Thoughts on Independent Thinking

Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, writes on raising a creative child in a recent Times opinion piece.

So how is this relevant to those of us who aren’t raising kids, or those of us who don’t especially care about creativity?

What! You don’t care about creativity? Shouldn’t we all care about fostering and nurturing original ideas and the blossoming of our imagination?

Don’t we need creativity not only in the arts, but in the sciences, in business, in education, and even in government? Isn’t creativity an important element of independent spirit and thought? Don’t we in the US pride ourselves on independent thinking?

Independent Thinking vs. Critical Thinking

A few definitions may be useful. Independent thinking, as frequently described in parenting references, with regard to encouraging our children, offers this:

… the process of making sense of the world based on your own observations and experiences… the ability to trust your own judgments, even if they are not in agreement with what others might say or believe… acting in accordance with your beliefs…

There’s more, including using judgment to correct mistakes.

So, is creativity essential to independent thinking?

Not necessarily, though if we’re thinking about our very young kids, they’re likely to be creative in their explorations (and their exercise of independent thinking)… until or unless we squelch those out-of-the-box inclinations.

I know, I know… We have to provide at least some basic “societal” rules to which our kiddos (and our adults) are expected to conform. More on the topic of conformity and convention in a minute.

To be clear, critical thinking is not to be confused with independent thinking, which I look at as the ability to go both broad and deep when it comes to pursuing consideration of a subject, or as The Critical Thinking Community explains it:

… conceptualizing, analyzing… synthesizing… Critical thinking [is]… the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself.

Hello, Politicos…

Why am I mulling over creativity?

I’m a fan. I’m always happy to fly the flag of creativity in adults as well as children.

Why am I stewing over independent thinking?

I worry that we’re all becoming sheep; we’re too tired, too cow-towed, or too lazy to develop and stand by our own judgment.

Today’s politicos? Are any of them independent thinkers? True mavericks? Creative problem-solvers?

More likely, they’re individuals who capitalize on charisma, communication, psychological manipulation, and a sizable machine that charts their next moves. Wait! That’s not necessarily true… What about the Donald? Should we call him a maverick after all, or just Mr. Drumpf?

As I consider today’s political environment, as I consider our millennials striving to make their place in the world, and as I bemoan the banners beneath which we do so love to chant our collective agreement — “I’m-a-This, I’m-a-That” — why are Americans still so unwilling to accept life’s shades of gray?

And what about leadership — learning it, practicing it, recognizing it, honing it? Does leadership require creativity? What about independent thinking? Are the best leaders independent thinkers? Or are they those who are skillful “people” people, able to turn on the charm for the cameras, comfy cozying up to the naysayers, bullish on brokering compromise deals? What about inspiration? What about motivation? What about following one’s set of beliefs whether popular or not? (Right. Independent thinking. Here we are again.)

Now about the concept of political leadership… Yikes! An oxymoron?

From Childhood Creativity to… What?

Returning to The New York Times column, Professor Grant references studies on “world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists,” and highlights what may seem a startling statistic:

Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world… only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators…

Now, Professor Grant is addressing issues of originality, not excellence.

In the same opinion piece he also writes:

They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own… In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations.

Note the nuance in the notion of inventing new rules, rather than simply breaking the old ones.

The professor’s point? They aren’t creating anything significantly new.

Still, we need excellence, expertise, leadership in the field (whatever that field may be). But don’t we need what’s new? Aren’t we inspired by originality? Especially by well directed originality? The fearlessness of speaking one’s mind and following one’s own conscience? Isn’t this what we’re enjoying about Bernie Sanders?

Then again, I suppose one might say the same of Mr. Trump, though I have my share of other parts of speech I would reserve to describe his political positioning.

Kids, Creativity, Independent Thinking

So what about encouraging our kids to trust their judgment and make good decisions? (What about encouraging our adults to do the same?) Of course, good decisions require a mind willing to do its job, which involves a willingness to gather factual information. It also means having the confidence to challenge the status quo, and allow curiosity to explore uncharted territories. A little critical thinking alongside that independent thinking wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Professor Grant’s article is, however, focused on children. He reminds us that parents of gifted children tend to support their kids when they show interest or skill in a particular area. They recognize a natural motivation, curiosity or passion, and they don’t try to force them into a specific mold.

Professor Grant writes:

The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

My, my. It seems my own semi-Bohemian ways with my children may not have been off-base after all… We were a household with few rules, the exceptions being honesty and the pursuit of learning.

As a parent, I say as much recognizing that I had two smart kids. I followed their lead. This worked for us; it may not work for everyone.

Towing the Line

My sons are still very young men; as they propel themselves toward their own individual interests — one toward the visual arts and the other into the sciences — even if I explicitly chose not to urge them to conform, won’t society do so to a large degree? Isn’t the question whether or not they are strong enough, gifted enough, determined enough, supported enough, and lucky enough to survive as creatives or independent thinkers?

And if they’re carrying four or five years of student loan debt, how can they — or anyone — pursue a creative career? (That may be “just fine” if indeed they are strong enough, gifted enough, determined enough, supported enough, and lucky enough…)

Professor Grant also points out where expertise poses problems. For example:

… Can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study? Research reveals that the more we practice the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking…

Hell. Isn’t that exactly the kind of thinking that does damage to those of us with years of experience? Shouldn’t we offset any study that reflects a similar phenomenon with additional data that shows projects and activities we of the “older” (50+) set accomplish — faster and more efficiently?

Must we really try to fit in? Can’t we honor and encourage creative, independent, and critical thinking wherever they occur, and at every age? Wouldn’t it be wise to do the same for our distinctive talents and temperaments?