It’s important to know how to think for yourself. Being able to do this is important especially for two reasons.
The First Reason
First, there are a lot of people in the world who would love to do your thinking for you. That way they can get you to believe what they want you to believe, get you to support their bad behavior, or pressure you to buy things they want to you to buy.
So, of course, people with bad motives would love to do your thinking for you. And that is why it is so important to think for yourself.
A fresco of Sappho, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When you learn to think for yourself, you are more likely to recognize people’s attempts to manipulate you into seeing things their way or acting in their interest, rather than your own interest.
But there is a second reason it is important to think for yourself.
The Second Reason
No matter how moral and thoughtful our teachers or leaders are, they are still human beings. As such, they can be wrong and teach their errors to other people.
But unfortunately, when we respect teachers or leaders, we often accept what they tell us uncritically. In doing so, we let them do our thinking for us. And if we do this, we incorporate their errors into our belief system.
So another reason it is important to think for ourselves is because we make it more likely that we will spot the errors of our teachers or leaders. And we will avoid replicating them. (You can read more about this here: Are You in Plato’s Cave?)
So thinking for yourself is important, and there are some important steps you can take to do this.
How To Think For Yourself
One: Recognize that everyone, including you, is capable of being manipulated and deceived.
Most of us think that there is no way anyone could manipulate or deceive us. But it’s important to recognize that even intelligent people can be manipulated and deceived.
Skilled manipulators tend to be good at reading people and understanding the words they want to hear. So, they know what to say to put intelligent people at ease. And it can take a while to figure out what manipulators are doing.
So, one of the most important steps you can take to think for yourself is to realize that no matter how intelligent you are, someone might be manipulating and deceiving you.
And you don’t need to be constantly anxious about this. You just need to be aware. Simply being aware this could happen makes it more likely that you will be able to detect someone’s tricks.
Moça com Livro, picture by Almeida Júnior, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Two: Recognize that it’s possible that teachers and leaders you respect could be manipulating you or could be in error.
We often put our cherished teachers and leaders on pedestals. So, believing that they are manipulative, deceptive, or capable of major errors can be difficult. However, if we keep in mind that manipulators are good at making us think they are honest and moral, it will be easier for us to recognize that sometimes teachers and leaders we respect are, in fact, manipulators.
And if we remember that even our best teachers and leaders are human beings capable of error, it will be less surprising that some of them believe wrong things and unintentionally teach us these errors.
Just being aware of these first two things creates a lot of space for us to think for ourselves.
“The Thinker” by Rodin, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Three: Listen to a variety of sources with different views about life.
One of my favorite Proverbs from the Old Testament is this: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I remember feeling really impressed by this Proverb when I first read it because I had experienced this very thing in life.
When someone presents an argument to you, they often sound very convincing. In fact, they often sound so convincing that you think to yourself, “This has to be true.” But if you listen to someone argue the opposite side, often (not always) the evidence in the second argument helps you better weigh and evaluate the evidence in the first argument.
“Thinking” by Isidre Nonell, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
And sometimes, you decide the first argument is, in fact, the correct one. But often the evidence in the second argument helps you recognize flaws or weakness in the first argument. And you decide the second argument is the correct one. (And it gets even more interesting if you listen to a third or fourth opinion on the matter.)
Either way, shazam! You are thinking for yourself. That’s the beauty of listening to a variety of different views on an issue rather than just one view. The more you listen to different views, the more you strengthen your ability to weigh and analyze evidence which is crucial for your ability to think for yourself.
Four: Be wary of anyone who pressures you to listen to just one view.
Since listening to different views is so important for developing the ability to think for yourself, be wary of anyone who pressures you to listen to just one view (which is often their view).
If someone really has your best interest at heart, they will want you to learn to think for yourself, too. And if someone wants you to think for yourself, they will encourage you to listen to a wide variety of views.
So, if someone pressures you to listen to just their view or the views of which they approve, this is a good sign that they are trying to manipulate or deceive rather than encourage you to think for yourself.
“Le Penseur”, by Stanislaw Torrents, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Or it could be a sign that they struggle to think for themselves and are passing bad habits onto you.
Five: Believe that the truth will set you free and that you can indeed find the truth.
Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, certainly, but the truth ultimately empowers us and sets us free. That’s because it’s hard to live effectively when we act on erroneous or deceptive information. So, it is always wise to pursue the truth.
Furthermore, please be assured that you can find the truth of any matter. If you come from a religious tradition, like Christianity, know that God created your brain and reasoning capacities to help you discover the truth.
So, of course, you can do it. God gave you your brain, in part, to help you understand when people are deceiving you and to help you recognize error. And God wants you to discover the truth. The New Testament notes, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
And if you don’t come from a religious tradition, know that human beings for thousands of years, from all walks of life, in all cultures, have developed their ability to reason well through patience and practice.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi (also called Mencius) argues that all human beings have seeds of goodness in them that they can cultivate. One of those seeds is the seed of wisdom, which is our ability to use our minds to discover what is true and good. (You can read more about Mengzi and the seeds of goodness here: Mencius and the Sprouts of Virtue.)
“Mengzi”, painting by Kano Sansetus, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Of course, you can do it.
Your mind is powerful, Friend.
Think for yourself and encourage others to do the same.
Some Helpful Resources
For further reading, you might be interested in these three books I have written (or co-written) to help people think for themselves: