Fab Fridays 45: Thinking for Yourself

How can we help kids become more independent-minded?

Schools teach us that our ideas need to be correct.

But in the real world, it’s not enough to be right.

To differentiate ourselves, our ideas must be both correct and novel.

To be a successful scientist, for example, you need to discover things that others haven’t realized yet. To start a successful company, you need to go after something that others haven’t figured out. To be a successful writer, you need to share insights that feel new to others.

If we want kids to come up with novel ideas, we need to teach them how to think differently.

I realized this while reading one of Paul Graham’s latest essays, “How to Think for Yourself.” Graham lays out that different jobs require different levels of independent thinking, and that we must acknowledge this distinction when deciding what kind of work we want to do.

So, where am I going with this?

I’d argue that the most important jobs of the future will require us to think differently—to be creative, to think outside the box, to develop ideas that others haven’t. And, as such, we must help our kids magnify these qualities. We must teach our kids tothink differently.

Yet schools do exactly the opposite.​

In school, we spend most of our time consuming existing knowledge rather than producing new insights. We strive for correctness instead of novelty. We are encouraged to do what everyone agrees is a good idea. This explains why conventional-minded people greatly outnumber independent-minded people in the real world.

Most of us never stop to think about this. We grow up to play the game that everyone else plays, simply because that’s what they teach us in school.

But it’s only when we play a different game that we get different (and I’d argue, better) results.

So, how can we equip kids to play and succeed at a different game?

Helping Kids Think For Themselves

When we think differently from our peers, we become capable of inventing rather than imitating. It’s how we come up with new solutions to old (or new) problems.

How can we help kids become more independent-minded?

Graham argues that this quality may be largely inborn, but that there seem to be ways to magnify it, or at least to not suppress it. In his article, he shares a few examples on how people can cultivate their independent-mindlessness. Here are the ones that I believe are applicable to kids:

  1. Cultivate an attitude of skepticism. Teach kids not to let anything into their head unexamined. “When you hear someone say something, stop and ask yourself, is that true?” Frame this habit for your kids as an exciting quest for novelty. Resistance to being told what to think is often misunderstood as a negative quality, when in reality it's the opposite.

  2. Surround yourself with independent-minded people. Having your kids hear other people say surprising things will encourage them to do the same. Help them find a community of other kids, older and younger, who crave creativity and learning new things. (Check out Synthesis and Primer)

  3. Cultivate curiosity. Encourage your kids to seek out topics that engage their curiosity and make sure they are making time to explore the things they are interested in. Find out how much of the work they are doing in school engages their curiosity. If the answer is “not much,” then they need to find something else—a complement to school—that does.

Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for, and much more curious than we think. We should applaud them when we see them challenging the status quo or digging deeper into their curiosities. We should help them find their own "game"—what they are good at—and encourage them to master it.

They will be happier, and without knowing it, they will be preparing themselves for the jobs of the future by developing their own ideas.

Have a great weekend!

Ana Lorena Fabrega