Daniel Jeffries

@dan.jeffries

Five Steps to Crystal Clear Thinking

I recently asked my friends and fans what they wanted me to write about.

One question came up a bunch of times:

How do you think better?

At first that surprised me. Isn’t it obvious how to think? Then I realized no, it’s not.

We’re not taught how to think anymore, only what to think.

Big difference.

Once you realize that you naturally want to change. But how? Where do you start? Is it even possible to get faster, smarter, more flexible?

It is but it’s not easy.

Unfortunately, we’ve all got a lot of damage to undo. From the day we crawl screaming from the womb the world wants to crush our spirit and our free will.

Our schools don’t teach us to question and explore, they teach us to memorize and regurgitate.

“New blood joins this Earth and quickly he’s subdued. Through constant pained disgrace the young boy learns their rules.” — Metallica, Unforgiven

Our society, our parents and the media don’t want us to develop our own ideas. They want robots, drones and slaves. They want to jam a pre-existing ideology down our throats at all costs.

In authoritarian societies it’s blatant and obvious. They take tiny children and train them to march and sing patriotic songs about the motherland before they have the slightest idea what country and ideology means. They’re trying to break their little minds as early as possible, bend them to the will of the state and the collective while they’re still plastic and pliable.

In advanced societies it happens as well, just more subtly. We’re taught to believe in our own greatness and superiority above all else but never to question anything at all.

Greatness isn’t passed on like the color of your eyes. It’s not inherited from the great generations of the past.

It’s earned.

Every generation must renew the compact with greatness.

That’s why so many children of brilliant and powerful men and woman go on to do absolutely nothing at all. They have every advantage, genetics, money and even the spark of genius and they get nowhere.

Why?

Because they didn’t put in the work to earn it. They thought it was their divine right.

Each person must earn their own statue in the pantheon of the ages.

And guess what? The greatest minds in history almost always came from average stock.

Nobody taught Edison how to make a light bulb or a radio. Tesla’s father didn’t school him on electricity. Richard Dennis, the famous turtle trader, made $200 million from $400 but his father was a blue collar guy and couldn’t have taught him commodity trading if he tried.

Every single one of those people had a relentless drive to succeed. They tried and failed and got up again when they crashed and burned. Nothing was given to them. Sure they had innate talent and maybe some special mental wiring but it was their own efforts and inquisitiveness and imagination that brought them to eternal glory.

Greatness is some kind of strange combination of nature and nurture.

But here’s the thing. You don’t know whether you have the special gift from nature. Maybe later it will become clear to you. But in the beginning nobody really knows. They just know they’re different and they want something other than what society is showing them.

So you have to act as if you’re destined for greatness. No that doesn’t mean strutting around like you’re God’s gift to the Earth.

It means demonstrating to the Universe that you mean business. It means committing to the hard work of real greatness, with humility and patience and a clear vision.

But what are the traits that mark the most brilliant minds in history? How do you develop them?

Let’s take a look.

Number One: Self Reliance

When I was little my mother loved to draw. But after years of painting pretty pictures for me she told me she was done. If I wanted more pictures I had to draw them myself.

I kicked and screamed and raged but she held tough.

She bought me pencils and paper and set me to work. That’s how I learned to create for myself. If I wanted space ships, aliens and monsters I’d have to get it done on my own.

At first I was no good. The lines never came together the way I wanted but I kept at it. Eventually I learned to draw and draw well. By high school I had the choice of whether I wanted to go to an art college or a regular college.

My mother wasn’t teaching me to draw.

What she really taught me was self reliance.

She didn’t show me how to sketch. She gave me pointers from time to time but mostly she made me figure it out through trial and error.

Here’s the thing. If you’re waiting for someone to give you the right training to change your job or do something radically different in life you will wait forever. It’s up to you to train yourself.

Nobody will teach you to draw if you’re a bus driver. If you’re in marketing, nobody is offering a class in traveling the world as a nature photographer. If you’re a tech guy or gal there is nobody in your company delivering the training to becoming a world class chef.

But that’s all right. You’ll just have to get off your ass and teach yourself.

It’s the only way to learn anything.

Make the time. Give something useless up like TV or going out to the bar or browsing the Internet for two hours reading garbage news and filling yourself with boiling rage.

Start reading relentlessly. Start studying. Practice.

It’s all on you. So what are you going to do about it?

Get up and get moving. That’s what.

Number Two: Learning to Learn

I’m sorry to tell you that the way you learned in school was total nonsense. Memorizing information is a neat trick if you want to win on Jeopardy but the amount of crap you can cram in your head and spit out on command does not make you smart.

That’s not thinking. That’s being a robot.

And remember, that’s what they wanted so that’s what they taught you. It’s up to you to break out of the programming and think different.

So what does real learning look like?

Learning is messy. It’s trial and error. It’s failing and then failing again and then slowly figuring it out.

Learning is not a rigidly formal system of precisely labeled steps.

It’s wild and messy. When I set out to learn something I start and stop, like a neural network going at it totally randomly and getting it completely wrong in the beginning.

One book captures this process better than any other: The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman.

Kaufman encourages you to forget about that 10,000 hour rule.

Yeah you know the one. Everyone knows that Malcom Gladwell catch phrase. Forget it.

You can only spend ten thousand hours on one or two things in your whole life.

What about the rest of the things you want to learn, like the right way to buy a house, or a how to build a cabinet, or the best places to eat in China, or how to trade cryptocurrencies, or paint a picture?

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to spend 10,000 hours on all of them.

Instead, look to get competent fast. Think of learning as play. Play with everything. Fail fast and break things in more than just coding.

Creativity and exploration aren’t something you control. They’re something you yield to, something greater than you. They’re a process of letting go and going with your utter ignorance and incompetence. That’s right. You’ve got to ride the river of your stupidity and see if it can take you to the land of experts somewhere at the end of the rainbow.

Maybe you imagined I have a set of rigorous steps and a journal to probe the hidden depths of truth? Perhaps a set of highlighters and a fixed set of questions?

Nope.

It does’t work like that at all.

Basically I just start asking questions internally and then I start reading. I have a dialogue with myself. This is the Socratic method in action.

Socrates. They killed him because they were too stupid to understand him.
  • Does this make sense?
  • How do I know?
  • Can I prove it?
  • How?
  • Why is this like that?
  • How could it be different?
  • How can we do this or that better?
  • Could it be worse?

Then I try to suck up all the knowledge I can find. I borrow or buy as many books as I can on a subject. I read widely and often, usually two to three hours a day.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people over a broad subject matter area who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.”

Learning is exploration. Give yourself the freedom to explore, to screw up and start over.

If you expect to get it right on day one you’re fooling yourself.

Number Three: Give Up Magical Beliefs

Have you ever ponied up money for a motivational seminar or some secret technique to learn something special?

How did it work out?

If you saw Mr Big Motivational Guru on stage at his big show I bet you came out all fired up for a few days or a few weeks. Then what happened? It fizzled right? You slowly went right back to the way you were, your same old lazy self.

Or maybe you read about some amazing sales technique, so you signed up for the six week course and committed to do it. But your sales figures never really changed did they?

Everyone who is selling you motivation is selling you snake oil.

Sorry but they are, even if they mean well. And if they mean well they are the last unwitting agents of Maya. In other words they aren’t doing it intentionally, they actually think they’re helping.

But they’re not.

You can’t borrow someone’s motivation. No matter how many books you read or chants you do you won’t become more motivated.

Motivation comes from inside. It comes from you and nowhere else.

Nobody else can give it to you. Ever. Under any circumstances. Not even me.

Forget motivational crap. Motivate your damn self.

Motivation is not some wacky ass technique like visualizing what you want. That’s just some garbage to sell you a DVD set and a seminar.

You will not grow rich by “thinking” about it. Visualizing a fast car every morning before breakfast will not get you a Ferrari no matter what the stupid “secret” says.

The sooner you let go of gurus and magical beliefs, the sooner you’ll put away childish things for good and the sooner you can get to the real hard work of change.

So how do we destroy our dependence on magical beliefs?

Number Four: Critical Thinking

What is critical thinking?

It’s the most underrated and under-appreciated skill in the known universe.

The Foundation of Critical Thinking defines it this way:

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

Huh? Whoever wrote that spent way too much time trying to cram too much into a single sentence. It’s hard to read and to parse. Too complicated. Way too complicated.

Welcome to your first exercise in critical thinking.

Time to reject that definition. Ignore that it comes from the official sounding Foundation for Critical Thinking. Where your information comes from doesn’t matter all that much. It makes no difference if it comes from an authoritative sounding group or the local homeless person. Every bit of information must exist on its own merits regardless of the messenger.

So let’s try a simpler definition from the dictionary.

“Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”

That’s a lot better. Simple and concise.

But I think we can simplify even more. Occam’s Razor rules the world. The simplest explanation is often the right one.

Maybe the best definition of critical thinking is the old X-Files slogan:

“Question everything.”

Do not accept anything at face value.

If you were taught something was true ask yourself why? How do you know? How can you prove it to yourself? Is it true just because it was in a book or because someone you like told you? No. You have to figure out the truth for yourself.

So what is truth?

Truth is that which cannot be simpler.

When you break everything down to its absolute essence you’ve found the truth.

And what you will find is that there is no mystery in life. Everything you need is written right on the tin. If you can just get your mind to stop jabbering all the time about nonsense and read what it says you can start going places.

Number Five: Step Into Someone Else’s Shoes

Have you ever met people who were right no matter what?

I did. Me when I was younger.

Man, was I dumb.

If you meet someone who thinks they have everything figured out and worse they say it with angry confidence just run away. Run as fast you can. Get the hell out of there because I guarantee you they’re insane. Like actually insane. Even worse, they don’t know it. They are absolutely sure they’re right even if they believe utter nonsense.

Bizarro, courtesy of DC and the Justice League Animated series.

In Bizarro land evil is good and Bizarro believes it.

It is impossible to be 100% sure of anything in this reality.

The smartest people know how little they know. They’re open to change. They are not fixed and rigid, but yielding and ready to adapt if they get new information.

When life shows them they were wrong, they accept it and change.

The sooner you realize how little you know the better. Thomas Edison said “We don’t know one millionth of one percent about anything.”

When you become absolutely fixed with your opinions or beliefs you’re essentially frozen. Most people don’t realize their beliefs are just programming. They believe that what they believe is true. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are tiny, infinitesimal creatures with limited capacity. The universe is vast and ever changing. We cannot possibly process all the information that hits us on a second by second basis and come to absolute truth with any kind of certainty. We just don’t have the processing power.

Think of the sum total of all knowledge as a massive sphere. Each one of us is nothing but a tiny point on that sphere. From that tiny point we can’t hope to see the big picture.

The idiots of the world imagine their microscopic viewpoint is the whole sphere.

The wisest people know that they’re hopelessly limited to that little dot.

OK not like this but humor is a good thing.

That’s why they do everything they can to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. They look to leap into other people’s minds to see from their small, dot like vantage point too.

Find people who don’t agree with you. Talk to them. Listen. Find opposing view points and read them all.

No single person on Earth has even the slightest hope of understanding even a sliver of the world around us.

But if we’re relentless about seeing through other people’s eyes, then we can at least begin to get a sense of the shape of things. It’s nothing but an approximation, an outline of the sphere, a Platonic shadow, but it’s infinitely better than sitting in one place your whole life and imagining you’ve seen the entire world.

To see the entire world you have to actually get out and see the world.

Leave your little mind behind and step into a bigger one.

Your First Step Into a Larger World

The more I thought about it the more I realized thinking is hard. It’s even harder to do well.

We’re bombarded daily with countless deranging messages. We’re surrounded by self-assured people who know nothing at all but proudly proclaim how much they’re right.

The further you go with critical thinking the further you’ll realize how many fools there are everywhere. The kings and queens of the world, the politicians and masters of industry are often nothing but ruthless and lucky idiots. They couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag if their life depended on it.

The more you learn the more you’ll realize we live in a world of children, of people who stopped learning around age thirteen and got stuck their whole lives and never learned a single thing ever again.

Don’t be those people.

Whether you know it our not, you were poisoned. The world infected your mind. You’re surrounded by pretend gurus and people who think they know exactly what’s going on when they really know nothing. If you can come to the point where you know you know nothing than you have a tremendous advantage in this world.

You were given a fixed set of rules to go by, a fixed set of beliefs. You were given a cage.

But the cage was never locked. Once you realize it, you can open it and walk right out into a brighter world.

Do you want to start a great company or write the great American novel or make a million dollars in the market?

You always had the power to do it. It was right in your hands the whole time.

Now you know it.

Time to do something about it.

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Check out more of my ideas on the amazing Future Thinkers podcast right here.

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A bit about me: I’m an author, engineer and serial entrepreneur. During the last two decades, I’ve covered a broad range of tech from Linux to virtualization and containers.

Readers have called my breakout nanopunk novel, The Scorpion Game, “the first serious competition to Neuromancer” and “Detective noir meets Johnny Mnemonic.”

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