What is Good Thinking?

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“Bennie, do you have a brain?” asked Mrs. Carson, interrupting young Ben’s attempt to shirk responsibility for a fight he’d gotten into at school.

“Yes, ma’am.” Bennie replied softly.

“Then you need to think, Bennie!”

Everyone can benefit from heeding Mrs. Carson’s advice to practice good thinking. This article series describes good thinking, points out some reasons why it’s important, and offers some suggestions on how to develop and promote the practice of good thinking in the context of the church.

Good thinking is the action of producing well-founded, clear, logical, relevant, and convincing thoughts. Christians should aspire to be the best thinkers because we know that God has created us in his rational image and that we glorify him by using our minds well. But what does good thinking entail?

Considering Diverse Perspectives

First, good thinking considers diverse perspectives, understanding that biases and blind spots exist. The brain attributes meaning to sensory data by applying mental models which are formed by one’s learning and experiences. Because everyone’s past is unique, everyone’s mental models are different. Thus the generation of diverse perspectives given common data.

The story is told of three blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time ever. One touches the elephant’s tail and determines that an elephant is like a rope. The second man finds the elephant’s trunk and decides that an elephant is like a thick, strong snake. The third man discovers one of the elephant’s legs and concludes that an elephant is like a strong pillar. Each man encountered the same thing, an elephant. Each man developed a unique and different perspective than his comrades because, unbeknownst to them, they had each encountered a different part of the elephant. None of their perspectives were wrong. Neither was any of them wholly correct. Each perspective was limited to the portion of the elephant encountered. Combining their perspectives into a single understanding of an elephant provides a broader yet still incomplete perspective of an elephant.

Entertaining alternative perspectives may prove challenging. Most people are wired with the desire to be correct. If there are two competing ideas, surely mine is the right one. From childhood, we are taught to expect that there is one correct answer in every situation. The sum of two plus two is four, not five. This shape is a square, not a circle. It is red, not orange. But while there are some questions for which there is only one correct answer, many issues present the possibility of numerous correct yet sometimes paradoxical answers. This can be a difficult reality to wrestle with and accept, but it is necessary for good thinking.

Imagine the conversation between the three blind men as they shared their elephant discovery with each other. “A rope? I’ve never encountered a rope that heavy,” proclaimed the man who encountered the trunk. Deeply perplexed, the man who encountered the elephant’s leg suggested, “Surely we aren’t all talking about the same thing. My elephant has no resemblance to the elephant you describe.” The tension may have been resolved if the men had stopped to consider diverse perspectives.

Understanding Biases and Blind Spots

One reason we must consider diverse perspectives is because biases and blind spots exist. Bias is a prejudice, a preconceived opinion, that significantly affects perspective. No one is completely unbiased, and this is not wrong if our worldview is well founded. But sometimes, biases can entail blind spots.

A blind spot is an area where one’s view is obstructed. An eye may have a blind spot because light-detecting cells are missing on the optic disk. Drivers have blind spots in their mirrors because the mirrors are limited in size and orientation. One’s perspectives may include blind spots because one has no experience or information to illuminate a particular issue.

In the past, I occasionally had the opportunity to travel by helicopter. The pilot flew just high enough to safely clear the mountaintops providing a clear view of the landscape below that revealed the connectedness of familiar points on the ground. It greatly enhanced the perspective I gained from the seat of my pickup truck. Was my pickup-seat-perspective incorrect? No, but it was limited by a blind spot, my lack of an aerial view.

Everyone has pickup-seat perspectives that could be broadened by helicopter-seat opportunities. It is vital that we recognize the possibility of such limitations in our own perspectives as well as the perspectives of others.

Considering the perspectives of others is valuable because doing so begins to address the limitations of one’s own biases and blind spots and leads to a more mature understanding.

I once served as a church board member during a church’s transition away from its truly legalistic past. Most of my fellow board members had grown up in legalistic homes and churches. I think I was alone in my experience of a balanced approach to Christianity. Numerous board meetings included intense discussions that unfortunately resulted in no progress. Our pasts generated conflicting perspectives to say the least. Reflecting on some of those experiences, I later realized, much to my chagrin, that my failure to consider their perspectives led to unnecessary impasses. Their vantage point wasn’t just different; in some cases, it was the polar opposite of mine. Had I accepted their perspectives and understood their biases and blind spots, I could have approached the discussions in a constructive way that allowed for progress.

Considering the perspectives of others is valuable because doing so begins to address the limitations of one’s own biases and blind spots and leads to a more mature understanding. It is a mark of humility and love for our neighbors.

Utilizing All Sources of Relevant Information

Second, good thinking utilizes all sources of relevant information. Sometimes, you may already know relevant data or where to find it. Probe your mind by asking, “What do I know about this?” and “Where might I find additional information?”

The human brain has an almost inexhaustible capacity. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Dr. Ben Carson (“Bennie”). He once said in an interview, “I’ll tell you as a neuroscientist, you cannot overload your brain. It is absolutely impossible. Your brain can easily contain all the information from all the volumes ever written since the beginning of the world and have plenty of room left over.” Yet how often do we find ourselves with our eyes closed, forehead pressed into the palms of our hands, breathing deeply, and silently lamenting, “I knew that! How did I forget?” Typically the problem is that we got in a hurry and failed to take time to think and pursue the relevant knowledge tucked away in our amazing brain.

Good thinking reflects on experience and learns from it. As one author says, “Experience is not the best teacher; evaluated experience is the best teacher. Reflective thinking is needed to turn experience into insight.”

Your life is a journey with a wealth of learning opportunities. Learning from it requires intentionality. Take time to contemplate your experiences, challenge yourself with probing questions, respond to those questions with raw honesty, and then chart a different course forward based on the new insight. Will you take advantage of the opportunities your life’s experiences offer you to learn? Or, will your life be a repeating cycle of the same mistakes because you never took the time to evaluate what you learned from the mistake and apply the learning in the future?

Good thinking seeks the counsel and wisdom of others. One doesn’t need to know everything as long as one knows someone who does and who is willing to share what he knows.

During my mid to late 30’s, I developed friendships with Dick and Chuck that endure to this day. As a young man, Dick was a U.S. Marine who saw combat in Vietnam and later deployed to Latin America as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. Dick spent his private life in economic development and local government. When I got to know Dick, he was the local township manager. Chuck’s father was an oil man who worked all over the U.S. He spent time in the U.S. Navy. He had a graduate degree in animal genetics and was an executive for Atlantic Breeders, a cattle breeding business. Chuck negotiated the sale of his company and subsequently was shown the door. When I learned to know Chuck, he was working at Penn State’s local Cooperative Extension office and he was assigned to be the point person for natural gas, which was a hot topic in the area given the discovery of the marcellus shale gas. Both Dick and Chuck were a wealth of knowledge and experience, and they readily and happily shared what they knew.

Meeting Dick and Chuck through a local business function, we quickly became friends. Soon, we were eating breakfast together at Perkins every two weeks. It was a delightful experience. The conversation was engaging. I could pose a question and then sit back, listen, and learn as both of them readily shared their knowledge and experiences with me. The cost of breakfast, when I paid, was inexpensive tuition to a tremendous learning opportunity.

Whether we are pastors, students, or Christian businessmen, we can all seek out relationships like these to help us to grow in our thinking. There is no replacement for personal interaction with good thinkers who have different experiences.

Good thinking welcomes new information. Perpetual learning is required. The knowledge base of a good thinker is always expanding.

Good thinking welcomes new information. Perpetual learning is required. The knowledge base of a good thinker is always expanding.

The church can learn something from the world’s investment in research. The National Institute of Health reports that it spends $41.7 billion annually on medical research. That’s one organization, the NIH, in one country, the US, focused on one segment, medicine. What are they investing in? New knowledge that will benefit the health of the American people. Try to fathom the volume of new knowledge generated each year across all organizations working in all segments of society in every country of the world.

The next time you encounter a difficult problem or question, look for what has been learned across the centuries as well as what has been newly learned. Utilize all sources of relevant information.

Exploring A Range of Options

Third, good thinking explores possibilities by developing a range of options that spans the entire solution continuum. When thinking through a problem, identify options that comprise the radical ends and generate several intermediate options while never overlooking the option to “do nothing.” This may surface insights otherwise overlooked.

Consider this simple process:

  1. Sit down with a pen and paper and begin to write. For some reason, pen and paper seem to get my thoughts flowing. And sometimes, using a fat Sharpee and unlined paper seems to help even more. A quiet place where I can work uninterrupted is best. Use whatever writing technique, tools, and environment works the best for you.
  2. Describe the problem in detail. A clear picture of the problem is critical to addressing the real problem instead of a symptom.
  3. Generate a list of potential responses or solutions. No critiquing is allowed here. Be creative. Let your “possibility thinking” take charge. Jot down ideas as quickly as you can. Be sure to have some radical solutions and some intermediate ones ideas. And again, never forget that doing nothing is always a possibility. Sometimes, inaction may be the best action.
  4. Flesh out each option. Describe it clearly. Who will need to do what and within what timeframe? What resources will be required? What are the possible impacts of implementation? Spend some time contemplating potential second and third order results. They can be harder to envision, but they can be devastating if one gets it wrong. You don’t want to implement a solution that has an undesirable consequence. What is good or beneficial (the pros)? What is negative (the cons)?
  5. Consider the options developed and move towards the selection of one. One of the options may have percolated to the top as you worked through the process. You may choose to rank options based on a list of factors. Or, you might consider sharing your thought process with a colleague who you trust to maintain confidence and to give you candid feedback.

Be Rational and Systematic

Fourth, good thinking is rational and systematic. Avoid illogical leaps of faith and irrational conclusions. Good thinking simply makes sense. It’s methodical. It’s not characterized by smoke-in-mirrors and hand waving. Once you’ve thought through an issue, you can walk another person through it step by step. If we don’t spend time thinking reflectively—thinking about our thinking—logical discontinuities will exist in our thinking, and we’ll never know it.

Good thinking stops to ask challenging questions:

  1. What are the facts? How do they guide my thoughts on the matter?
  2. What am I failing to consider? What important information am I missing? What blind spot is about to affect me?
  3. What mistake am I about to make? What am I contributing to the problem?
  4. Who might be able to help me? 
  5. Have I identified the real problem or am I only addressing a symptom? Can I clearly articulate the real problem?

Be Humble

Finally, good thinking is humble. It willingly acknowledges “I don’t know,” readily admits “I was wrong,” quickly accepts responsibility, habitually seeks assistance, and changes course when warranted.

Good thinking is humble. It willingly acknowledges “I don’t know” and readily admits “I was wrong.”

Unfortunately, “not knowing” is often seen as a weakness or problem. If you didn’t know the answer in school, you lost points. But what if we looked at “not knowing” as a prime opportunity to learn, to close a knowledge gap? What if we eliminated the stigma of “not knowing?” Imagine the personal and organizational growth that could happen. The quicker one acknowledges “I don’t know,” the sooner one can begin seeking the input of one who does.

Admitting “I was wrong” too often trips over ego. I’m always supposed to be correct, aren’t I? What will those with whom I shared my ideas think of me when I reveal to them my conclusion that I was wrong and that I’ve now adopted a different perspective? Will they ever trust me again? Will they ever consider my thoughts legitimate? Will I be scarred for life? But what is gained by staunchly adhering to something that you are clearly wrong about? Being occasionally wrong doesn’t make you a bad person even though it may make you feel bad. Letting go of the wrong and embracing the right is the intellectually honest thing to do.

Accepting responsibility when it was your responsibility is simply the right thing to do. That’s easy to do when things have gone well, when success has been achieved. But when something has gone awry, when someone might deem it failure, when it’s going to cost us money, when our image might be tainted; owning it requires character. Choosing not to own it, good or bad, bases all subsequent thinking on a faulty premise. And like a structure with a faulty foundation, thinking based on a bad premise eventually fails. Just own it.

Habitually asking for help is perceived by some as a matter of inadequacy. I am asking for help because I don’t know the answer. I don’t have the skills to do it. It exceeds my capacity. These point boldy to my insufficiency to handle that matter. But what if we consider it as knowing what I don’t know and bringing experts to the table who do? What if we frame it as recognizing what I do well, focusing my time and effort on doing those things, and finding others who do well at the things I cannot do? And what if we think about it as accepting my limitations and realizing that I cannot be all things to all people?

Reframing these perceived deficiencies as opportunities to learn and grow, to make progress, to broaden one’s understanding, as part of the human experience will improve one’s thinking.

Coming soon: Of What Value is Good Thinking?

Todd Arnold
Todd Arnold earned a PhD in civil engineering from Penn State University and works as General Manager of Pine Test Equipment, Inc. in Grove City, PA. He lives in northwest PA with his wife, Abby, and their children, Erin and Drew.