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What is Critical Thinking?

One of the things that haunts my thoughts at night is this: what makes one product better than another? What differentiates software? What, exactly, is the way you can discover how to change the question “Why should I use this?” into “Why shouldn’t I use this?”

At every level of software consulting, what I actually provide for people is clarity of thought. My value for other people is to help them when they find themselves in the weeds. Code itself is nothing more than thought. This entry is about thinking, specifically when you’re trying to do something, especially something technical. I’ve run my definition of critical thinking past people in a variety of technical pursuits (music, coding, business, etc) and they’ve found it a useful concept to dwell on.

There are a lot of ways to define “critical thinking”.

  1. Disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence:“The questions are intended to develop your critical thinking.”
  2. The mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion.
  3. The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. “Professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking amongst their students.”

But what is critical thinking, really? It is understanding nuance.

We pretend nuance is luck, or attribute it to some other point of certainty in the worlds we build up for ourselves. This is because understanding nuance takes up so much time.

Understanding nuance is hard.

What Makes Understanding Nuance so Hard?

Imagine you had a Nuance GunTM. You aim this gun at your house and pull the trigger. While you hold down the trigger, the gun shoots out a beam that encompasses your house, breaking it down at a fundamental physical level and rapidly putting it through every imaginable structural scenario so it looks like its having metaphysical sci-fi seizures. Earthquakes, fires, rad parties, wobbly support beams, everything happening getting conveyed to and loaded up in your head so you have an intimate understanding of all the structure’s strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics. You let go, and your house snaps back to normal. Whew.

There could be a hundred other houses built off the same plan, but now you know when there is an earthquake, that sofa you love will fall through onto the stairway. You should probably move that sofa. The minute differences between your house and every other house, this is nuance. It’s the awareness of what your house really is. Not any house, your house. The one that matters.

Say you aim your Nuance GunTM at a person and pull the trigger. What sorts of things would happen? Well, they’d get hired for a job and then fired, have medical emergencies, be exposed to profound success, date, marry, divorce, grow old, etc. You let go, and they stare at you angrily. That’s okay, because you understand. You understand how they’d act and react in all these circumstances over time. You now know who they really are. Not just people in general, not people with the same hair or skin color, not people with the same demographic background, but them. Only them.

Understanding nuance is hard because the Nuance GunTM is otherwise known as your mind, and it takes a lot of energy to fire it off and hold down the trigger long enough.

When you are trying to understand yourself and decide on the bigger things in life, critical thinking is damn near impossible. It’s hard because you’re now aiming the gun at yourself, and when you pull the trigger, all the certainty, ego and assumptions you rely on will be torn apart, shredded down, and whats left there is who you really are.

This is really scary, every time. This requires a ton of effort, every time.

Riots and comedy are but symptoms of the times, profoundly revealing. They betray the psychological tone, the deep uncertainties… And the striving for something better, plus the fear that nothing would come of it all.

— Frank Herbert

Understanding Nuance Is Actually the Goal

So critical thinking isn’t understanding nuance, per se. It is the process we use to arrive at nuance for a particular venture. It’s useful to think of it as the power behind your behavior. Nuance is your approach, your own personal secret sauce. People have nuance. Teams have nuance. Organizations have nuance.

The quality of the questions you ask determine the depth of the nuance you get. There are two commonly taught ways to engage in critical thought:

  1. The 4 W’s and an H (who what when why how)
  2. “Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” — Alan Kay (or Bezos)

This is all wishy-washy but for a good reason. The questions you ask, the perception you seek, these exist in a context you cannot separate from. You can’t pull one part of the process out, hold it in your hand, and then use it everywhere. There are no silver bullets for critical thinking.

If the reason for not doing something is fear, then do it immediately.

And I should know, I’ve tried. You see the “when?” up there, I tried pulling that out. I asked Jim McKelvey (a cofounder of Square), “What should I do every single day until I understand the answer to the question ‘when is the right time to act?’”

His answer was that being aware enough to ask the question is usually good enough. But because I’d so explicitly asked for something actionable, he added a rule of thumb: if the reason for not doing something is fear, then do it immediately.

So what? This means you only have enough energy and time to really dig into a couple areas of your life at a time. So the what is simple: pay attention to where you’re spending your time, and how that makes you feel. Emotions are what come out of what your perception puts in.

Your capacity to think critically, to find the nuance (aka breakthroughs, contentment, success, rainbows, dolla bills!), hinges on how you shape your life. You need to create the space and time to allow for critical thought. You’ll have to ignore some things. You’ll have to be disciplined.

Finding this time, this discipline, starts in the small moments that are easy to miss – not in some big checklist or some new structure you’ve created for your life. The next time you feel deeply unsettled, vaguely uncertain, overflowing with happiness, or quietly joyful, critical thinking will happen if you stop in the moment to ask yourself, “why?”

It starts to happen when you listen to the answer.