9 Critical Thinking Strategies That Lifelong Learners Need To Know

critical thinking strategies feature imageIf you’re looking for critical thinking strategies to help yourself or others, congratulations.

Learning to think better is one of the best ways to help ourselves improve the world.

And now that you’re here, I’m going to treat you to an epic lesson in critical thinking techniques that can:

  • Improve your performance at school or work
  • Help you make better decisions
  • Assist in avoiding mistakes that crush others
  • Improve profits as an entrepreneur
  • Using creative thinking and critical processes of understanding that improve your memory

This final benefit is especially important if you find yourself forgetting information. And on this page you’ll even learn more about how to remember the steps involved in thinking more critically. 

A Brief History Of Critical Thinking Strategies

Every culture has developed tools for thinking better. Let’s list just a few classic examples:

  • Asia: Tao Te Ching and The Art of War
  • India: Panchadasi and the Advaita Vedanta tradition
  • Greek: Plato and the Socratic Method
  • Russia: Triz
  • Britain: Analytic philosophy
  • France and Germany: Continental philosophy and Nietzsche’s “genealogy”
  • Spain, Italy, and other parts of Europe: Llullism and techniques like ars combinatoria

This final tradition is particularly interesting because it was key to the development of formal logic and ideas that eventually made modern computing possible.

computing

Critical thinking is always evolving and some of the newest applications are involved in everything from new political initiatives to quantum computing and innovations in space travel.

9 Types Of Critical Thinking That Help Lifelong Learners Outperform Their Competition

Let’s face it. The reason we learn critical thinking is not just so we can improve the world. It’s so we can compete in the race to improve the world

the world

That means that critical thinking cannot stand on its own. It has to also include analytical thinking and creative thinking. 

That’s why we have to go beyond the typical stuff you read online about asking:

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why
  • How

Don’t get me wrong. Those are important questions to ask. But let’s dive in and understand four of the biggest and best categories of critical thinking:

1. First Principles Thinking 

This kind of thinking breaks a problem down to its basic parts and uses them to explore new paths. It tends to keep a goal in mind at each step.

step

To use this kind of thinking, you also want to: 

  • Identify core assumptions
  • Break the problem down into parts
  • Create new processes towards a clearly defined goal

Example: We know that memory requires at least some level of repetition. But how can we reduce that amount?

Looking at our core assumptions, we can break the problem down into parts and notice that primacy and recency effect allow us to create a tool.

The new process is the Memory Palace technique, something that every memory competitor and many students use and refine year after year, usually by repeating this same critical thinking strategy.

2. Blank Slate Thinking

This technique starts with first principles, but you go further. You ask: What would this look like completely from scratch? 

city

Example: Imagine you’re trying to solve poverty in an inner city. Even though it won’t be possible to start the city over, by thinking about what the area looked like before it was inhabited, you can imagine a new history and try to figure out how greater fairness might have been achieved. 

3. Synergistic Thinking

Synergy is about combining things together that don’t normally go together.

As a way of stimulating more critical thinking, you would get a bunch of items together and keep asking, Why don’t these items go together? Then dream up ways they could be combined as a critical thinking exercise.

Example: Imagine scissors and a banana or a kite and vase. Ask: Why don’t these items go together? 

banana

Your answers might be something like, because bananas don’t need to be cut and vases don’t need to fly. Try to come up with at least 5 reasons why the items you’ve paired don’t go together. 

Then try to come up with at least 5 ways they could. Even if the solutions you come up with are silly, they will exercise your mind. For example, maybe banana skins can oil rusty scissors or kites could deliver flowers to people in hospitals where the elevators are broken. 

4. Adaptation

A lot of innovations come from people transferring a feature from one area to another.

Example: Book of the month club business models have become everything from vinyl record clubs to monthly underwear subscriptions. 

underware

Another way to think about adaptation as a critical thinking strategy is ars combinatoria.

This ancient technique let you adapt a Memory Wheel based on “contracting” larger ideas down into individual letters.

Then, if you had a problem you needed to solve, you would expand the letters and adapt the ideas within them. It’s hard to explain, so here’s a video that describes the technique in-depth:

5. Magnification and Minimization

We often get stuck in our thinking because we’re looking at things in their actual scale. But when we change their size and dimension, we can gain new insights. 

Example: If you’re trying to solve a problem involving thousands of people, scale down to thinking about how to solve it for just ten people, or even one. 

Or, if you’ve having a hard time imagining something small like the operations of a biological cell, draw it as big as possible so you can zoom in on individual parts with greater ease. 

6. Reverse or Invert

Have you ever wondered why magicians disappear in a puff of smoke instead of appearing in them? Or what about donut holes? Where do they go? 

magician

Take problems and play them in reverse in your mind. 

Example: In the hard problem of consciousness, experiences like headaches are said to be impossible to measure. (This is because pain is typically based on perception.)

To invert the problem, you might consider pleasure and how smiling is inherently visible. To reverse it, you might imagine tears flowing back into your eyes and try to trace them back to where in your brain the process of crying begins.

7. Assume Different Points of View

We often make the mistake of seeing problems only through our own eyes. But it’s very useful to try to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” whenever you can. 

grocery store

Example: Some criminals have broken into your local grocery store and broken all the windows. This obviously raises safety issues and the criminals should be punished. But can you spend 5-10 minutes thinking through the life situations that may have led these people to act criminally in this way? Did they have as much free will in it as you assume?

Next, think through the perspective of the store manager. Think through the experiences of one or two of the employees. Then think through the perspective of some of your neighbors.

Apply this kind of critical thinking strategy to many situations and you will gain a much greater perspective on human life and reality.

8. Mastermind Thinking

I never met Einstein, and chances are, neither did you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine having a conversation with him. 

steve jobs

You can also have imaginary conversations with Steve Jobs, Buddha and Joan of Arc. Although these won’t necessarily be accurate, the more you know about these people, the more you can ask, What would Jimi Hendrix do and get a reasonable answer.

Example: Let’s say you want to 10x your revenue over the next two years. You can read the biographies of 3-5 entrepreneurs who have been successful in your field and then mentally assemble them for a council meeting in your mind. Ask them what they would do and let your understanding of their accomplishments guide your answers.

9. Last Principles Thinking 

Science Fiction is very good at asking, “What’s next?” 

what is next

Example: In SevenEves, Niel Stephenson imagines the moon blowing up and ultimately wiping out all life on planet earth. The entire novel answers the question: what’s next? 

To use this in your thinking, ask “If this situation is true, what happens next?” 

Although it’s usually impossible to know, by running the thought process, you will be practicing one of the finest strategies for critical thinking we’ve got. You don’t even have to avoid reductio ad absurdum issues, so long as you work to come up with several solutions. 

How To Make Critical Thinking A Daily Habit

You might have just read the strategies above and be thinking, “That’s all fine and dandy. I can see why these critical thinking examples are so useful. But how am I supposed to remember how to use them?”

Here are some ideas:

Use A Memory Palace

This technique can help you readily memorize everything we’ve just discussed. Here’s how:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

Keep A Journal

If memorizing critical thinking strategies isn’t right for you, you can always copy them into the first page of a journal. Then, when you need to solve a problem, you can write out your responses to each thinking process. 

Read About Decision Makers

Chances are that if there’s a biography about a successful person, they’ve been successful at critical thinking. Whether it’s an actor, entrepreneur, lawyer or president, success leaves clues and advanced thinking skills will be involved in every extraordinary achievement.

Discuss Often

A lot of people don’t think critically with any level of skill because they don’t engage in enough conversation. 

Is it strictly necessary? What if you’re an introvert?

Those are good questions, but I’d use critical thinking itself to flip things around a bit. I would ask instead:

What happens if I continue the way I’m going without enough conversation with others? 

Anytime you hit a stumbling block, such as an idea or belief about yourself that would prevent you from getting a benefit, it’s more valuable to ask about the price you’ll pay by not voluntarily embracing an obvious solution. 

discussion

In sum, discussion works and everyone who wants to be a better thinker should engage in as many of them as possible, with as many people as possible. 

I’ve found that Lunchclub is a great tool for meeting a large variety of people who come from all kinds of different perspectives.

By speaking with others, you’re also placing yourself in creative and supportive environments that lead to even more ideas worth having.

Read Books Regularly To Stimulate Critical Thought

There are many big ideas and lessons that you’ll never encounter if you keep your head stuck in the sand of your own interests and preferred entertainment.

For example, I find economics pretty boring. But by being willing to stretch, I’ve learned a ton, experienced many surprise insights and wound up using many directly useful ideas that improved my life.

a man reading behind books

Go through these books that normally wouldn’t attract you slowly and with as much interest as you can muster. And if you need help, my article on dealing with boring topics is a must.

A Bonus Critical Thinking Strategy Everyone Can Use

So, what do you say? Can you imagine yourself using any of these critical thinking strategies?

Or perhaps I should ask, What do you imagine the consequences will be if you don’t?

Whether you’re using these approaches yourself or teaching them to someone else, here’s one last suggestion.

Whenever you’re looking at a problem, new or old, ask yourself:

What’s the real problem that needs solving?

Far too often, people work on coming up with solutions for the wrong problem. Everything you’ve learned today should help in avoiding that sad outcome, but I just wanted to throw it in as a bonus. Just in case.

And get this: It was thinking critically about this article using the very tools on this page helped me realize it needed to be here. (Last principles thinking)

Cool how it all works, isn’t it?

 

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