How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

by Alan Jacobs

Visit the Amazon page for details and reviews: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

Rating: 8 / 10

Read: February 2018


Actual thinking is a lost art. With TV stations, social media platforms, technologies, and media outlets all competing for our attention, we’re no longer people — we’re “users.” And the longer they keep us engaged on their real estate, the more money we’re worth.

So, content is designed to lure us in and make us and make us “click.” Stories are short and polarizing. Facts don’t matter — being first on the scene matters. And the shelf life for content is short. We don’t have time to research one story before it’s buried by the next. We no longer take time to think.

One story in the book illustrates this best. It came from a blog post by Jason Fried at Basecamp. Here are Fried’s direct words (or read the full post here):

I was speaking at the Business Innovation Factory conference in Providence, RI. So was Richard Saul Wurman. After my talk Richard came up to introduce himself and compliment my talk. That was very generous of him. He certainly didn’t have to do that.

And what did I do? I pushed back at him about the talk he gave. While he was making his points on stage, I was taking an inventory of the things I didn’t agree with. And when presented with an opportunity to speak with him, I quickly pushed back at some of his ideas. I must have seemed like such an asshole.

His response changed my life. It was a simple thing. He said “Man, give it five minutes.” I asked him what he meant by that? He said, it’s fine to disagree, it’s fine to push back, it’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give my ideas some time to set in before you’re sure you want to argue against them. “Five minutes” represented “think”, not react. He was totally right. I came into the discussion looking to prove something, not learn something.

Quick Thoughts

How to Think isn’t the easiest book to read. It’s a little wordy in places — the sentences are sometimes long and disjointed. However, the content more than makes up for this.

The concepts and ideas are sometimes common sense—after you read about them. Jacobs does a good job of explaining the “why” behind many of the things that drive us crazy. And he does a good job convincing the reader that we should be intentional about thinking.

Highlights and Notes

…we should probably reflect on the ways that our informational habits—the means (mostly online means) by which we acquire and pass on and respond to information—strongly discourage us from taking even that much time. No social-media service I know of enforces a waiting period before responding.

The way we consume media in the 21st century makes it hard to actually think for ourselves. We share articles and comment with our opinions and move onto the next one. Most media platforms (not just social media) are intentionally designed to keep us engaged on their sites so they can show us more ads.

Like the book says: “Give it five minutes.”

…when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.

Things we do instead of think: get angry, yell, slam doors, shut down, tense up, freak out, run away…

It’s funny how the sentences that start with “I think” usually don’t involve any thinking.

To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction.

In fact, we might just discover that we’ve been wrong for most of our lives. And we hate admitting we’re wrong.

And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’

Our ancient, tribal nature still hasn’t evolved out of the human race. It happens every time we choose sides or identify with a group: sports teams, political parties, religions, etc.

When we believe something to be true, we tend also to see the very process of arriving at it as clear and objective, and therefore the kind of thing we can achieve on our own; when we hold that a given notion is false, we ascribe belief in it to some unfortunate wrong turning, usually taken because an inquirer was led astray, like Hansel and Gretel being tempted into the oven by a wicked witch.

Why are people so illogical and irrational. If people would just read the things we read and watch the things we watch, they’d see the truth. They’re just hanging out with the wrong people and watching the wrong stations.

And this is why there’s no middle ground.

…all of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons, and that whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, ‘for ourselves,’ is not an option.

This echoes the thought: We’re the average of the five people we spend most our time with. And it’s mostly true. How many people in our inner circles do we violently disagree with? We (intentionally or unintentionally) prune our networks so the only people left are those who think like us.

When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest it in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia.

Here we go choosing sides again. You’re either for us or against us.

…this fascinating conversation about why so-and-so is wrong is quite useful in helping us avoid a more challenging question: How do we know that so-and-so is wrong?

This is the crux of “how to think.” We have to ask the deeper questions, and they usually start with “why” or “how.”

Technologies of communication that allow us to overcome the distances of space also allow us to neglect the common humanity we share with the people we now find inhabiting our world.

Hence the internet troll, hiding safely in his mom’s basement.

When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears.

We must have empathy to connect with people in a meaningful way. When we choose sides, cover our ears, and shout down opposing views, we dehumanize the people on the other side. They’re no longer people—they’re the enemy.

And this tendency is the enemy of progress.

…we need to be able to make reliable assessments about the state of our knowledge, in such a way that when necessary we can hold back from taking any position until we learn more.

Despite what modern society tells us, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

It’s okay to not have an opinion on something. It’s okay to withhold judgment and not comment. Especially if we don’t have enough information.

When you are dealing with contents under pressure blasting their way toward you, your natural impulse is probably to brace yourself. You don’t want to be moved. You want, precisely, to hold your position.

This is why screaming isn’t (usually) the best way to de-escalate a situation. The opposing side just digs their heels in and yells louder.

We shouldn’t expect moral heroism of ourselves. Such an expectation is fruitless and in the long run profoundly damaging. But we can expect to cultivate a more general disposition of skepticism about our own motives and generosity toward the motives of others. And—if the point isn’t already clear — this disposition is the royal road that carries us to the shining portal called Learning to Think.

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