In Defense of Thinking For Yourself

by Stephen Mills on August 16, 2009


“We can tap into 50 million web sites, 1.8 million books in print, 75 million blogs, and other snowstorms of information, but we increasingly seek knowledge in Google searches and Yahoo! headlines that we gulp on the run while juggling other tasks.”  — Maggie Jackson

I love the Internet and the unbelievable explosion in information that is now available to anyone with a computer.  I love the fact that I can get immediate access to information that is not filtered through some self-appointed intellectual arbiter of what is allowed to disseminate through the public awareness.

But this same explosion of information puts an incredible responsibility on us as individual thinkers.  At the same time we are drinking from the fire hose of information, we must take the time to reflect and think critically about what we are absorbing.  We cannot assume that the garbage has already been rooted out by someone else.  We can assume it has not.

We seemingly no longer have time to dive deeply into issues.  We are distracted by so many different attention grabbers that we “gulp headlines” as Maggie Jackson describes it.  The total volume of information has exploded and while some may disagree, I believe the diversity and quality of information has exploded as well.  The ratio of quality to garbage may indeed be lower and there may be more dirt you have to shovel to get to them, but those diamonds are there for the mining.  The increased availability of those diamonds has allowed me to make huge improvements in my own life in many different areas.  I would never go back.

Unfortunately the critical thinking skills so important to navigating through this mass of information seems to be decreasing in inverse proportion to the availability of information itself.  Instead of teaching critical thinking skills, our schools deaden the minds of our children with reams of monotonous facts that they will never use in the real world.  Because almost anything but the most bland ideas will undoubtedly offend someone, almost nothing of depth is discussed.  Because they cater to the lowest common denominator of “no child left behind”, they guarantee no child will get ahead.

Most places I land on the internet are dedicated to a hardened position and most people who participate there already agree and are simply looking for confirmation and support.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but rigorous intellectual challenges to those positions are unlikely to be found on such a site.  Lacking those challenges, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the mountain of information to be found there must have some validity. You will likely then be swept into the raging rapids swollen with the bodies of the true believers.  If you are looking for confirmation, you will have no difficulty in finding it.  We need to fight the tendency to embrace dogma of any variety.

Vigorous intellectual debate is disappearing in a sea of ever shortening sound-bites offered up by increasingly polarized participants.  Fox News is indeed an alternative to the obvious left-leaning bias of the major networks, but it is no less biased in its own coverage.  It’s just an alternative bias in a different direction.  The attention span of the public is so short that an articulated position is almost never heard.  Sexy and controversial sound-bites are offered up so the chanting fans of one position or another can hoot and holler their agreement or disagreement.

My own politics defies labels, but it is most accurately described as libertarian.  As such I have little use for any of what floods the airwaves nowadays.  I value liberty of thought and action in politics, personal actions, and economic activity over egalitarian results and social safety.  A rigorous and articulate defender of liberty as an ideal is not often found anywhere.  But I digress.

Very little in our modern world is simple and to articulate a position in a sound-bite is impossible.  I watched Meet the Press on NBC today because I was writing this article and I wanted some real-time exposure (I can’t stand to watch mass media news anymore).  I knew the subject would be health care because that is THE subject right now.  The participants were all polarized opposites in maintaining their positions and I doubt any one of them had more than 2 minutes to speak at any one time.  To articulate a well thought out position in 15 minute segments on a subject as complicated as this would be difficult.  Nobody had a chance on this show.

You are reading a blog article right now.  To articulate a well thought out position of anything controversial or complicated with all the inherent nuances is almost impossible in this format.  The attention span of readers does not yield itself to 25,000 word articles.  Commentators on blogs are commenting on so many different blogs and are so busy commenting and writing their own articles that nobody has or takes much time to articulate a reasoned dissent on anything that is written.  That is why so many comments say “Great article!  Thanks.”  I plead guilty to this myself.  I only have so much time.

So much of what passes for discussion anymore is simply a repeating of platitudes and that is true in my own chosen niche of personal development.  This is tendency that we all, including myself, must constantly fight.  Somehow we need to get to a more focused and vigorous discussion of classically great and new and original ideas.

Political correct standards of what is allowed to be discussed has turned our universities, businesses, and major media into promoters of pre-defined virtuous thought and behavior.  You are free to express your opinion as long as it doesn’t conflict with the officially received dogma.  If you dare to innocently offer a sincere and reasoned position that is not approved, you will immediately be flogged into submission.  These public floggings guarantee that no further discussion of said off-limit ideas will occur in the future.  Just ask Larry Summers president of Harvard University.  Were it not so sad, it would be almost comical that the most vigorous proponents of “diversity” seem to be the most strident in their calls for enforcement of politically correct thought.

Am I pining for “the good old-days”?  Not really.  All of this information and technology is a good thing, but somehow we need to make time for the attention and focus required to dig deeper into it.  I know this article rambled but I hope it prompted you to think about the responsibility we all have to think for ourselves.  Let’s not get so busy that we just mouth the same old tired platitudes as a quick way out.  It’s tempting and it’s very easy to do.  Let’s take time to to think deeply and reflect wisely.  Let’s keep an open mind and allow others the respect of offering up a reasoned dissent without shouting them down whether in town hall meetings held by Democrats, when a conservative speaks at an American university, or on our own web sites.  Let’s not prohibit certain lines of thought because they may lead to difficult conversations or violate some pre-defined proscription on what conclusions are allowed.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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August 17, 2009 at 9:37 am

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Jay Schryer August 16, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Like you, I can’t stomach watching the news. I don’t even watch the local news, because, well, quite frankly, it’s all garbage. I used to work in the mass media, so I know first-hand what a money-hungry, callous environment it usually is.

On to the deeper meaning of your post, that people don’t take the time to really study issues and think critically for themselves, I whole-heartedly agree. I’ve often been guilty of this myself. As you said, there’s only so much time. However, I think we owe it to ourselves to really think, and to really examine an issue from as many different perspectives as possible. I need to do more of this myself, and I’m sure most other people do, too. So thank you for this reminder. It’s a wake-up call that we all need.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..The Big Easy =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 7:49 am

Hi Jay, I look at it like doing your most important tasks. Thinking and reading a thousand things at a superficial level will never be as valuable as going deep on a much smaller number of them.


Karl Staib - Work Happy Now August 16, 2009 at 9:30 pm

When I was young it felt easy to be distracted by my thoughts and just let them run. I lived in the woods and mass media wasn’t as intense. We didn’t have the internet and cable TV. I had to entertain myself.

I do miss those good old days too, Stephen. But like you said we just have to make time for what is most needed. That means sitting outside, watching the trees blow in the wind while drinking a glass of ice tea. Then let’s do it. Let’s make time for those thoughts and create the space we need.
.-= Karl Staib – Work Happy Now´s last blog ..27 Reasons You Are Lucky to Have a Job =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 7:51 am

Karl I love it! Sit outside watching the trees and drinking a glass of iced tea. I took today off and I might just do it, but I think I’ll drink a cup of hot tea instead (even though it is hot and humid in Houston).


Daphne @ Joyful Days August 16, 2009 at 10:43 pm


I disagree vehemently with what you’re saying here! 🙂 Okay okay, actually I fully support your point of view… just trying to get into the spirit of the post.

Usually I don’t read long posts, but this time I followed every word. That means you wrote this very well – it held my attention throughout.

I’m equally guilty of the “great post” type of short comment. Having said that, it’s because many bloggers, myself included, don’t post controversial topics as you pointed out. A lot of food for thought here, thanks.
.-= Daphne @ Joyful Days´s last blog ..Can We Grow into Selflessness? =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 7:56 am

Hello Daphne! I’ve thought about starting a controversial blog. I might just do it!


BunnygotBlog August 16, 2009 at 10:46 pm

I haven’t watched TV in years, We tune in to the World cup and that is it. I comment on blogs I like. I don’t care if anyone other that the author reads my comments. If someone thinks people are commenting for recondition maybe that person feels insecure.
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Eleanor Roosevelt: Speaking Volumes, Part 2 =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 7:57 am

Hello Bunny! I’m glad you’ve turned off the TV. I mostly don’t comment on blogs that I don’t agree with either, but sometimes I disagree and just don’t have or take the time to make a thoughtful and deeper comment.


Derrick August 17, 2009 at 1:09 am

Slow down,cherish opinions,respond to your intuitions. Think about what you are achieving as opposed to what you really want to achieve. The mind is a great tool but it needs help being pointed in the right direction and to stay on track. As one of your other readers commented(Karl), If the mind does not create space for the “being” in life, the “human” aspect takes over and is never ending. Thanks.



Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 7:58 am

Thanks Derrik, that was a very thoughtful comment. 🙂


Diggy - August 17, 2009 at 5:41 am

“Great article”


Haha, just joking. It does take time to filter out all the weeds from the blogs I have subscribed to and it leave me with a handful of good ones, which is what I like.

I don’t always read every single post because I don’t always have the time, but in general the blogs that I choose to read I enjoy reading!

I reamember an article in an equivalent of a “popular Mechanics” that was titled ‘Is Google making us stupid?’. The effects of having all this information at our fingertips causes us to be lazy, read less books, libraries are practically outdated and when we do do research,much of it comes from the first couple of results from google and it’s just a copy/paste job.

It’s very important to keep thinking for ourselves:)
Au revoir!
.-= Diggy –´s last blog ..Stop Wishing, Start Doing! =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 8:01 am

Thanks for stopping in Diggy! I think I’m going to start reading fewer sites and thinking deeper on what I do read instead of just skimming so much. I’ve been observing so much superficiality and shallowness both in others and myself. I think Google has given us a great tool, but we use it in a way to indeed make us stupid.


Flash August 17, 2009 at 5:53 am

Our brain and cognitive powers are gifts. Let’s not waste them.
.-= Flash´s last blog ..10 free pattern stumbles =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 8:02 am

Flash, indeed! 🙂


Vin - NaturalBias August 17, 2009 at 7:43 am

I was going to say “great article, thanks”, but it looks like Diggy beat me to it. 🙂

Critical thinking is undoubtedly important, and as I think you’re suggesting, the “fire hose” of information tends to make us lazy and do less of it. In addition, most people are so busy now that they rarely have the time to quiet their mind and get into deep thought. I agree that there’s a lot of repetitive and dogmatic junk out there, but plenty of “diamonds” for those of us who are willing to dig for them.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..5 Ways Competition Can Improve Your Life =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 8:04 am

Vin, that busy thing again. Dammit, it just seems to always be there making things difficult. Keep digging 🙂


Kaizan August 17, 2009 at 8:00 am

This was an interesting post Stephen, mainly because you are one of the very few people who will write a comment on my blog disagreeing with something I write, for example the “Complaining” post I wrote last week.

Although I think it’s still good that people write “great post” and “great Article” (who doesn’t like to be appreciated?) , I agree that some clash of views is healthy and often more interesting to read. I’m sure as self-development blogs mature, this will become more commonplace.

So, you’re kind of a pioneer!
.-= Kaizan´s last blog ..The Simplest Most Effective Time Management System Ever =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 8:07 am

Kaizan, I love it when people write “great article” and I think it is most often sincere. I also think that we often just don’t spend enough time thinking about what we read because we are trying to absorb so much. I plead totally guilty.


Tim Brownson August 17, 2009 at 8:23 am

This post suffers badly from not having any bullet points, how the hell am I supposed to scan it in 20 seconds?

My posts have got longer and longer over recent weeks and I know as such get read less. My latest post on the LoA is over 3,500 words and I know few people will read it all. In fact I have already come under attack elsewhere by somebody that obviously hadn’t read it!

It’s conformation bias and we all suffer from it somewhat. The only real answer is to consciously take a step back and reassess our positions and that is scary to a lot people.

@ Kaizan i I seem to remember Stephen having the audacity to do that on my blog too. Of course I banned him, after all I only post stuff that’s right.
.-= Tim Brownson´s last blog ..The Law of Attraction Is A Con =-.


Valerie M August 17, 2009 at 9:29 am

Can’t scan it in 20 seconds, eh? I’m loving the irony here, Tim! 🙂
For the record, long posts might be a good thing. You can easily tell who hasn’t read it, as you’ve said. Additionally, you can grow a self-selected community of people who like to read long posts and discuss (as opposed to people who are looking for fast and easy tidbits).
.-= Valerie M´s last blog ..Just do it: Put your sneakers on and walk backwards =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Hey Tim, thanks for stopping in. I read your 3,500 word monster article and loved it. It was right on target.


Valerie M August 17, 2009 at 9:24 am

I thought this was amazing. You’re very right, a lot of people who read blogs and information on the internet are frequently self-selected. They read things they will naturally agree with. And if they disagree with it, they stubbornly stick to their own opinions or even troll the comments, even with information that is rationally presented.

I don’t think this is a new attitude though. As you demonstrated, many news stations have self-selected viewers. Many people in communities have self-selected themselves to live their because of traits they like and neighbors they agree with. People self-select themselves into religions and institutions they agree with. It’s been like this since the beginning of recorded human history. What I do agree with is that the advent of the internet is exposing this process even more than it ever has been exposed before. Which gives the impression that people are getting lazier in their thinking when they’ve been that way forever.

I do agree that with this new exposure, we can’t be ignorant about it any longer. Critical thinking skills are important and we now how more resources to develop it than ever before. I think learning about things and trying to understand things we normally wouldn’t agree with is a good way to start.

Great post, Stephen!
.-= Valerie M´s last blog ..Just do it: Put your sneakers on and walk backwards =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Valerie, we all self-select – I agree with that. In that past it was harder to do, but with the Internet even positions as radical as mine can find a community of like minds 🙂

In the past, like my youth, you pretty much had to interact with a lot of people who disagreed with much of what you thought. Nowadays you can spend your whole life on the Internet finding confirmation. Intentionally exposing yourself to positions you disagree with is a very healthy approach.


Mike King August 17, 2009 at 9:32 am

Stephen you continue to write articles that I can easily read through as I definitely appreciate an article that is a bit more than the surface top ten type of thing. I have always strived to build blog content myself that makes a reader (yes, you actually have to read it all) think more than scan.

I shifted to reading a lot of blogs for some time and when I did this, I found myself reading less books that went deeper on the subject. Well, long story short, I didn’t like that and went back to books and a lot less blog reading. I enjoy the deeper exploration into subjects much more and its the thinking that goes into reading that is actually meaningful. How can we do that in a short 500 word article? Well, we can’t much really.

Anyway, its a great topic to spark and I’ve amazed and happy to read so many others (like me) have ditched public media and television in order to focus more on things that have value.
.-= Mike King´s last blog ..100 Ways to Simplify Your Life and Mind =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Mike, thanks for your thoughts! I too have gone back to a lot more books. Books take time but then that is time to explore deeply. For me at least there is great personal satisfaction in that.


Valerie M August 17, 2009 at 9:32 am

*have more resources to develop it than ever before. Darn it, typing too fast again. Sorry, Stephen.
.-= Valerie M´s last blog ..Just do it: Put your sneakers on and walk backwards =-.


John August 17, 2009 at 11:51 am

I actually read about how the internet is changing in a recent issue of Wired. It talked about how soon people will depend on their social networks for the latest news on hubs such as StumbleUpon, Twitter, and Facebook as opposed to Google. I’m glad to see your take on this; personal responsibility for the things we say (especially for us as bloggers) is indeed increasing and we have to take the time to realize this transition from just repeating word of mouth towards actually thinking before we express ourselves.
.-= John´s last blog ..Do You Recognize the Problem With Instant Gratification? =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 1:02 pm

John, thanks for stopping by to join the conversation. I like the title of your article in comment luv and I’m going to check it out. It seems very appropriate to the topic at hand.


Deb Owen August 17, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Well apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought, “Great post, Thanks!”

Although I struggle at times.
There are writers (Tim Brownson included….ahem!) who I greatly enjoy reading. However, it’s the length of posts. I’m guilty of it myself and get so much feedback about them needed to be shorter. I guess that’s the deal with blogs though. Longer writing might be better served elsewhere. (And often, between reading everything I need to read and writing for all the things I’m writing for, it does come down to a matter of time.)

While I agree with you, I don’t see how this will change culturally. As a society, we’d rather have the sound bite (and your argument about health care is a prime example that keeps baffling me as I cannot begin to comprehend how people believe that through a soundbite, they must *know* everything that is in a bill that doesn’t yet exist. Hmmmm)……people want instant gratification and they want it now.

But since I’m guilty of it due to time pressures myself, I am hardly one to point the finger elsewhere.

However, recently, I did at least clean out my RSS feed to those I actually read and found useful (as opposed to all the ones you’re ‘supposed to read because everyone else does’ and so on)…..that’s helped a bit.

Of course, this comment hasn’t really helped though, has it?
All the best!
.-= Deb Owen´s last blog ..monday morning links, inspiring stuff, and something to think about =-.


Stephen Mills August 17, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Deb, the time pressure is a big issue. So maybe we need to read fewer and read deeper. I don’t think it will change culturally either. But whatever happens in the culture, we as individuals can maintain our own responsibility to critical thinking. The upside is that critical thinkers will be more rare and more valuable 🙂


Deb Owen August 18, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Well I like that ‘more rare and more valuable’ part
.-= Deb Owen´s last blog ..what have you been working on? (answer: it might not be any of your business) =-.


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills August 17, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Lots of things jumped of the page for me Stephen, but this one is something I’ve always taken issue with: “Instead of teaching critical thinking skills, our schools deaden the minds of our children with reams of monotonous facts that they will never use in the real world.” As far as I am concerned, all of the personal development and life skills that we focus on should have been taught to us as children.
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..When Lightning Strikes =-.


Jeff@MySuperChargedLife August 17, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Stephen – It is dangerous today to believe what you read anywhere without verifying the facts. Many in the mass media have learned this lesson the hard way.

I think truth is what we are all after. Truth can sometimes be communicated with amazing brevity. It is nice to be able to find small chunks of very targeted information without having to wade through umpteen chapters to get what you need at the moment.

An in-depth thesis has its place, but so does a get-to-the-point blog article in my opinion. If I want to go deeper, then I dig a little harder and I never put my critical thinking on hold.

I like articles that break the information into digestible chunks linking together several posts to create depth and completeness.

Oh and by the way, nice post!
.-= Jeff@MySuperChargedLife´s last blog ..6 Tips To Achieve Outstanding Results Every Time =-.


Steve August 18, 2009 at 9:09 am

This article and some of the comments that followed showed me why I also have gone back to reading some great classics, hungry for a little deeper and meatier content. Having said that, however, I greatly enjoy the blogs that I have loaded onto my Google reader. One of the great books on critical thinking that’s a personal favorite is Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. Maybe you can come up with a new e-book: “How to Read a Blog” ! 🙂
.-= Steve´s last blog ..How to STAND OUT From the Crowd =-.


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Jodi at Joy Discovered August 18, 2009 at 10:39 am

Hi Stephen,
A couple of things stand out. First, I completely agree that critical thinking skills are absolutely necessary for one’s development (and to make one’s way through all the information available to us now) and it troubles me that there isn’t a greater focus on this in school. Second, you are so right when you mention the sites where the opinion of the writer is strong, and the readers already agree and are seeking validation, basically! It’s madness!!

It is difficult to take the time to internalize what we’re bombarded with and come up with conclusions and thoughtful insights. I have found this even as I’ve discovered new blogs. Lately, I’ve been cutting back how many I view at one time, or even in a day, so that I can avoid information overload. It has been helpful.
.-= Jodi at Joy Discovered´s last blog ..A Builder, a Gardener, this Life =-.


Dragos Roua August 19, 2009 at 2:34 am

I totally agree with the explosion of the information. Internet has become a huge beast. But i was never convinced that everything there was true. For me, living for my first 19 years in communism, it was like exercising critical thinking all the time, every second. Everything was censored, the media was owned by the government and every useful information had to be verified from at least 2-3 sources (mass intoxication by the government propaganda was common sense during that time).

So I guess i don’t fit the profile. I have my critical thinking already there and I do it all the time. There is only a very limited part of the Internet which I “believe” or “follow” (this blog being in the circle of trust, of course).

That being said, I do think this was a good article. And I mean it 🙂
.-= Dragos Roua´s last blog ..30 Days Exercising Challenge – Day 2 =-.


Charles August 21, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Rich Schefren once wrote a report, saying that the “Information Age” is over; it’s now the “Attention Age”, where attention has become the scarce resource. We have only so much time, so we have to be able to sift through all the information and identify credibile ones, besides thinking for yourself.

So, what’s happening is that people look for subject matter EXPERTS instead of looking for information. Perceived experts are usually those who post higher quality information. Once people have found an expert that they TRUST, they’ll go to him/her as their primary source for information for that particular subject. This saves people time.

Stephen Covey wrote about TRUST in his book called “The Speed of Trust”. Although he talks about it in a different context, I’d say the same applies to the internet. But then again, like you said, we tend to trust “people whom we already agree and we are simply looking for confirmation and support”. The key is to take advantage of this by being more bold about your own views, because by doing that you attract like-minded people to you.
.-= Charles´s last blog ..Copy Your Way to Blogging Success =-.


Armen Shirvanian September 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Hi Stephen.

I’m on the same page as you about sound bites. I can send over a sound bite to someone, but they will get almost nothing out of it. I took a second to think about the items I remember from various reads, and very few of them are sound bites. Most of them are the main points summarized in my mind from a page-long story or multiple examples put together. Anything valuable from sound bites has already been absorbed by most of us, so we have to move up to a higher level.
.-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Verbally Attacking Others Shows A Lack Of Intelligence =-.


Fiona M October 30, 2009 at 6:11 pm

“Instead of teaching critical thinking skills, our schools deaden the minds of our children with reams of monotonous facts that they will never use in the real world.”

Touche, Stephen! I went through the Australian public school system in the 70s and 80s. I’m eternally grateful for the solid grounding it provided in the ‘Three R’s’.

However, I also spent an inordinate amount of time learning a raft of irrelevant facts – time that would have been better spent learning and practising critical thinking and mutual respect. (Luckily my parents taught me these things, but not all kids were/are that fortunate.)

If a child is taught these kinds of life skills from an early age, just imagine what the world might look like!
.-= Fiona M´s last blog ..35 million Aussies? But how? =-.


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