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Becoming an Effective Skeptic: End Belief, Faith and Certainty

Becoming an Effective Skeptic: End Belief, Faith and Certainty
Think

“I don’t know.”

Perhaps the three hardest words to say in the English language. But perhaps they are also words we should be using more often. You don’t have to look far back into history where people believed things that we would now see as ridiculous: a flat Earth, a sun that orbits us or that blood letting was an effective medical practice.

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Similarly I don’t think you need to look far back into your personal history to find examples of where you have been wrong. Relationships you felt would last forever that didn’t make three weeks. Career paths you ignored. Beliefs you held that turned out to be false.

Benefits of Skeptical (and Critical) Thinking

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There are a lot of practical applications for using skeptical thinking. Unfortunately, with the recent popularity of programs like The Secret and positive thinking self-help, rational thinking is being subverted for a self-induced placebo effect. Here are some benefits you can get from using skepticism on practical matters:

  • Creativity – The best way to prevent new solutions is to believe you already have the answer. Allowing a gap of doubt can allow creative alternatives to flow in. If you are adamant that advertising will not work for your product, you might cut off hundreds of ideas for improving your business.
  • Planning – Assumptions are the enemy of planning. A common rule of thumb for software development is to plan to use double the amount of time you need; then add six months. Write your plans too narrowly and they may collapse under new information.
  • Quickly Integrate New Facts – When you also maintain a small margin of doubt, you can allow in new facts easily. If you are completely certain your approach is perfect, you won’t be able to adjust when evidence points that it isn’t.
  • Reveal Weaknesses – Many of the things that sabotage your efforts will be completely unknown. Thinking critically and examining the information can reveal some of these traps.

Becoming a Better Skeptic

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Here are some ways you can integrate healthy skepticism into your life:

  1. Measure – Get the numbers and use them as a basis for improvement. Avoid subjective judgements where possible. The data usually won’t provide the whole story, but it provides a solid foundation for drawing conclusions.
  2. Examine Your Scale – Data itself is worthless with a broken scale. Take steps to regularly ensure that your numbers are measuring what they need to. Getting caught in meaningless statistics is worse than having no data at all.
  3. “What if I’m wrong?” – I try to ask myself this question whenever I need to make large assumptions. Examining both potential sides leaves you an exit route if the information turns out to be false.
  4. Know the Unknowns – Figure out the unknowns in any project or endeavor. You can’t account for every missing variable, but being aware of them will help you react if new information comes in. If you are making a career decision, what unknown factors is that based on? That you will enjoy the work? That you will be challenged? Knowing these unknowns will help you if the information later changes.
  5. Cut the Arrogance – Part of healthy skepticism, is removing the arrogance that comes from a certainty you know what is right. With humility comes the ability to change your course of action as new information arrives.
  6. Develop an Escape Route – Some assumptions are pretty fundamental. I have a strong assumption that when I try to walk, gravity still works. But you should also have escape routes for what information would break your assumptions. I assume regular exercise is good for my health. But if several independent sources gave me evidence to show it wasn’t, I would stop.
  7. Fuel Curiosity – Skepticism doesn’t need to lead to cynicism. Having doubts, or uncertainties about basic assumptions should inspire curiosity, not despair. Fuel your urges to discover and you can balance out the natural urge to reject opposing information.
  8. Play the Devil’s Advocate – Spend a bit of time thinking through some of your problems if your assumptions were reversed. Not only will this keep you on your toes, it can yield creative new answers. If your business is based on the assumption that you need to work many hours to be successful, what would happen if that assumption was reversed and working more wasn’t necessary or had a negative effect?
  9. Seek Contradictory Viewpoints – Look for opinions that clash with yours. This could be in the form of people, books or classes that confront your assumptions. I know people who believe entrepreneurship and capitalism are the source of societies woes just as I know people who believe the opposite. By listening to both sides and empathizing with their perspective I can form stronger ideas.
  10. Test – Measurement is good, but active experimentation is better. It is easy to simply go with your intuition when finding an answer. But it is more useful to actually test out the ideas. Personal experimentation, whether it is with a new diet or a business plan, won’t be as perfect as a scientific study, but it can still provide better information than simply making up your mind in advance.


Avoid Turning Skepticism into Cynicism

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Healthy skepticism, questioning your underlying assumptions and introducing doubt, can be helpful. Cynicism takes it further where doubt becomes mistrust and paranoia. Avoid that trap. Become an effective skeptic and be able to take the best information available and knowing what information you need to be proven wrong.

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Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on September 15, 2020

7 Helpful Reminders When You Want to Make Big Life Changes

7 Helpful Reminders When You Want to Make Big Life Changes

Overcoming fear and making life changes is hard. It’s even harder when it’s a big change—breaking up with someone you love, leaving your old job, starting your own business, or hundreds of other difficult choices.

Even if it’s obvious that making a big change will be beneficial, it can be tough. Our mind wants to stay where it’s comfortable, which means doing the same things we’ve always done[1].

We worry: how do we know if we’re making the right decision? We wish we knew more. How do we make a decision without all of the necessary information?

We feel stuck. How do we get past fear and move forward with that thing we want to do?

Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are 7 things to remember when you want to move forward and make positive life changes.

1. You’ll Never Have All the Information

We often avoid making important decisions because we want more information before we make a tough call.

Yes, it’s certainly true that you need to do your research, but if you’re waiting for the crystal clear answer to come to you, then you’re going to be waiting a long time. As humans, we are curious creatures, and our need for information can be paralyzing.

Life is a series of guesses, mistakes, and revisions. Make the best decision you can at the time and continue to move forward. This also means learning to listen to and trust your intuition. Here’s how.

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2. Have the Courage to Trust Yourself

We make all sorts of excuses for not making important life changes, but the limiting belief that often underlies many of them is that we don’t trust ourselves to do the right thing.

We think that if we get into a new situation, we won’t know what to do or how to react. We’re worried that the uncharted territory of the future will be too much for us to handle.

Give yourself more credit than that.

You’ve dealt with unexpected changes before, right? And when your car got a flat tire on the way to work, how did that end up? Or when you were unexpectedly dumped?

In the end, you were fine.

Humans are amazingly adaptable, and your whole life has been helping you develop skills to face unexpected challenges.

Have enough courage to trust yourself. No matter what happens, you’ll figure out a way to make it work.

3. What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Like jealousy, most of your fears are created in your own head.

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When you actually sit down and think about the worst case scenario, you’ll realize that there are actually very few risks that you can’t recover from.

Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Once you realize the worst isn’t that bad, you’ll be ready to crush it.

When you’re preparing to make a big life change, write down all of the things you’re afraid of. Are you afraid of failing? Of looking silly? Of losing money? Of being unhappy?

Then, address each fear by writing down ways you can overcome them. For example, if you’re afraid of losing money, can you take a few months to save up a safety net?

4. It’s Just as Much About the Process as It Is About the Result

We’re so wrapped up in results when we think about major life changes. We worry that if we start out towards a big goal, then we might not make it to the finish line.

However, you’re allowed to change your mind. And failing will only help you learn what not to do next time.

Furthermore, just because you don’t reach the final goal doesn’t mean you failed. You chose the goal in the first place, but you’re allowed to alter it if you find that the goal isn’t working out the way you hoped. Failure is not a destination, and neither is success.

Enjoy the process of moving forward[2].

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5. Continue to Pursue Opportunity

If you’re on the fence about a big decision, then you might be worried about getting locked into a position that you can’t escape from.

Think about it a different way. New choices rarely limit your options.

In fact, new pursuits often open up even more opportunities. One of the best things about going after important goals with passion is that they open up chances and options that you never could have expected in the beginning.

If you pursue the interesting opportunities that arise along the path to your goal, then you can be sure that you’ll always have choices.

6. Effort Matters, So Use It

It sounds simple, but one of the big reasons we don’t make life changes is because we don’t try. And we don’t try because then it’s easy to make excuses for why we don’t get what we want.

Flunked that test? Are you stupid? “Of course I’m not stupid. I just didn’t study. I would have gotten an A if I actually studied.”

Stuck in a job you hate? Why haven’t you found a new job yet? “Well, I haven’t really tried to get a new job. I could totally ace that interview if I wanted.”

Why do we make excuses like these to ourselves? It’s because if we try and fail, then we just failed. But if we don’t try, we can chalk it up to laziness.

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Get over it. Failure happens to everyone.

And the funny thing is, if you actually try—because it’s pretty clear that most people aren’t trying—then you’ll win a lot more than you think.

7. Start With Something Manageable

You can’t climb Everest if you don’t try hiking beforehand.

Maybe applying for your dream job seems intimidating right now. What can you start with today?

Can you talk to someone who already has that position and see what they think makes them successful? Can you improve your skills so you meet one of the qualifications? Can you take a free online course to expand your resume?

Maybe you’re not quite ready for a long-term relationship, but you know you want to start dating. Could you try asking out a mutual friend? Can you go out more with friends to practice your communication skills and meet new people?

You don’t need to be a world changer today; you just need to make small life changes in your own world.

More Tips to Help You Make Life Changes

Featured photo credit: Victor Rodriguez via unsplash.com

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