Become a Better Thinker

Become a Better Thinker

Sharpen your mind by honing your reasoning skills.

By Howard Scott, CC

Are you an analytical thinker? Is your mind able to go to the core of an issue? Can you parse through the unessential to spot the essential? Do you ask provocative questions that make people pause?

Sharp thinking and reasoning processes are at the heart of clear speaking. But not enough people think clearly. Why?

One basic reason is this: Not enough people use their thinking skills. Too often we neglect our brainpower, or assume it is already fully formed. Regarding that last point, Buckminster Fuller, the famous futuristic thinker, once said: “Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniusizes most of us.”

The brain is a muscle. Just as physical exercise helps keep your body in shape, mental exercise helps your brain increase its power to analyze. The idea that some people might be born smarter than others is irrelevant. Similarly, the notion that you develop your brainpower in school, and then it’s set, is ridiculous. The truth is, you can improve your thinking processes at any age.

As the Franklin Institute, an organization dedicated to science education, notes on its Web site: “Your brain is a thinking organ that learns and grows by interacting with the world through perception and action. Mental stimulation improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline – even in old age, [the brain] can grow new neurons.” Participating in Toastmasters, of course, is a great form of mental stimulation.

Here are suggestions for improving your mental processes:

1. Ask questions. This is the core of critical thinking. Your mind should be continually alive to possibilities. Turn something upside down and examine it from the underside. Seek out the reasons behind the rationals. If an issue contains several elements, separate the aspects and arrange them in a different order.

For example, good Scrabble players don’t simply stare at their letters to think of a word. They continually rearrange the letters to spot other possibilities. It is this moving around that gives them their edge. In the world of business, Frederick Smith asked: How can packages be brought across the country speedily? He puzzled through to the answer: a fleet of airplanes picking up and dropping off packages at major cities around the country, often at night.

The result was Federal Express and the creation of the overnight delivery industry. This isn’t an aberration. Many business triumphs stem from questions and innovative thinking.

What about issues in your daily life? Let’s say you frequently lose accessory items – hats, gloves, pocketbooks and keys. Ask yourself, what would reduce these incidents of forgetfulness? The answer might be to streamline what you carry and count what you came with. When you leave the house, count your disposable items: If you start with four, make sure you have four every time you leave somewhere.

2. Become a skeptic. Never accept anything at face value. Know that people can make both sides of an argument simply by marshalling different facts. When someone says that something is the truth, explore the assertion’s accuracy. Realize that experts do not necessarily have the answers.

For example, a recent study concluded that tall people are more successful than short people. So you begin to think: Where was the population of surveyed individuals drawn from? How was the criteria for success established? How were the results evaluated? Could the evaluators have been biased? Perhaps a tall-men’s association initiated the study. And if so, what about successful short men – Mahatma Gandhi, Yasser Arafat, Martin Scorsese, Pablo Picasso, Michael Bloomberg – all 5’4” or less. Furthermore, what does the study mean – that short people can’t be successful? Finally, what exactly was the original purpose of the study?

Statistics, especially, can be deceptive. For example, a person makes the argument that the Dow Jones average has gone up from 1,000 to 10,400 in 30 years, so one should invest in stock. This is a fallacy of oversimplification. For one thing, the index is composed of 30 stocks. Moreover, the composition of the Dow has changed over time, presumably to increase the tilt. Using any statistical average does not preclude that one could buy several bad stocks, or worse, purchase companies that go defunct. In the last decade, the broader NASDAQ index, which is composed of 5,000 stocks, has sunk from 5,000 to 2,200. So what does that tell you about risk?

3. Don’t be hoodwinked by labels. “He’s bipolar.” “He’s a salesman.” “She’s wealthy.” Labels inhibit clear thinking. Labels set up images that stick in the mind and are hard to unhinge. Labels limit your perceptions of people to broad generalities. Make yourself push through the approximation and focus on the specific to come to your own conclusion.

4. Become a serious reader. Stretch your knowledge base and expose yourself to different kinds of thinkers by reading diverse, challenging material. Digest big- picture thinkers like economist Paul Krugman, author Malcolm Gladwell and political theoretician Kevin Phillips. Become a fiction devotee, burrowing through novels by Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison – authors who have something to say about society and the meaning of life.

“There is no better way to inform and expand your mind on a regular basis than to get in the habit of reading great literature,” writes Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “You can get into the best minds that are now or ever have been in the world.”

Reading is to a person what fuel is to a car: It stimulates the mind to keep churning. It increases your vocabulary and challenges your perceptions. Well-written novels demonstrate that easy answers are seldom adequate, and all reading magnifies and enlarges experience – carrying you forward in the development of your critical- thinking skills.

As you read, take down thoughts and ideas and insert them into file folders. You can do this electronically or the old-fashioned way. Create different categories: fiscal facts, social observations, economic observations and personal insights. The act of writing something down helps you remember it. You are more apt to bring up these ideas in conversation at a later time – or use them as material for Toastmasters speeches. Also, you can periodically peruse these folders to refresh your memory and keep the ideas alive, ready to help you answer Table Topics questions.

5. Make people your school of life. Everyone has something to share. Never end a personal encounter without learning something. Perhaps the other person has an unusual hobby. Maybe he learned life lessons from a difficult divorce. Or she draws on specialized knowledge for a job.

Ask people questions – about their careers, preferences or parenting philosophies. Then follow up each time by writing a note about your discoveries and file it in the folders you’ve set up. This method will not only expand your insights, it will also encourage a pattern of being curious, which is essential to keeping the mind active.

Try to adopt these habits of the mind, making them part of your daily routine. Soon you will see that your Toastmasters speeches reflect a deeper dimension, because rigorous thinking is the structural underpinning of clear speaking.

Finally, consider the words of Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Meaning, no amount of research, Googling or speaking to experts will replace what occurs in that space in your head. Think about it. 

Howard Scott, CC is a member of the South Shore Soliloquy Toastmasters in Kingston, Massachusetts. Reach him at