Jacobs, the debating society at Yale asks prospective members if they have ever been “broken on the floor” (a debating term which means changing your mind mid-debate) to weed out those who don’t know how to admit they are wrong. “If your answer is ‘No, nobody’s ever defeated me!’ that’s not a good answer. That doesn’t suggest that you’ve been thinking about different sides, it means you’re just talking for victory. What if instead we saw our encounters with one another as efforts to increase mutual understanding?”
04. EARN YOUR CONVICTIONS
There are instances when strong convictions are important, but you also have to know when to question yourself. “This is a case-by-case thing, but you have to ask yourself, what am I not willing to go back and reconsider from square one, and why am I not? If you can ask yourself that, then I think that helps you to have a better understanding of whether something really deserves to be called a conviction, because you’ve earned it by thinking about it and working through it, and in some cases living it,” says Mr Jacobs. “When you’ve always thought something and it’s become a habit, you’re just going to keep thinking it, and overcoming that requires a lot of self-reflection and self-knowledge, and it’s hard work.” Still, you have to draw the line somewhere, says Mr Jacobs: “I’m not listening to neo-Nazis, for example.”
05. BE BRAVE
Returning again to the story of Ms Phelps-Roper, Mr Jacobs says, “She lost her family; she lost her community. She had lived her entire life within this little world, and that world gave her meaning, structure. She said ‘I’m going to have to find a way to live without that,’ and that’s incredibly brave,” he says. “The bravery that helps us to think well is the bravery of standing up to people whose approval you want. There can be a price to be paid for that, but I think the benefits of it are just terrific in helping to heal social wounds we’re currently dealing with,” he says, referencing Brexit in the UK and increasing racial tension in the US. “And if you can be the sort of person who has thought through things more thoroughly, then you have a chance at being a mediator and a reconciler. Then you can become a more centred and peaceful person because you’re not spending your entire life chasing acceptance.”