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5 Steps to Mastering Critical Thinking

You may have heard the term 'critical thinking,' but what does it mean? Let's break it down.

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Photos of the Post Launch Press Conference after a successful launch of SpaceX CRS-8 and successful landing of the Falcon 9 rocket on the barge.
Photos of the Post Launch Press Conference after a successful launch of SpaceX CRS-8 and successful landing of the Falcon 9 rocket on the barge.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although many consider them to be rivals, both Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos built fortunes by learning to think differently from the average person. 

Over the years, I’ve explored the histories and examined the habits of both Musk and Bezos, and made an interesting discovery. It’s obvious both men are intelligent–but they also possess a certain drive, an obsession with wanting to make their products better.

And to do that, both men have sought to master a single skill:

The ability to think critically.

You may have heard the term “critical thinking,” but what does it mean exactly?

Critical thinking is the process of careful and deep thinking about a subject or idea. It includes being able to analyze and weigh facts, to carefully reason, and to make insightful connections. 

But take another look at the name of this concept, and you get another clue as to its meaning: Critical thinking.

Of course, the word “critical” can mean important or vital, but it can also be linked to criticism. In other words, we might think of critical thinking as looking for something wrong, something that can be improved.

This is consistent with what both Musk and Bezos have expressed in the past.

“I’m always looking for what’s wrong,” Musk revealed in one interview. “In order to make [Teslas] better … I have to think very critically. So, when I see the car, I see all the things that I think need to be fixed to make it better.”

Bezos expressed a similar thought years ago when speaking to Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp. 

“[Bezos] observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved,” Fried says. “They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.”

That’s critical thinking at its best: the ability to learn from ideas and thoughts, even if they are in opposition to your own.

So, how can you train your ability to think critically? 

Here are five tips:

1. DON’T RUSH.

In tech, many companies subscribe to the “move fast and break things” philosophy. But that’s the opposite of critical thinking.

Critical thinking requires patience, along with a degree of emotional intelligence–the ability to understand your emotions and keep them in balance. 

The goal: Don’t let temporary emotions seduce you into making permanent decisions–decisions you later regret.

2. PAY ATTENTION TO NEGATIVE FEEDBACK.

Negative feedback is like a freshly mined diamond. It may be unattractive to the naked eye, but its value becomes obvious after cutting and polishing.

Similarly, when someone criticizes your work, it doesn’t feel good. You’ll be tempted to defend yourself, or to close your mind.

Don’t. Instead, give it a day or two. Allow your emotions to settle down, and then ask yourself: 

  • What can I learn from this criticism? 
  • Is there any truth I can extract from it?
  • If not, what can I learn from the other person’s perspective?

Viewed this way, you transform criticism from a perceived attack to an invaluable gift. 

3. SCHEDULE TIME TO THINK.

Critical thinking is hard work. So, when it comes time to analyze facts, block out time in your calendar to engage in deep thought.

Use some of the following questions to help you analyze:

  • What are the assumptions?
  • What are the facts?
  • What are the pros? What are the cons? 
  • What are the underlying problems?
  • What is the main problem?
  • What are the potential solutions for that problem? 
  • What is the best solution?

There are times when it’s appropriate to collaborate, but it’s often best to spend time alone, in quiet surroundings, without distraction. There you can focus on engaging in pure, uninterrupted, concentrated thought.

4. FAST FORWARD.

One pitfall that prevents critical thinking is focusing only on the short-term.

Instead, step back and think of the future. What will be the consequences of your decision(s)? What will the effect be in a month? A year? Five years?

This type of “fast forward” thinking can help you see the big picture and make decisions accordingly.

5. LET THINGS SIMMER.

When analyzing a complex situation or trying to make a difficult decision, you’ll often benefit by walking away and letting all the facts settle in your mind.

Of course, you don’t want to avoid the situation. Set a time limit to think things through. The amount of time will vary depending on the gravity of the situation; you may need a week, or even just a day or two.

But regardless of how much time you need, also remember: Never make a decision late at night. 

Generally speaking, the later it gets, the more emotional you become, and the less rational. So, if it’s late, go to bed and come back to your thoughts in the morning.

You’d be surprised how much clarity you can achieve after a good night’s sleep. 

Whether you run a small company or a large one, whether you’re an entrepreneur or a solopreneur–or simply embrace the entrepreneurial spirit–you’ll benefit from learning to think critically.

It starts with remembering these five steps:

1. Don’t rush.

2. Pay attention to negative feedback.

3. Schedule time to think.

4. Fast forward.

5. Let things simmer.

Learn to do this effectively, and you’ll engage the type of deep thinking that can take you and your work to the next level. 

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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