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I Think, I Know

I have this terrible habit of not wanting to do things unless I know that I’ll be good at them or unless I know the “right” answer or solution. In some situations, it’s quite paralyzing. I love knowing. It gives me a sense of security, a sense of mastery, or accomplishment. It’s why I get so excited when I get questions right on Jeopardy. Now, much to my chagrin, I don’t know everything. And so, as you can imagine, this habit quickly becomes a problem that unnecessarily limits me and my abilities.

And it’s not just me, our society values knowing. “I don’t know” is rarely an acceptable answer.  Starting as students, we need to know the answers on our tests. Then as employees or employers, we need to know everything there is to know about our products, services, and operations. Knowledge is important because knowledge is power.

I had never questioned this until someone said something to me last week that changed my perspective. They said, “There’s a big difference between knowing and thinking.” Initially, I dismissed the comment as just a simple semantic disagreement. But after more thought, I began to see what they really meant.

We see knowing as a conclusion, or an end. When in reality, what we know changes all the time. In fact Socrates believed, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. Thinking, on the other hand, is a process. It requires action, engagement, and work.

Now, knowing is a natural result of thinking. Where we run into trouble is when we use knowing as a shortcut for thinking. When we believe we know the answer to something, we take the thinking right out of it. Neil deGrasse Tyson eloquently illustrates this conundrum in this video:

He ends with, “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think”. Today we appear to have a shortage of really effective, critical thinking skills. Employers who responded to the NACE’s Job Outlook 2018 survey, rated Critical Thinking and Problem Solving as the number one most important competency that they look for in new hires. Career Management, which includes job specific knowledge and experience, was ranked sixth in comparison. In that same survey, only 55% of those respondents ranked their new hires as being proficient in Critical Thinking. Yikes.

So we have this skill gap that needs to be filled across industries. The good news is that these critical thinking skills can be developed in classrooms, conference rooms, and in the field:

  • Develop habits of curiosity through debriefing. Good questions encourage us to wonder, to create connections, and come up with solutions.  
  • Have the courage to disagree. Reasoning is a key component of critical thinking. When we disagree we have to provide and communicate logical support for our argument.
  • Create a healthy culture of feedback. When we give and receive personal feedback we acknowledge that we can always grow and improve. The next step is problem solving how to do that best in a way that works well for us.
  • Practice reflection and evaluation. In this way we can encourage analysis of our current situation and make space for problem solving and creative solutions.
  • Foster positive relationships with “failure”. If we criminalize failure then we are prioritizing “knowing”. We have to reframe failure as an opportunity to think critically about the past and creatively about the future.
  • Practice skills in a safe space using activities. It can be difficult to find effective arenas to actually practice our critical thinking skills before we need to be able to apply them. Experiential activities allow our teams to do this in a safe space. See our Leadership Lesson below for some of our favorites!

When we can encourage thinking for ourselves and others we create curious, creative, self-directed lifelong learners and doers. I want to be one of those people. “Knowing” will always be something that I value – it’s part of my personality. But, the more I think about it, what I really like about knowing is the journey of thinking that it takes me to get there. Knowing and thinking are at times perfectly interwoven and at others perfectly at odds. But both have value when we allow them to help and not hinder each other.

*Leadership Lesson*

Use one of these activities these week to get your team thinking outside of the box:


Mind Spin

Brainstorm as many ideas as possible

Farmer’s Riddle

Group members act out a logic and decision making activity

Baseball Thinking Game

Group members will solve a logic puzzle based on the game of baseball

Four On a Couch

Get the correct group members sitting on the “couch” together

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney is another Millennial who wants ‘to make an impact’, a self-proclaimed movie critic, avid explorer, lifelong learner, and Chapman University graduate.