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I want to have value past my mundane existence?
June 15, 2007 2:21 AM   Subscribe

Lady Li posted a question (2 below this one) searching for this quote... "Most people can't think, most of the remainder won't think, the small fraction who do think mostly can't do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion – in the long run, these are the only people who count." How do I become one of those people who count?
posted by crewshell to Religion & Philosophy (35 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
What do you think yourself?
posted by ijsbrand at 2:42 AM on June 15, 2007

Why in heavens name would you want to "think"? That's like a carpenter saying he wants to cut wood.

You don't want to think. What you want to do is achieve certain results in your life that come from thinking. You want clarity, humility, wisdom, strength, creativity or some of the other traits that one associates with the thinking man.

You can identify the things you want to become, and then read widely. Things relevant to what you want to become will float to the top of your mind, and you can dissect and apply them. Applied thinking, one could say.

You need information to think about. Acquire information. Then you can't just sit and think randomly. Your thinking has to be about the material you absorbed in the past or things you intend to do in the future.

Everything else is an abstract nothing.

(For me, the stupidest people are those who think they are thinking. You know, the ones whose political opinions match with Jon Stewart's, who care about the environment, who think that rap degrades women, and are against gene manipulated food. If you only know one side of any of those topics, then you are not a thinking person. A thinking person is the type of person who will know in depth both sides of an issue, even though one side seems obvious to him. It's much better not to think at all than to groupthink.)
posted by markovich at 2:48 AM on June 15, 2007 [7 favorites]

the stupidest people are those who think they are thinking...who care about the environment

I think it's certainly possible, and indeed probable, that a thinking person would care about the environment, unless perhaps all they thought about was money.
posted by DarkForest at 3:08 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

1. You have to want to be a thinker more than anything else.

2. You have to train yourself to think about what you intend to think about, and not about the things that most people waste their time thinking about.

3. You have to be fearless... thinking leads places, and you cannot be afraid to let go of what you thought in order to embrace what you are thinking.

Still sound like fun?
posted by ewkpates at 3:10 AM on June 15, 2007

A thinking person would not care about the environment just because it's the accepted opinion amongst his peers. A thinking person would also know of reasons NOT to care about the environment, and yet still care. Most people who care about the environment do not know of any reasons not to care about the enviroment. They are not thinking. They are just absorbing what people tell them without reflecting on it.

I would expect a man who thinks to be able to list more than 20 valid and arguable reasons not to care about the environment.

It's for me so upsetting when I see people who believe that wearing thick black rimmed glasses and supporting gay marriage somehow makes them a member of the thinking class.

You cannot be free unless you have been imprisoned in the past. In the same way, unless you know of other opinions, you are not thinking about it when you follow a certain course of action.
posted by markovich at 3:15 AM on June 15, 2007 [6 favorites]

Reach out to those who do not count.
posted by mdonley at 3:34 AM on June 15, 2007

If I understand, you are asking how to "think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion". I don't claim to have attained this, but it is something I have thought about a fair amount.

The "regularly" part is straightforward enough. Treat everyday things as opportunities to learn and think e.g. when watching TV, don't zombie-out, instead analyze and dissect.

Thinking "accurately" and "without self-delusion" seem closely related to each other (perhaps the latter is a subset of the former). The academic approach to this is to familiarize yourself with the scientific method, philosophy of science, philosophy, logic, general systems thinking, and so on. In a more personal sense, you can practice interrogating your own beliefs and thought processes, making thought-experiments and playing devils advocate to yourself.

Thinking "creatively" to me is an extension of this sort of practice; questioning, probing, imagining different approaches to problems. It helps to have many interests, and follow threads of novelty such that the mind is regularly confronted with new ideas.

Also consider meditation and practicing awareness/mindfulness (particularly for that self-delusion part). You can probably also find a lot of insight from investigating alternative religious/philosophical attitudes to reality.
posted by MetaMonkey at 3:48 AM on June 15, 2007

The game of Go is also a fantastic way to exercise the thinking muscles. Although a very simple game to pick up, it has unfathomable depth, complexity and subtly, demanding thinking "accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion" in a way no other game that I know can compare. You can learn and practice with a program like igowin, though the best way to play is with other humans, on a Go server or with friends.
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:58 AM on June 15, 2007

While I'm a /huge/ Go fan, I don't think it's general enough to recommend as an aid.

Rather, I think one should take Heinlein's character's advice in Time Enough for Love, "To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods."

My suggestion for a first step is to recalibrate what you think of as certain, so that your current 100% is somewhere around 70%. The high-water mark tends to be magnetic, and once a belief gets near it, you start to believe it more simply because it's near it.
posted by cmiller at 5:26 AM on June 15, 2007

Good thinking is more about paying attention to what's going on than it is about grinding through logic. Develop the habit of observing the world, your actions and feelings as opposed to relentlessly trying to control everything and you'll experience a lot more insight. I would have a look at mindfulness practice and meditation, maybe read the free Mindfulness In Plain English or Thich Nhah Hanh's books, more for ideas than for necessarily following everything.

It's quite possible that you'll end up feeling a lot less smart than when you started, but you'll be more compassionate and not as quick to judge people you disagree with.
posted by teleskiving at 5:29 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think Kipling would disagree--something like "If you can think, yet not make thoughts your aim..."

Part of the "without self-delusion" would be to engage in enough introspection--guided or otherwise--that you understood your motivation to be "one of those people who count."


"Did the Primer teach you that people would pull your hair?"
"No, Sir."
"Did it teach you that your mother's boyfriends would beat you up, and your mother not protect you?"
"No, sir, except insofar as it told me stories about people who did evil."
"People doing evil is a good lesson. What you saw in there a few weeks ago"-- and by this Nell knew he was referring to the headless soldier on the mediatron-- "is one application of that lesson, but it's too obvious to be of any use. Ah, but your mother not protecting you from boyfriends-- that has some subtlety, doesn't it?"
"Nell," the Constable continued, indicating, through is tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between stupid and intelligent people--and this is true whether or not they are well-educated--is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations--in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward."
"In your Primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life. You life up to this point has given you all of the experience you need to be intelligent, but you have to think about those experiences. If you don't think about them, you'll be psychologically unwell. If you do think about them, you will become not merely educated but intelligent, and then, a few years down the road, you will probably give me cause to wish I were several decades younger."
The Constable turned and walked back into his house, leaving Nell alone in the garden, pondering the meaning of that last statement. She supposed it was the sort of thing she would understand later, when she had become intelligent.

--From The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
posted by Phred182 at 5:53 AM on June 15, 2007

Read some philsophy; especially the very appropriate book Why So Stupid? How the Human Race Has Never Really Learned To Think by Edward de Bono.
posted by WPW at 5:55 AM on June 15, 2007

i would recommend just actively engaging in the world. ask questions, even the answers don't matter to you, just to get in the habit of learning. when you take your car in for service, make the guy tell you what he's doing and why. when you go to the doctor for a prescription, ask how it works. look for patterns (like why so many items in the grocery store are priced at $X.99), then investigate them. ask yourself why people say the things they do--what do they have to gain from mass adoption of an idea?

i could go on and on. in short: pay attention, ask questions, and take notes.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:11 AM on June 15, 2007

and take notes

I would like to echo this very loudly. Keeping an all-purpose notebook/diary/commonplace book is a wonderful thing to do, if it is pocket- or handbag-sized and you get into the habit of taking it with you whenever you go out.

I do this.
posted by WPW at 6:26 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you wish your speciality to be thinking then you will need a few props. My guess is that these would be something like:
1. The ability to express yourself fluently in several different forms- for example in writing, speech, music, drawing, dance. For each form it would be good to be familiar with more than one language or custom. You will probably need to choose one form to be your speciality.
2. The ability to meditate.
3. Training in observation: looking, listening, questioning
4. Access to one of more forums where you can prototype your ideas - a group of affable friends and a pub for example.
5. A place to record your thoughts and the regular habit of so doing: a diary, sketchbook, etc.
6. Presentation skills.
7. A goal involving having to articulate the results of your thinking - a book or performance for example.
8. And of course a prestigious diploma awarding you a doctorate of thinkology.
posted by rongorongo at 6:39 AM on June 15, 2007

I dislike the given quote, it portrays thinking as if you can create content.

My experience doesn't match up. Thoughts come to me. My role is deciding how much energy and attention to give them once they're here.

I'm pretty much in agreement with teleskiving, although I would recommend different books. If cultivating your awareness interests you, take a look at Charlotte Joko Beck and Toni Packer.

This won't turn you into a genius, but it may make you more curious and responsive. If you are looking for validation it may or may not help. If it does help it probably won't be in the way you had originally hoped for.
posted by BigSky at 6:48 AM on June 15, 2007

The original quote is unbelievably arrogant, and full of conclusions that are difficult, if not impossible to support. How does the person quoted have *any* concept of how many individuals think, let alone the quality of their thinking? And then to make a sweeping value judgment: "...these are the only people that count." Unconscionable.

I'm surprised that so many people in this thread have allowed themselves to be intellectually sucker-punched into thinking that the original quote had any merit whatsoever. And I suspect that the more 'thinking' you do, the more you'll realized that 'being one of those people who count' really doesn't matter that much in this great cyclical organic existence of ours.
posted by onesix18 at 7:26 AM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Nobody thinks without self-delusion. Don't sweat the small stuff.
posted by meehawl at 7:27 AM on June 15, 2007

The "these are the only people who count" part of that quote is utter nonsense. There are those who may not think well, but instead do, over and over, even when they fail. These folks make a tremendous difference to the world. Well, okay, depending upon what they do.

But to your question...

I wonder how old you are? If your goal is unflinching introspection, you are already on that road, as evidenced by this post. It is, however, a process of years. Watch yourself reacting to the world, day by day. When you hit a bump--a prejudice or fear or wrong turn--examine it fiercely, again and again over time as you gather more information. Find the things you don't like about yourself, and work on them. Find the things you do well, and run with them. Realize that everything you think now can change, and roll with that.

Finally, have a goal. My own goal is to do what I can to make the world a better place. To this end, I work on my own health so I can work harder for others, I have a job that serves the community, and I founded the Blogathon. Of course, those are the good things. I still have a lot of crap to work on at 42. I still make snap judgments based on appearance. I'm still overwhelmed by despair and cynicism at times. But I'm working on it, and will be until I shuffle off to Buffalo.

I don't post here a lot. What attracted me to your question was the fact that I asked the same kinds of things myself many years ago. I wondered how to start, who I was, where I should go. So, begin. Choose one thing to work on, whether it be a personal prejudice or developing a talent; do your research, and get to it.

Think about living, and live.
posted by frykitty at 7:45 AM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Stop trying to divide people into 'thinking' and 'unthinking'? To me, the most 'thinking' and most useful people are those who've spent time figuring out how they think the world works, why it is the way it is, and where they are situated in it. I also prefer this Steven J Gould quote;

I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
posted by crabintheocean at 7:48 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised that so many people in this thread have allowed themselves to be intellectually sucker-punched into thinking that the original quote had any merit whatsoever. And I suspect that the more 'thinking' you do, the more you'll realized that 'being one of those people who count' really doesn't matter that much in this great cyclical organic existence of ours.

I read the question in the spirit I believe it was intended, a user who wanted to become more contemplative and live a richer inner life, regardless of what the quote said. Yes, the quote is silly and objectionable on a number of counts, but the merit of the question still stands and is worth answering.

And, for what it's worth, I think that seeking to think more and better will lead one to a life that is of more value to one's self, regardless of what other people think or some imagined system of relative merit of person.
posted by WPW at 7:48 AM on June 15, 2007

How do I become one of those people who count?

You can be the greatest Thinker in the world, but if you don't act, how do you count for anything beyond "your mundane existence"? Thinking is great, thinking is fun, but if you don't share those thoughts with The World in some way -- whether it's writing a book, publishing in scientific journals, or simply blogging or chatting with friends & family -- then what have you done, really? All your great thoughts have resulted in nothing.

Indeed, OVER-thinking a problem, trying to get the 100% correct solution to a problem, can paralyze action. (I'm guilty of this.) A 90% correct solution that actually gets implemented is almost always better than a perfect solution that never really gets done...

But if you want to think, smoke weed. (Now there's a good way to think but not act!)
posted by LordSludge at 7:53 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised that so many people in this thread have allowed themselves to be intellectually sucker-punched...

Seemed to me like most of the answers (mine included) ignored the quote's assumption about "people that count" and focused instead on the thinking. If you forget the rest of quote, striving to think, "regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion" appears a reasonable aim to me.

On topic, learning how to ask questions is also a big part of learning how to think! I often find that taking the time to compose a question appropriately and thoroughly may inadvertently yield an answer, or at least a fruitful direction of inquiry. In this way many major advances in thinking were made with the dawn of computer programming, as people realized when attempting to formalize their thoughts (and assumptions) for computation that their ideas weren’t quite as rigorous as they had imagined.
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:04 AM on June 15, 2007

Thinking, to me, implies the ability to relate disparate things in ways that add insight and meaning to the consideration of both. For instance, this question (and the answers!) remind me of a passage from Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth Bennett, Mr. Darcy, and Miss Bingley are discussing the characteristics that make up an "accomplished" woman:

"Oh! certainly," cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved."

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

"I am no longer surprised at your knowing ONLY six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing ANY."

"Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?"

"I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united."
posted by obliquicity at 8:11 AM on June 15, 2007

Let's not ignore the very real necessity of elitism. First, Einstein was wrong. Second, there aren't many Einsteins.

The core question is, if you aren't elite, do you want to become elite? This is very much like asking if you want to become rich... if you can't avoid a real understanding of why this is a difficult question, then you are on your path to elitism.

How to embrace your potential, should you realize you are elite? Study better men. How will you know them? By this.
posted by ewkpates at 8:20 AM on June 15, 2007

Like any skill: training, practice and exercise. Take classes. Question your assumptions, and everybody else's. Learn about the opposing viewpoint. Do challenging mental exercises like playing chess or doing the Sunday NYTimes crossword. Read increasing difficult books in a wide range of subjects.

How do I become one of those people who count? I think learning to think well, and being compassionate is a good goal.
posted by theora55 at 8:21 AM on June 15, 2007

This brings to mind a quote from Harlan Ellison: "You are not entitled to your opinion, you are entitled to your informed opinion. If you are not informed on the subject, then your opinion counts for nothing."
posted by doorsnake at 8:47 AM on June 15, 2007

I strongly disagree with those who limit thinking to exclusively pragmatic or empirical problems. Reason as an end-in-itself has been a profoundly formative notion in western culture ever since the advent of philosophy. And I'm not sure there's any better training for thinking than philosophy. I'd start with an introductory philosophy text or book, then start reading the classics. Or take an intro to philosophy class at a community college, then continue to investigate on your own what both interests and challenges you.
posted by treepour at 9:03 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

In Zen they say, "If you want to know the truth, hold no opinions."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:22 AM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

people count anyway, whether they "think" or not.
posted by nicolin at 9:31 AM on June 15, 2007

Sentiments like the one expressed in that quote are really just ego balm for the frustrated.

Essentially they arise from arrogance: "I am so smart and perceptive but the world doesn't seem to appreciate that and give me what I want so it must be full of dimwits and dullards who are incapable of seeing reality."

It's as self-delusional as anything else, if not more so.

(On a socio-political level, it's also a great rationality for oppression and totalitarianism.)
posted by dzot at 9:46 AM on June 15, 2007

Sentiments like the one expressed in that quote are really just ego balm for the frustrated.

Nailed it. And as an answer to the question "I'm smart, so why am I not successful?", it's unhelpful and I think ultimately destructive. For a better answer, start here.

If you want to be successful, make a difference, whatever, I assure you the steps involved are not:

A) Turn self into great thinker.
B) Apply great-thinker-hood to serious problems.

This is ass-backwards. The ability to have clever, original thoughts, in whatever domain, comes with time, experience, and work. And luck.
posted by shadow vector at 10:03 AM on June 15, 2007

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising coming from me, but I don't see what's so awful about the quote. It's very humbling, because it points out that the only people who make a difference in the long run are those who can do something new. Coming up with new technologies, writing meaningful and influential novels, fixing the problems of the world; these things can not be done without thinking "accurately, creatively and without self-delusion". There is nothing wrong with working hard in the fields, or in the factories; but your labor will not noticeably change the face of the world.

For that matter, mine probably won't either. And that's humbling.

My $.02 on learning how to think well:
Thinking is a habit, like anything else. When a thought comes to you, do you cultivate it? Do you stop and listen and continue to ponder it, or do you brush it aside? Some people are so caught up in avoiding boredom that they never pause to consider an idea.

On preview: shadow vector brings up something worth mention. Find something worth thinking about. The advice on practicing thinking that's been given here is exactly that: practice. Thinking for its own sake is not the same as thinking about a particular subject, and that's what's important.
posted by Lady Li at 10:32 AM on June 15, 2007

A thinking person would not care about the environment just because it's the accepted opinion amongst his peers. A thinking person would also know of reasons NOT to care about the environment, and yet still care. Most people who care about the environment do not know of any reasons not to care about the enviroment. They are not thinking. They are just absorbing what people tell them without reflecting on it.

I hope you realize that, arguably, an equal number of people don't care about the environment because they're just absorbing what people tell them without reflecting on it. Similarly so for just about every fixed position that a person can take on a subject.

Personally, I find myself trusting my own judgement, and that of others, more often and more completely if the conclusion has been reached that there is no clear position to take without also acknowledging a shaping bias.

Also: how do you tell if a person has reached a fixed position on a subject by virtue of groupthink, or by reasoned and considered attention to all known sides of an issue? Is that something you can quantify, or are you willing to consider that it might be your own shaping bias on the subject coloring your perception of those whose stated opinions differ from yours?

It's a common mistake, actually; consider the Democrat who looks at the (to them) ignorant Republican and says to him/herself "how can that person be so ignorant?" Of course, the Republican is saying the same thing about the Democrat. It's a nearly inevitable result of reaching a conclusion (and thus establishing a fixed position) on something: once a person has decided that their position is correct (or at least the best reasonable position to take) they have difficulty accepting the idea that someone arriving at an opposite fixed position could possibly have gotten there via the same path.

So, to the questioner: I'd say you might consider of getting in the habit of reconsidering. After all, circumstances change, situations change, and you change, on a regular basis; few things are truly fixed in time, and developing a habitual drive to reconsider things on a regular basis might help to make you a thinking person in the same way that becoming a writer, say, is much more easily accomplished if one writes every day -- you become a better writer by virtue of experience, and you're a writer because you're writing.
posted by davejay at 11:42 AM on June 15, 2007

of course, I could be wrong about all of this.
posted by davejay at 11:42 AM on June 15, 2007

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