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Having an opinion or an idea doesn’t make you a thinker

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
We are awash in ideas but sadly, very little thought. Just as living in an era of the greatest access to information has rendered us incredibly uninformed, it would appear – anecdotally at least – that our cognitive abilities have suffered exponentially too.

Just as everyone has an opinion – more often wholly devoid of any factual research – and feels free to express it; so too everyone seems to have an idea – concomitantly bereft of thought – and duty bound to share it.

People confuse ideas with the concept of thinking. Ideas stem from patterns of memories from your past and new observations. They come together randomly and suddenly they’re an idea, but they aren’t a thought. They are too often not evolved critically. For an idea to become a thought, it requires hard work. Thoughts are joined-up things, lines of causality laboriously elaborated that flow and open up into each other.

Management scholar Otto Scharmer developed his Theory U to help people break out of ineffective patterns of decision making. It starts with having an open mind, something that appears both increasingly difficult and equally rare these days. It’s critical to see things with fresh eyes and to overcome your confirmation biases, which he calls the Voice of Judgment. This is then followed by the Voice of Cynicism and then the Voice of Fear, within you. All three render you incapable of real thought by, respectively, closing your mind, your heart and your will to the possibility of actual new thought.

Conquering these by actively opening your mind, heart and will and, vitally, slowing down the racing hare of your conscious mind to allow the tortoise mind of your subconscious (which is always at work) to come through is the next step. This is a conscious, disciplined and thoughtful process. From there it’s all about taking this hard-won insight, hypothesis, or even epiphany, and moving it from the abstract to the concrete, by prototyping it in the real world repeatedly to refine. A prototype is not a thing of finesse, by design. It’s rapid, rough and right. It’s tested in this beta phase against reality, again and again, until it’s seasoned and ready to spring into life, as if from nowhere.

But to get to that stage, you have to be aware of your own prejudices, be they class, creed or ethnicity so you can stop yourself filtering out ideas that might be inimical to those barriers. You can check your own cynicism too, because a cynic is really only someone whose natural passion has been blunted by one disappointment too many.

When we do this, we are able to start thinking about solutions. It doesn’t have to be something brand new; we can relook paradigms that we have just accepted as the natural way of the world; like space travel. Why should space travel be only the preserve of governments? Why shouldn’t private individuals be allowed to go into space? When people started rethinking that, we ended up with a space race of billionaires and the unlikely prospect of the oldest person ever to get to space; the actor William Shatner who had made his name, ironically, on a TV series called Star Trek, but never ventured further than the film studio.

As we begin to feel our way out of the COVID-19 crisis and into a new era of zoonotic pandemics, another realm that needs to be re-examined in terms of first-principle thinking is the ventilation of buildings, especially offices and campuses where many people are expected to congregate. We have to do the same for the economy. We talk of building back better, but how do we do that if we are stuck in the mental architecture of the past, some of which led us directly to the crisis we have just lived through? How do we address the environmental issues at COP 26 and beyond, if we don’t re-engineer our economic models that are laying down unbreakable foundations for irreversible – and catastrophic – climate change and species extinction?

The only way we can do this is to rediscover the old discipline of thinking. In many ways, people a century ago were better at thinking than we are today. Then, thinking was regarded as a discipline that had to be exercised and practiced as much as an athlete would physically train on the sports ground to reach peak performance.

We have to discover our confidence in our innate ability to think, one of the hidden benefits of which will be to break the shackles of the colonised mind; labouring under a perception that we can’t actually think or that which we contemplate is somehow inferior to our peers. As the great, late, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once famously said during a masterclass he was hosting: the act of thinking is a journey of discovery, we don’t know the answers, but it is only by listening and testing our hypotheses that we will come up with real solutions.

We need to consciously address our basic assumptions about our world view and our identity. Conspiracy theorists and fake scientists create the pretence of thought, but they are not true thinkers because they do not address their own basic assumptions – on the contrary they look for evidence to confirm them. We need to realise too that we do and should evolve and that the tenets that we may have held so dear in our 20s and 30s might not be so valid in our 40s.

When we actively think, we will avoid being sucked into rabbit holes of distractions, whether identity politics or confirmation bias and the ad hominem arguments, and concentrate instead on the merits of the facts at hand. In this case, that’s about focusing on the only outcomes that makes sense – what is it that will help us get out of this crisis safely? What is it that will prevent us landing up here again? What is it that we can do to lower the levels of inequality that are the greatest threat we face – if we can manage to avoid destroying the planet in the first place?

Only thoughts can create that plan, not ideas.

Originally published on Daily Maverick.

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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