Quit Wasting Your Brain and Learn to Think for Yourself

As our culture becomes ever more cautious, employers are desperate for people who think critically and creatively.

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By Steve Tobak

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Our culture is increasingly dominated by prescriptive content. People want to know what to do and how to do it. They want tips to get rich quick, daily habits to be more productive, hacks to overcome sticky problems, quotes to instantly inspire them. They want easy solutions and they want them now.

The question is, where's the creativity in that scenario? Where's the imagination? Where's the process of discovery? Where's the questioning, the reasoning, the critical thinking? Nowhere, that's where. And that explains a stunning cultural trend: fewer and fewer of us can actually think for ourselves.

Take child rearing, for example. Parents have become so overprotective that they no longer allow their kids to go outside and play with other kids, unsupervised. Everything is prearranged. Activities are structured. Toys are sophisticated. Games are ready made. And therein, lies the rub.

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Apparently, when children are allowed to explore the neighborhood and play with random things they find, that sparks their imagination. They make up their own games, their own toys, their own scenarios. And since their brains are like sponges, the neural pathways those activities create aid in the development of their creativity.

Now, you and I are no longer children, but our brains retain a certain level of plasticity, even in adulthood. We create new neural pathways and reinforce existing ones throughout our lives.

The more we allow our imaginations to wander, the more we analyze and troubleshoot, the more we come up with our own ways of doing things -- our own solutions to problems -- the more neural pathways we create. The more we exercise that function, the more adept our brains become at thinking creatively.

On the other hand, the more structured our routines, the fewer neural pathways we carve, the less our brains exercise that function, and the less creative we become. Eventually, our minds become set in their ways and we simply forget how to be creative.

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For example, I built a 264 square foot greenhouse a few years back. I didn't design it from a kit, but from my own imagination and knowledge, a little research, and of course trial and error. From the redwood frame and twin-wall polycarbonate exterior to the electronically controlled misting system and heat sensitive, self-opening windows.

Designing it myself and building it with my own two hands was one of the most fun and gratifying experiences of my entire life. I might claim that my thirst for knowledge, my enjoyment of problem-solving and the thrill of discovery are in my blood, but that's not true.

Those attributes are in my head because that's how I grew up: in an inner city with parents who encouraged me to spend as much time as possible playing outside with friends, reading inside and going to the movies. Those neural pathways were created when I was little and I've continued to create new ones ever since.

When I was young, my friends and I made up our own games with our own rules using little more than our bodies, our surroundings and the occasional stick and rubber ball.

As for reading, I developed a love for science, fiction and the combination of the two at an early age. Those genres fed and developed my imagination. I loved exploring the library. I'd walk home with armfuls of books and couldn't wait to devour them. That's how I discovered great authors, books and genres. On my own, by trial and error.

I owe all my career success to an upbringing that allowed me to find my own answers and figure out my own solutions. A non-prescriptive upbringing that continues to this day.

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Over the decades I've read thousands of books, from historical fiction and classic literature to sci-fi and horror novels. From action and adventure to comedy and drama. From Mark Helprin and J.D. Salinger to Neal Stephenson and Stephen King. From Robert Ludlum and Isaac Asimov to Michael Chabon and Douglas Adams.

Now, ask me how many business books I've read. Probably fewer than 50. The vast majority were great stories about real CEOs and their companies, while the remainder were classics from brilliant minds like Drucker, Bennis and Levitt. None were prescriptive "how to" type books. As for self-help books, that's easy. I've read none.

Today, companies big and small are coming to the realization that workers who can actually think for themselves, identify problems and come up with innovative solutions aren't just the leaders of tomorrow but the most valuable employees of today. Now you know why those critical thinking skills are in such short supply.

If you want to continue wasting your time and your brain's capacity to create and imagine, keep right on reading prescriptive content and business books. If you want to optimize what's left of your precious career and limited earning potential, quit now … before you forget how to think for yourself.

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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