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There are two types of thinkers: contrarian and independent.
If you can define them with confidence, feel free to skip ahead to Section I of this article. But if you’re like I was (as in, not completely sure), you may want to stick with me for a few moments longer.
A contrarian thinker is someone who takes an opposite stance to popular opinion. It literally means to “be against”. You’re most likely to come across these types of thinkers in situations and environments where emotions are high, such as politics and finance.
Contrarian thinkers tend to “read between the lines” and are capable of seeing things that others often miss.
Conversely, an independent thinker is someone who forms their own thoughts and rarely takes an opposing stance intentionally. There is actual reasoning and logic behind their process. They don’t want to be different, but they also aren’t afraid to be.
In simplest terms, contrarian thinkers will often let passion and excitement rule their convictions… whereas independent thinkers rely more heavily on logic and common sense.
Contrarian thinkers want to stand out.
Independent thinkers want to figure things out.
So which are you? Which do you want to be?
The independent thinking skill is a good one to try and master… as well as instill in your children. Why?
Because while always taking the opposite point of view may make you appear fun and interesting to others, doing so doesn’t actually result in bringing anything productive or useful to the table. It can be seen as distracting, more than enlightening.
There is less credibility among contrarian thinkers.
Sure, independent thinkers may sometimes agree with popular opinion… but, whether they do or not, is irrelevant. What matters is the “why”… the train of thought or conclusions that got them there.
In this article, I will provide 5 actional strategies and resources you can use to foster the independent thinking skill in yourself and others.
How to Build the Independent Thinking Skill
Strategy #1: Read What Others Have to Say
Clearly, if you are thinking about alternate solutions to common problems or misconceptions, you must have studied up on it. Or at the very least, read a thing or two.
Nobody should ever blindly follow someone else’s viewpoint. (Learn to develop your critical thinking skills.)
That is not to say they are right or wrong, but there needs to be time spent understanding where they are coming from and how they forged their opinions.
Reading what other people have to say allows you access to the other side of the story.
Be sure, however, to make sure the sources are credible. You can’t read op-eds, personal memoirs or social media feeds and take them as fact.
Think of this strategy as presenting a research paper… you need to cite multiple sources in the text before drawing your own conclusions in the end.
Strategy #2: Play Devil’s Advocate with Your Point of View
Picture the ancient philosophers sitting around, arguing their points of view.
Now imagine turning the tables and having them argue the opposing position.
Debate club teams do it all the time.
For there to be any weight to your argument or idea, you need to look for holes in it.
The best way to do this is by playing devil’s advocate with your thoughts and putting yourself on trial, so to speak.
Say, for instance, you believe that voting in an election should take place in person in order for your vote to count.
Devils advocate: voting in person omits voters who don’t have access to reliable transportation, the shut-ins and homebound.
Is there vote any less important?
Being able to see both sides of the coin shows humility. And humility is at the core of most independent thinkers.
Accepting the possibility that your point of view may be somewhat flawed is the first step in reshaping it into an airtight argument.
Strategy #3: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Embrace Differences
Some of the most influential independent thinkers of our time were willing and able to subject themselves to people or situations that made them uncomfortable.
Salvador Dali. Mahatma Gandhi. Jack Kerouac. Dr. Martin Luther King. Steve Jobs.
To truly understand one’s way of thinking is to step into their shoes and leave what you know, or think you know, behind.
Consider engaging with people from a different race or religion than you.
Someone with a different sexual orientation or political viewpoint.
People who make more, or less, money than you.
Those who have no children and those who have many.
Exposure to those with different viewpoints and backgrounds can be as simple as asking them to lunch… or as involved as volunteering at a homeless shelter.
The point is to get to know these people and try to understand where they are coming from. You may even find that you have some things in common.
Regardless of the outcome, condition yourself to always keep an open mind… and agree to disagree.
Who knows? You may even be surprised to find that you are less set in your ways than originally thought, which may not be the end of the world.
In fact, it often takes only a slight bend in one’s perception to change your course of thinking.
Strategy #4: Travel
Although it may feel like it at times, the world does not revolve around us.
At the start of this year, there were more than 7.5 billion people living on Earth… yet the majority of us will never even step foot in more than a handful of different countries. That is, if we’re fortunate enough to.
Seeing “how the other half lives”, as they say, is key in building the independent thinking skill. And that best way to do that is through travel.
Let’s be honest, the United States is still considered to be a land of privilege… a place where you can speak your mind and exercise your rights without prosecution. You may be ridiculed at times, but it is every American’s right to protest. To fight for what they believe.
Not many other countries can say the same.
If you believe women should have equal rights, then you need to visit South Sudan. Afghanistan. Liberia. Ethiopia. In these places, very few girls are allowed a primary education and the teacher to student ratio is as high as 1 to 80.
If you are concerned about your carbon footprint, take a trip to Iceland and see what scientists there are doing to eliminate carbon emissions for good.
Chances are, whatever idea or thought you have can be cultivated more effectively if you have a greater base of knowledge.
You can not be an independent thinker while living a sheltered life. You need to explore the world and speak to the people in it to fully grasp reality.
Strategy #5: Aim to Be Respected, Not Liked
Life is not a popularity contest.
Sure, we all want people to like us… but what does that really mean?
If having people like you means they will blindly agree with whatever you say or do, is that really rewarding?
Independent thinkers want to be challenged. They want to have their ideas questioned and their limits tested… for that is the path to enlightenment.
If people are reacting to your thoughts, you are getting their attention. And if you are getting their attention, you are likely earning their respect.
That, my friend, is everything.
Anybody can be liked for being funny, kind, hardworking, down to earth… but not everybody who is like is respected.
On the contrary, if you generally appease the masses… then you’re probably not asking the right questions of them.
The goal of someone trying to master the independent thinking skill should be to ruffle some feathers, while keeping the peace on both sides.
People may not always like what you have to say, but they will respect it with proper execution.
Respect goes both ways. So if you leave room for argument, you are indirectly validating other people’s opinions.
Final Thoughts on Ways to Build the Independent Thinking Skill
At first glance, many contrarian and independent thinkers can often be confused as one in the same.
But delve deeper and you will see that the independent thinker is doing it for selfless reasons.
They do not wish to simply bow to the masses or jump on just any collective train of thought…but instead they desire for their ideas to improve their world in some way.
Often these ideas are entryways to something greater.
Mastering the independent thinking skill will not only make you a better thinker, but a better humanitarian.
It will exercise your tolerance for other people’s beliefs and ideals.
It will teach you to open your mind to new ways of thinking.
It will make you a more well-rounded philosopher… and a downright more interesting person to be around.
Nicole Krause has been writing both personally and professionally for over 20 years. She holds a dual B.A. in English and Film Studies. Her work has appeared in some of the country’s top publications, major news outlets, online publications, and blogs. As a happily married (and extremely busy) mother of four… her articles primarily focus on parenting, marriage, family, finance, organization, and product reviews.
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