One of the skills I’m trying to hone are my critical thinking skills. I majored in civil engineering and have been formally trained on the process of solving complex problems. When I worked as an engineer, the problems I was solving needed to have a definitive answer. Otherwise, there could be catastrophic failure. But now that I work with venture capital firms, the process of making a decision of which firms to add to our portfolio is not so black and white. Each venture capital firm has a different process; different people; different strategy. As such, there are a wide range of possible outcomes and several different ways to arrive to a decision.
The driving theme of this discussion is that in life there are situations where there are definitive answers and other times when there are not. Let’s face it – the majority of decisions we make in life are not black and white. I recently listened to a presentation that Annie Duke gave about her career as a professional poker player and how it taught her how to probability-weight her decisions. She suggests that it’s better to say there’s a certain percent chance of something happening versus giving a definitive yes or no. Some skeptics have criticized Duke and other poker players because they consider poker a game of chance and not a game of skill. I also used to think Poker was only a game of chance. However, there is a high level of skill needed to play the game effectively, one of which is understanding how to quickly apply probabilities to give yourself the greatest opportunity to succeed.
In the book, The Art of War, General Sun states to “Ponder and deliberate before making a decision.” While this seems straightforward, many people do not do this consistently. When thinking through important decisions it’s helpful to think about all of the possible outcomes that may arise from your decision. If you reach a point where you feel you’ve considered all the possible outcomes, ask someone you respect for their opinion to gain an additional perspective. Each person has a different way of thinking about things and if you want to improve your critical thinking skills, gather as many intelligent opinions as you can. It will help you immensely.
Thinking critically forces you to consider first, second, and third order consequences of your decisions. First order consequences are the results of short-sighted decisions. For example, you decide you’d rather buy a new car before building up your emergency savings. The second order consequence of making a decision like this is you may not have enough cash to fix the car if something goes wrong with it. This is a rudimentary example, but the message here is obvious. Short-sighted decisions are risky and are not in your best interest.
Being a critical thinker doesn’t mean you uselessly over-analyze menial decisions. For example, you shouldn’t spend 30 minutes deciding if you want cream or sugar in your coffee or if you want ice water or tea. These types of decisions are inconsequential and have no meaningful impact on your life (unless you need to cut back on buying a $9 mocha frappucino from Starbucks twice a day). If you spend too much time over-analyzing meaningless decisions, you will drive yourself and everybody around you crazy. Don’t be that person.
Critical thinking skills are learned; they are not innate. We force ourselves to think critically so we can be better managers, partners, teammates, and ultimately better leaders. Think about ways you can hone this skill; I assure you it is a skill you will want to work on sooner rather than later. Cheers – KM