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Critical Thinking is Not Just for the Internet

“Don’t trust what you read on the internet.”

This is a fashionable piece of advice circulating the internet (of all places).

I agree. My only issue with this statement is that it’s too long.

Instead of  “Don’t trust what you read on the internet,” it should read “Don’t trust.”

That’s it! Two words: “Don’t trust!”

Actually, I can make it shorter. Here’s one word:


There are no trustworthy mediums.

All you have is your judgment.

Avoiding the internet, or whatever happens to be the latest object of selective skepticism, wont save you.

There’s no such thing as a person, product, or platform that wont break your heart and misguide you if you follow it with blind faith.

If you want something to trust, trust your own research, your own reflection, your own lived experience, and your own personally conducted experiments.

In his closing statement of a debate with William Dembski, Christopher Hitchens advised the following:

“Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.”

As I’ve written before,

If an idea is worth following, it’s worth fact-checking.

That’s true not only for the internet, but for every medium of communication that has ever existed.

Is this for ME?

Nothing is for everybody.

Besides our basic universal needs for food, clothing, shelter, and sleep (and I’m sure there’s someone out there who would even argue that one or more of these elements is negotiable), there is a least one exception to every rule.

Anytime someone tries to sell you something (be it a service, product, or an idea), here’s a good litmus test for discerning the integrity of their pitch:

Simply ask them, “is this for everyone?” and carefully gauge their response.

Do they squirm with discomfort as they answer your question? Do they get defensive? Do they give you a straight answer? Can they admit, for a single moment, that what they’re offering isn’t the end-all-be-all of humanity’s quest for meaning, happiness, and success?

The most trustworthy salesperson is the one who can name, with clarity, precision, and transparency, the exact kind of customer who should not invest in his product.

Think it through

If you need to invoke your academic pedigree or job title for people to believe what you say, then you need a better argument.” -Neil deGrasse Tyson

Be more interested in people’s thoughts than in their titles.

Pay closer attention to what they have to say than to where they studied.

Actively analyze their concepts instead of passively praising their credentials.

Check their premises regardless of their pedigree.

Weigh the arguments and be wary of all appeals to authority.

“Who’s who?” has nothing to do with “What’s true?”

So, no matter who says it, think it through.

I disagree with the second agreement and I hope you take it personally

get mad

I like to think in terms of alternatives, not absolutes.

That is, instead of adopting an either/or logic for problem-solving and goal-achievement, I prefer to think in accordance with both/and strategies.

For example, let’s consider the notion of taking things personally:

Self-help author, Don Miguel Ruiz, has done a magnificent job at popularizing and articulating what is often referred to as “The Second Agreement.”

Here’s a summary of the idea in Ruiz’s own words:

Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.

Now, I think that’s a very useful idea and I’ve found myself in some pretty lengthy discussions where I’ve defended it to people who absolutely detest this concept.

To each his own, I suppose. But as for me, my life has been a heck of a lot easier since I started practicing the second agreement.

As a critical thinker, however, I like to keep my options open.

Rather than treating ideas like “the second agreement” as dogmas to be believed in, I regard them as value-neutral conceptual tools whose usefulness varies with context.

Sometimes I like taking things personally. Even when I know I am not being personally attacked, I deliberately choose to act as if I am being conspired against. I occasionally use this idea as a psychological trick for motivating myself. As long as I can employ the “take it personally” technique in a way that’s healthy and isn’t obsessive, I derive great practical value from it.

Anyone who’s ever played competitive sports probably understands this concept very well.

Choosing to look at your competition as “the enemy” or “the bad guys” can be an invigorating experience.

One of my favorite “take it personally” stories comes from Michael Jordan.

Before a sold-out contest between the New York Knicks and their rivals, The Chicago Bulls, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy accused Michael Jordan of being a “con-man” who deliberately acts friendly towards opposing players in order to “soften them up” and gain a competitive edge over them.

Van Gundy’s harsh words were printed in a Chicago newspaper and Jordan saw them before the game. He took it personally and decided to play with a chip on his shoulder.

For the entire game, Jordan had a personal vendetta to show Van Gundy just how capable he was of having a great game without being nice to his opponents. He did exactly what he set out to do by scorching the Knicks for a red-hot 51 points. At one point in the game, after hitting an important basket, Jordan looked at Van Gundy at yelled at him.

One of Jordan’s teammates reported that Michael loved to use criticism and hatred as a way of motivating himself. A sports commentator, who knew of this habit, predicted that Jordan would score 50 points simply because he would be “fired up” by Van Gundy’s words. He was right.

Jordan “took it personally” and it brought the best out of him.

Interestingly enough, here’s what Jordan said after the game:

Guess I didn’t make any friends out there tonight (Jordan smiles). I think those words were more geared to motivating his players. But I don’t think, on the court, they have befriended me. I don’t go on the court expecting to make friends. But when I leave the court, I don’t take what happened on the court away from me. We’re only playing a game. I don’t view it as a war away from the game. 

In this video clip, Jordan talks about how he used that moment as motivation while not letting it get to him in an unhealthy way.

Jordan “disagreed” with the second agreement and it worked. This illustrates one of my favorite metaphors for life: Life as a game.

As in all games, achieving one’s goals requires the use of effective strategies. A good strategist is one who remains flexible; he uses what works without ever feeling the need to assign the status of “Gospel Truth” to any of the strategies in his playbook.

If taking it personally works, a good strategist takes it personally.

If taking it personally leads to unhealthy stress and a self-destructive preoccupation with what others think, then a good strategist stops taking it personally.

This attitude of philosophical flexibility can be extended to all ideas and belief-systems.

Ideas are just tools. Sometimes they’re useful. Sometimes they’re not.

Which ideas you use, when you use them, and how you react to the results is your job to sort out.

As you’re sorting through the ever-enlarging buffet of ideas being offered in the marketplace, be sure to remember the admonition of Terence McKenna: “nobody’s smarter than you.”

You know more about what’s best for you than anyone else.

So, don’t take anybody’s ideas dogmatically (especially not mine).

Think critically about everything.

Then, take what works for you and leave the rest.

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