Wisdom is the missing condition during these times of volatile change, information overload, and dynamic knowledge. Yet our inability to discern clearly has so clouded our thinking such that we lack clear judgment, rendering wisdom inaccessible. In this blog, I focus on clear thinking, perhaps the most misunderstood of our abilities.

From journalists to lawmakers to educators, we no longer possess a penetrating lens to peer through cloudiness with any credibility. We can no longer advocate for the truth, nor can we call an act what it is. With our perception and judgment clouded by euphemisms and reflexive beliefs, we’ve lost our ability to think.

The Challenge

Our primary culprit of lazy thought is that we haven’t cultivated a “habit of questioning.”

This complacency commonly takes two forms:

The first is the primacy of problem-solving: we frame thinking as seeking out answers to solve problems. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.

The second issue is more reflexive thinking; it lacks any questioning at all. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts we are stymied, because no questioning has taken place.

Both views delude us into thinking that we are thinking, when in fact we are comforted by initial evidence or by the fruits of wishful thinking. At best what we claim as thinking is the activity of managing our old thoughts or beliefs, or analyzing the agreeable evidence.

Both of these views lack a habit of questioning that clarifies assumptions, discards outmoded beliefs, and makes space for new thoughts.

Thinking about Thinking: A Habit of Questioning

Whatever the reason, when we stop questioning, we dismantle the mechanism of thinking.

Thinking involves questioning our beliefs, our assumptions, and the evidence in a way that opens space for new thoughts. Philosopher Hannah Arendt points us to the issue: “Thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity.”

Thinking dwells, lets itself be; and as Arendt suggests involves “cultivating the habit of questioning whatever comes to pass, or that attracts our attention.”

In this way thinking is less about cleverness, calculation, and consumption of data and more about mindfully being with situations in a free and open manner that invites each moment to present itself fully.

Thinking is related more to freedom than to facts, and aligns more with presence than reasoning.

The question then becomes: do we meet the moment freely with openness, or do we rely on old thoughts and project unexamined assumptions?

Activist and education philosopher Paulo Freire offers insight: “Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naïve, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others.”

Clear thinking, then, first requires surfacing projections that mask as thinking, and two of the most pervasive are magical thinking and positive thinking.

Magical Thinking

To practice clear thinking, we begin by confronting our magical (“fantasy” or “wishful”) thinking, which can distort what is seen and acted on.

Magical thinking denotes the causal relationship between perception, actions, and events. It is the belief that one’s wishes or desires can influence the external world.

Magical thinking is marked by vague claims, generalizations, platitudes, or hyperbole. It wants (wishes for) something based on beliefs or hopes that have no possible reality or are not based on concrete evidence or specific details.

We’ve all had moments of magical thinking. Fifteen years ago I started a non-profit Center to deliver leadership programs without a market, funding strategy, program development or plan for training. After all, I had secured a 501(c)3, and had the knowledge, right? And with funds, I signed an office lease, designed a website, and hooked up phones.

Such events reveal our casual relationship with reality. I not only didn’t question my expectations; it didn’t even occur to me that such questioning was necessary.

You don’t need to know how to get where you are going, but where you are going must be in the realm of what’s possible or credible when looked at from the perspective of where you actually are. Magical thinking causes others to question that credibility.

OUTCOME: I employ platitudes to move others to a goal, sell an idea, or agree to terms without any details.

Positive Thinking

A common form of magical thinking, “positive thinking” attempts to frame the facts or conditions that confront you in life with a more positive interpretation. “Pollyanna,” “do-gooder,” “goody-two-shoes”—these are some of the disparaging nicknames that we have for people who avoid evidence in an effort to be positive. (Note: One can be supportive and deliver the facts without having to make it positive in this unseeing or unobserving sense.)

We say, “It’s a great idea, so it will all work out,” or “don’t be so negative, think positive.” We do not seek out counterfactual evidence, question the available (or lack of) details, or recognize how we distort conditions to spin our positive claims.

This kind of distorted thinking places a layer of positive sentiments or delusion between us and what we are dealing with, like a layer of fog. Instead of dealing with the conditions in front of us, we are left to navigate the fog, so we become better at describing the fog.

OUTCOME: I employ a positive spin on circumstances to make myself and others feel good.

Clear Thinking

Clear thinking is the ability to question assumptions critically with the ability to engage in independent and reflective thought. It involves questioning concrete evidence and specific details that point to causes and conditions with evidence, concepts, logic, and/or context.

  1. Concrete details are tangible. For instance, the house at the end of the block is on fire. This claim is understood by three concrete items: house, fire, block. These are clear by the level of agreement (understanding) for each—that is, we can all point to and verify these items.
  2. Specific details or logic are explicit and precise. For instance, the fire’s temperature reached 800 degrees within 10 minutes because of 50 mph winds in the area last night. Notice the precise conceptual items in this statement: temperature, time, miles per hour, and temporality.
  3. Specific details reframe conditions in context. For instance, the fire offers urgency to create a neighborhood association that can support community concerns to manage our safety and security issues.

OUTCOME: I consider and question the available evidence and seek out details that offer a credible interpretation for the matter at hand.

Thinking and Action

The thinking we bring to a situation leads to specific expectations and actions.

Consider this scenario: a company has created a new strategy that changes its position and direction in the market, and the strategy demands many changes in a short period of time.

Three longtime employees have left the organization within 90 days of the strategy being announced and implemented. Below, we can see how each mode of “thinking” views the departure of these three employees.

Magical Thinking: They will be back once they get out in the world and see what it’s really like.

Positive Thinking: Everything will be fine, maybe even better, as the remaining employees will easily make up for any loss in productivity.

Clear Thinking: The new direction changed our priorities, and some employees were likely to depart. It is probably productive that any senior employees are choosing to depart early in the process. We can take the next 90 days to figure out what new roles or expertise we may need to continue implementing this strategy.

Clear Thinkers

A clear thinker begins with the premise, “I do not know.” This allows for questioning the available evidence while acknowledging subjective experience to view causes and conditions in a credible framework.

Clear thinkers view situations as they are, free of embellishment one way or the other. They consider all they are present to. The “direct experience” from within oneself surfaces any bias, or impediments. This informs how one questions the “verifiable evidence,” which discloses the context and the situation. (See blog on Mental Hygiene to help cultivate this mindset.)

This direct experience allows thinkers to acknowledge the facts as they are, understand concepts, and place the conditions in a context that is relevant to the situation. It is neither negative nor positive and can be either constructive or supportive, or both. It can be direct or indirect, but it is vivid, concrete, specific in detail.

Most importantly, clear thinkers evolve. They let go of outmoded views and with a habit of questioning do not settle for static beliefs or faulty assumptions. They grow by becoming open to new thoughts, penetrating questions, and different views.

With humility, clear thinkers question what they think they know, and become present to new possibilities that cultivate wisdom.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.