What I Learned from Thinking about Thinking

Up until recently, I was always one to embrace pragmatic thinking about real-life issues. When it came to the humanities, I didn’t place much value on things like psychology or philosophy as I thought it was more important to focus on addressing all the large problems in the world. After learning about these principles, however, I was surprised to find that they could actually be applied to improve pragmatic thinking for greater success in solving major problems. With that in mind, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past while from my research in philosophy.

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Whether you’re trying to break into a new industry at work or understand a complex lesson in school, you often have to use others’ experiences to understand new concepts in life. You do not, however, get the chance to solve a problem on your own as often. Due to this imbalance, it can be hard to gain the right skills to balance how much you’re influenced by others versus how much you forge your own path. Some fundamental values to consider, however, are the patterns in thinking behind these experiences.

Consider, for instance, that you’re starting your own company in the competitive software industry. It is all too easy to compare your company to other ones and guide your decisions based on what everyone else in the industry does. This, however, leads to a cycle of closed-minded thinking, where you’re not innovating as much as you are reacting. Perhaps, you’re frustrated by your colleagues and employees’ low productivity and jealous of the management practices of the CEO of a more successful company. This is just one example of the way others influence you.

What I’ve learned numerous times from different philosophers is that it’s hard to set yourself up for success with these negative influences from others. To illustrate, take Naval Ravikant, the founder of AngelList, and his views on jealousy. Notably, he emphasises how jealousy is a dangerous motivation for any action, whether it be personal or in a company:

“If you’re not willing to do a wholesale, 24/7, 100% swap with [a person], then there is no point in being jealous.” — Naval Ravikant

For me, this was like a lightbulb going off, addressing all the times where I wished I could’ve been a little more like this person or that person. Looking back at each of those moments, I decided again and again that I would never want to completely swap lives with any of the people I was jealous of. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius, the last Emperor in the era of Roman peace, describes the value of focusing on your own morals instead of those of others:

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, your way of thinking.” — Marcus Aurelius

The common theme for both of these successful philosophers is that they identified how others influence them and decided that letting go of the negative influences led to more success. In our example, you might propose changes to the company’s training policies and meeting culture to increase the productivity of your employees and colleagues, instead of focusing more on the jealousy of another CEO’s management. Of course, this sounds simple on paper, but it’s much harder to identify and implement this in real life, as these thoughts can be hiding in the back of our minds. Yet mastering this skill of controlling others’ influences on you is essential to make your own decisions effectively, especially when it comes to solving large problems creatively.

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As you identify whether others are influencing you in a negative or positive way, you might be surprised to discover the sheer number of times you make decisions based on the influences of others. Of course, this makes sense as it is easier to do what everyone else is doing than to weigh the pros and cons of a decision on your own. Doing this, however, means that you’re often trying to slightly improve from the rest of the pack across endless iterations. Instead of game-changing discoveries, you’re just reacting to what your competition does and trying to get ahead by doing the same thing better. This is the approach where you mitigate risk and play it safe by mainly sticking to what everyone else is doing.

In contrast, to create the greatest success, you have to be ready to let go of the norm and take a radically different approach to what everyone else is doing. Naturally, this has a higher chance of failure than the ‘mitigating risk’ approach, but the rewards for success are also much higher. Essentially, this can be described as making changes that improve by 10x instead of 10%. As an example, consider Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator, and his experiences starting one of the earliest applications to build online stores. He had the option to play it safe and program his software in well-known languages at the time like C++. Instead, he chose to take a greater risk and pursue a less familiar programming language with greater potential for his application.

“You have to ignore what other people are doing, and consider only what will work the best.” — Paul Graham

Graham’s decision to take a different path than the rest of the industry was what allowed him to be successful; he had to be ready to embrace risk to maximise reward. For me, one of his most important ideas is to actually try to find situations where no one else is using your idea. The only time you should be afraid of being different is when someone else does the same, putting your competitive edge at risk. This type of thinking is one of the most valuable skills in creating real change on major issues, as it allows you to actually create ideas that are completely revolutionary.

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With these principles considered, it is important to keep in mind that humans are inherently flawed when it comes to making decisions, whether they be little ones like what colour to paint a room or bigger ones like how best to spend money on research. People talk about that gut instinct, background research, forecasting models, and so on to help them make decisions. At the core of it, however, few understand how their experiences shape how they make decisions. One of those people is celebrity psychiatrist, Phil Stutz:

“Fear gets smaller when you go right into it, and fear gets bigger if you try to avoid it.” — Phil Stutz

Read that simple quotation again. Think about all the ways you try to keep things from changing, to guarantee success, to avoid uncertainty. So many of our decisions revolve around that truth that most people tend to avoid fear. This leads to missed opportunities, like being late to occupy a market niche or never asking for raises at work.

To be successful at solving major issues, you need to be ready to address the inhibitions that hold you back. One tool that Stutz uses for this is called the Reversal of Fear. Basically, you describe what you would usually do when you’re scared and then force yourself to do the opposite of that. You have to:

  1. Identify the challenges you’re afraid of;
  2. Force yourself to accomplish those things;
  3. And create a habit to look for fear to address.

Much of the time, you discover the challenges you had weren’t as bad as you initially thought. Often, people impose artificial constraints on problems, making them seem like a bigger deal than they are.

Then, comes how you think about other people. People often establish trust subjectively, which is inaccurate at judging others for their true selves. As Vinod Khosla points out, society is quick to point out risky and unreasonable ideas when an entrepreneur fails at a large plan. When people succeed in making these outlandish goals a reality, however, they are labelled as geniuses with some hidden trait that makes them special. Yet, no one acknowledges the pure luck involved in others’ success.

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Did Elon Musk’s radical thinking help him create extremely valuable ideas in his companies? Many would agree. But was he also really lucky that one of SpaceX’s rockets finally worked after multiple failures? There aren’t as many who recognise that. This is the last major lesson I’ve learned; a person’s success or failure isn’t wholly based on the merit of their actions. The elements of luck and timing also have to be considered. In the end, however, maintaining the right mindset when approaching large problems gets you in the right environment for serendipity: being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the principles of philosophy and psychology improves your ability to address pragmatic issues.
  • It is important to learn from others, but also recognise how they influence you.
  • It is easier to follow everyone else, but you have to think for yourself to create real change.
  • Embrace risk; it means you’re doing something most others aren’t.
  • Luck plays a big, yet unnoticed, role in anyone’s success.

I talked a lot in this article about solving important problems. If you want to learn more about how best to approach problem-solving, check out my series on it.



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Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/