“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
In fact, if there’s one common denominator among all the people I’ve known who are successfully navigating the complexity and chaos of life, it’s perpetual learning. That’s how they’re able to avoid blunders, exploit opportunities, and maximize results.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this article is for you.
Also, if you have a book recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Six Thinking Hats by Edward De Bono.
The premise of this book is simple: When most of us think about something, we try to do too much at the same time. We look for information. We consider feelings. We want new ideas and options. We play devil’s advocate. We seek out benefits. We come to conclusions.
That’s the mental equivalent of trying to juggle six balls—doable, but rather difficult. If we deconstruct this process, however, and monotask instead—toss up one ball at a time—we can markedly improve the quality of our thinking and deductions.
As the title of the book implies, the author spotlights six types of thinking, and he uses colored hats to symbolize each:
- The white hat, which is concerned with objective facts and figures.
- The red hat, which gives the emotional view.
- The black hat, which is cautious and careful. It points out the weaknesses in an idea.
- The yellow hat, which is optimistic and covers hope and positive thinking.
- The green hat, which indicates creativity and new ideas.
- The blue hat, which is concerned with control, the organization of the thinking process, and the use of the other hats.
As the image signifies, the book teaches you how to “wear” the different “hats” in your thinking by explaining how and why to think in different directions, one at a time.
For example, if you wanted to discuss with your partner whether you should take a job offer or start a business of your own, you might start with the blue hat and define your current situation and what you want to achieve in this thinking session (a specific next step, for instance), and then don the red hat to share any feelings that may get in the way of other modes of thinking, and then engage in some white, green, yellow, and then black hat thinking for each of the alternatives, and finally, wrap up with another round of blue hat thinking to put together an overview of what has been achieved and what the next steps are.
And although the book is written primarily for use in group settings and many of the examples relate to business, I’m featuring it here because I found the information and approach valuable in my individual and personal deliberations.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
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My 5 Key Takeaways from The Six Thinking Hats
“Thinking is the ultimate human resource. Yet we can never be satisfied with our most important skill. No matter how good we become, we should always want to be better. Usually, the only people who are very satisfied with their thinking skill are those poor thinkers who believe that the purpose of thinking is to prove yourself right to your own satisfaction.”
The ability to think well is one of the most important “meta-skills” or “master skills” we can develop because it activates and magnifies so many other important skills, even other meta-skills like observing, learning, remembering, imagining, deducing, and communicating.
Thinking is also a creative activity on the same order as artistic activities, and this means that perfection is impossible. Just as a painting, song, or essay can always be more precise, beautiful, or evocative, so can an idea, plan, solution, etc. always be more insightful, practical, or elegant. But unlike painting, singing, or writing, our prospects in life depend greatly on our ability to think. Good thinking is conducive to making good decisions that are conducive to living a good life. And so if we want to maximize our ability to live well, we must continually work to refine our ability to think well through regular study, calculation, and reflection.
“Life has to proceed. It is not possible to check out everything with the rigor demanded of a scientific experiment. So in practice we establish a sort of two-tier system: believed facts and checked facts.”
This distinction between believed and checked facts is vital to good thinking. Consider for a moment how many things you know because of firsthand verification rather than secondhand instruction. The truth is many or even most of our assumptions about, well, just about everything are believed facts, not checked ones.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course—we only have time to check so many facts. “The art of life,” Justice Holmes once said, “consists in making correct decisions on insufficient evidence.”
Serious problems arise when we can’t distinguish between believed and checked facts, however. When too many believed facts are misfiled as checked ones, and when we refuse to review and revise them no matter what we see or experience, or worse, when we carefully filter our observations and experiences to preserve our cognitive status quo, we can lose our ability to successfully navigate reality.
Take the Covid vaccine, for instance. Here’s a common conversation I’ve had with many zealous members of the Church of the Masked Covidians:
“The vaccine is safe,” one of them says.
“What do you mean by ‘safe’?” I ask.
“The chances of serious side effects are extremely low.”
“How do you know that?”
“The science says so.”
“How do you know what ‘the science’ says? Have you reviewed it yourself?”
“No, but I trust those who have reviewed it.”
“So you believe the vaccine is safe based on the information that has been presented to you.”
“. . . No. It’s safe. The science says so.”
“But you didn’t review the scientific data yourself let alone participate in the investigations that produced the data. So how do you know what ‘the science’ says?”
“Because the experts who investigated it say it’s safe.”
“So you believe the vaccine is safe based on the claims of certain experts.”
“. . . No. It’s safe. I trust the science.”
Such stupidity is gobsmacking and says volumes about how unwilling many people are to even attempt to think critically about anything other than . . . maybe . . . who to draft in fantasy sportsball, which wine to pair with dinner, and what to watch on Netflix.
I’m sure there are various reasons we’re all prone to this type of dogmatic thinking, but the desire to avoid uncertainty is likely a big one. “Yes” and “no” provide security and comfort whereas “maybe” and “probably” are slippery and treacherous. But they’re also a more accurate reflection of reality, which seems to function like a quantum computational machine that continually manifests actualities that are selected from a multitude of mutually exclusive and often contradictory future possibilities with ever-shifting probabilities.
And so if we want to physically interact with reality more effectively, we must strive to mentally interact with it more effectively, and that requires moving away from monochromatic thinking and toward polychromatic thinking.
Also, note that in such exchanges, I’m not even claiming the vaccine isn’t safe, only that we don’t know whether it is or isn’t in the same way that we know what we had for breakfast today. Instead, we believe (or choose to believe, really) it is or isn’t safe based on many factors including our observations, our preferred sources of information, our attitude toward officialdom, our attitude toward Covid, our social groups, our desire to conform, our religious beliefs, our social and political inclinations, and more.
“Yet any good decision must be emotional in the end. I place the emphasis on that phrase in the end. When we have used thinking to make the map, our choice of route is determined by values and emotions.”
Ultimately, we only take decisions and courses of actions that we feel are right, so there’s no sense in trying to smother the emotional component of thinking and attempt “pure thinking.” In fact, if we believe our thinking is supremely rational and uninfluenced by emotion, that only means we’re supremely unaware of how much our feelings actually mold our thinking (and how much we probably use “logic” to rationalize our emotional compulsions).
The problem, then, isn’t allowing emotions to influence our thinking but, to use the metaphor of this book, it’s allowing the “red hat” (emotions) to dominate our thinking and automatically overpower and override the contributions of the other hats, including data and information (white hat), dangers and obstacles (black hat), benefits and possibilities (yellow hat), and plans and alternatives (green hat).
By short-circuiting thinking like this, we can avoid the psychological discomfort of having to face facts and considerations that are contrary to our often cryptic desires, and we can even delight in the perversity of proving to the rational critic in us just how impotent it is to influence our actions. But this is merely self-sabotage.
In my own thinking, the ideal I strive toward is maximum alignment between my emotions and rational ideas that when acted upon will result in the maximum amount of good for me, my family, my groups, other people at large, the environment, and everything else my behavior can influence, even if indirectly and remotely.
“Intuition can be treated as one might treat an adviser. If the adviser has been reliable in the past, we are likely to pay more attention to the advice offered. If intuition has been right on many occasions, we may be more inclined to listen to it.”
I’ve always tended to downplay or not even consult intuition in my thinking, and instead, I’ve focused on imagination, data, analysis, perspective taking, and other mental processes that aid in thinking. And maybe that’s because when I was younger, I simply didn’t place much value or trust in my emotions until they had been subjected to a lot of skepticism. In short, I felt like my intuition was warped. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it didn’t, and sometimes it didn’t seem to work at all. It simply wasn’t a reliable guide.
Now that I’m older, however, and at least a little wiser and more emotionally and psychologically mature, I should probably allow intuition to factor more into my thinking. I don’t see any harm in allowing intuition to add some brushstrokes to the cognitive canvas, so long it isn’t allowed to run amok.
“The final decision is based on a combination of white hat (facts), yellow hat (benefits), black hat (caution) and red hat (intuition and feeling).”
This is a good summary of good decision-making. It involves generating ideas based on verified facts and data that have clear and likely benefits that clearly outweigh the likely disadvantages, and that produce positive intuitions and feelings that minimally include confidence and hope.
That last point of producing positive feelings is something I’ve learned to appreciate more in my own thinking. Sometimes you know you should or have to do something that makes you feel bad and so you just gut it out, but often, there are many ways to skilfully solve setbacks and exploit opportunities, and if we choose a plan that doesn’t kindle us even a little, we won’t execute it nearly as well as another plan that does.
Think of it like dieting and training—no matter how scientifically optimal a plan is, if you dread every day of it, you’ll never be able to give it the level of effort required to produce optimal results. This is why I place a lot of emphasis on finding diet and training plans that work for you—that fit your goals, preferences, and lifestyle.