This is one post in a series of career advice posts that I’m calling the “Work Toolkit Skills Series“. The first post was all about having Self-Awareness at work.
This second post is all about being able to critically think or what I’d also call having your own independent thoughts and ideas and being able to articulate them enough to hold a conversation.
Critical thinking (or thinking critically) can be scary and hard, but I think it’s an essential career skills that young professionals and millenials need to develop and practice.
What is the Work Toolkit Skills Series?
This is a series of short, separate posts on skills that professionals should have or should work on developing so they can be their best self, succeed in the workplace and have career options. I believe that we that we should be continuously developing our skills.
The “Work Toolkit Skills Series” is basically a collection these skills (or tools) into a toolbox: The more tools (skills) you have in your toolbox, the better you become personally and professionally (e.g. indispensable at work, valuable asset to the company, knowledgeable on various topics, marketable, have career options and opportunities and much more).
You should work on continuing to develop and increase your skillset for:
- Yourself: so you remain marketable and indispensable at work and therefore have options and are in control of your career.
- Employer: so you’re someone people want to work with, want to keep because you’re an asset and seen as someone who has skills that further the company.
- Clients: you help, so you’re delivering the best product and best service and are known for being the “go-to” in your field and over time known for producing high quality work product.
What is Critical Thinking?
“Critical thinking” is defined as “The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.”
Critical thinking is being able to think critically about something – whether it’s, for example, a problem that you want to solve, something you read in the news, the economy or an article or podcast you listened to. It’s having your own independent thoughts and ideas about something you read or heard.
My Critical Thinking Moment:
First, let me admit that it’s much easier to NOT think critically about anything and to be indifferent because ignorance is bliss. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure when I was younger, I never thought critically about anything until my first year of undergrad.
Here’s the moment when I learned what critical thinking was and how I hadn’t thought critically about anything up until my first year of undergrad. I remember the moment vividly, even though it was over 10 years ago now. I’d been an honour roll student for most of my life, and in my semester of undergrad, I got a B+ on a paper I had written in a history course. I couldn’t understand why I had only gotten a B+ and not an A (or higher). I had incorporated all the terms that we had learned up to that point in the course, I used first and secondary sources, I referenced them correctly, I had written in a clear and concise manner, I had headings, an introduction and a conclusion but could not figure out what was wrong with it!
So I went to the Professor’s office hours. (Yes, I’m that student.) I wanted to understand what I had done “wrong” and how I could do better on the next paper in the course. The answer was simple. The Professor said that the paper was missing critical thinking. I remember thinking, what did that even mean? I had gotten this far (honour roll, scholarships, etc.) without it, so why did I need it now?!
This is what he meant. I had included no opinions of my own (because I didn’t have any at 18 years old), I didn’t have any analysis of what I had written about (other than quotes from leading authors on the subject and what they thoughts), and I realized that I included absolutely no independent thought. After hearing all this, I should’ve been happy with the B+ and should have slowly walked out of his office (**smiles**).
The Professor’s comment on my lack of critical thought forced me to come to terms with something I had consciously avoided: thinking critically (it made my head hurt). But, I had to do something to figure out how to think critically because this was kind of going to be a a problem with the LSAT (the exam you have to take to get into law school) with people who can think critically getting higher scores on the LSAT.
Ways to Learn How to and Develop your Critical Thinking Skills:
I’ve had to work hard at developing this skill and continue to “force” myself to do the hard work and think critically. Because of my job, I often times don’t have a choice but to think critically – which makes what I do both challenging and never boring.
It’s much easier not to think through hard stuff, but we need to push through and not let our thoughts and brain convince us otherwise.
Here are some ways to develop your critical thinking skills and add another skill to your toolkit.
1. Read, retain, repeat.
Start by figuring out how you learn so you can retain information that you read (e.g. news) or hear (e.g. podcast). This is important so that you can retrieve this information from your brain when you need to at a later time to help in your critical analysis.
There are 4 types of learners. Click here to learn more about the different types and to help figure out what type of learner you are.
I know that I’m a visual learner and also learn by writing things down. Diagrams and charts help me learn, and I retain information by writing things out by hand. Yup, old school hand writing on lined paper. I actually keep a stash of blue ballpoint pens that I love, yellow highlighters and lined paper at my desk just for this – when I need to learn a file or retain information, I just start writing everything I need to know. It’s old school, but it works – so you just need to figure out how you retain information and do that when you’re reading or listening! Easy peasy (lol).
Actionable Tips: If you learn by writing, keep a journal with what you’ve read and want to remember or keep an ongoing file (or files) on your phone/computer that store things you want to remember. You can have one journal for everything or one small journal or booklet per topic or category (e.g. a book just with words you didn’t know and their definitions – like your own custom dictionary).
2. Read the news/current events and stay current on the them.
Read the news/current events and stay current on them, so you know what’s happening in your own community, country and in the world. On high-profile topics or topics that are of particular interest to you (e.g. the markets, political elections), have an opinion about them.
Be sure though that you come to your own conclusions and don’t just adopt someone’s without thinking about why it is you agree with them. It’s okay to agree with someone’s views, but just make sure you know why you’re agreeing with them.
Staying on top of current events allows you to carry conversations in the workplace, with clients and with strangers. It’s a great skill to have and develop.
3. Take time (or ask for some time) to let your brain think for you and let it help you come to your answer.
I think this one needs the most amount of attention and is of utmost importance in today’s society.
I find that every time we are asked something, we feel like we have to give an answer to someone within seconds of being asked the question, or feel we need to respond to an email as soon as we get it and as a result, we don’t take the time to actually think about what was asked of us or what action was needed of us before replying to the email.
My advice is: fight the urge to respond immediately. Instead, take a moment to think about what you’ve been asked and what you’re concise, clear and articulate response will be. Give your brain time to think for you. When you do this, you will be amazed at how much it decreases your stress and anxiety and increases your confidence.
Of course, this won’t work all the time, but here’s when it works for me:
- If you get a phone call and you don’t know the answer or are in the middle of something else, write down what you’ve been asked and ask them if you can get back to them. Most of the time, the person will not mind at all and it’s us who have created the idea in our minds that we have to give an answer immediately. If you do this though, be sure to get a deadline as to when you have to get back to the person. This allows you to take down the information, what’s been asked of you (e.g. an opinion on X) and gives you some time to think about what you’ve been asked, do any research or looking at other things (e.g. your calendar, textbook) and gives you the ability to respond in an accurate and concise manner. Everybody wins!
- If someone comes to my office and asks me to “just look at something” but they want my feedback (aka critical thoughts on their work). I have a reputation at work and with clients of providing high quality work product. I’m proud of that and wish to keep my reputation. However, when I’m asked to “just look at something”, my spidey senses start tinging. They’re asking for my feedback because my job is to catch anything that they may have missed and to make their work product better (or at least make suggestions). So, the first thing I ask the person asking for my feedback is when they want my comments back. Sometimes it’s a rush, but sometimes it’s not. When it’s not, I’m much less stressed because when it’s a rush job, I worry if there’s something I missed in looking at it too quickly or if I missed something critical and now it’s also my fault because I looked at it and gave it the “go-ahead”. Well, all those bad things can be minimized by giving yourself time to think.
Our brain needs time to think and process and compare and retrieve from past experiences and connect dots to analyze or examine a problem or situation, so give yourself (your brain) the time it needs to think.
4. Get all the details, documents and ask questions.
When I’m reviewing something or thinking about something it’s important that you have all the details (e.g. current information that’s relevant), all the relevant and pertinent documents to what you’re being asked to comment on or provide feedback on. Without that information, your analysis and independent thought could be inaccurate. I trust no one. Yes, that sounds bad and yes, it sometimes means longer hours for me, but I need to be sure that I have all the information to do the critical thinking and to provide the advice, feedback or take whatever action has been asked of me. You can earn my trust, but that takes time.