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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 January 21, 2020

5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

In the journey of growth, there are times when we grow and excel. We are endlessly driven and hyped up, motivated to get our goals.

Then there are times when we stagnate. We feel uninspired and unmotivated. We keep procrastinating on our plans. More often than not, we get out of a rut only to get back into another one.

How do you know if you are stagnating? Here are some tell-tale signs:

  • If you have been experiencing chronic procrastination on your goals
  • If you don’t ever feel like doing anything
  • If you keep turning to sleep, eating, games, mindless activities and entertainment for comfort
  • If you know you should be doing something, but yet you keep avoiding it
  • If you have not achieved anything new or significant now relative to 1 month, 2 months or 3 months ago
  • If you have a deep sense of feeling that you are living under your potential

When we face stagnation in life, it’s a sign of deeper issues. Stagnancy in life, just like procrastination, is a symptom of a problem. It’s easy to beat ourselves over it, but this approach is not going to help.

Here, I will share 5 steps to help you move out of this stagnation. They won’t magically transform your life in 1 night (such changes are never permanent because the foundations are not built), but they will help you get the momentum going and help you get back on track.

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1. Realize You’re Not Alone

Everyone stagnates at some point or another. You are not alone in this and more importantly, it’s normal. In fact, it’s amazing how many of my clients actually face the same predicament, even though all of them come from different walks of life, are of different ages, and have never crossed paths.

Realizing you are not alone in this will make it much easier to deal with this period. By trying to “fight it”, you’re only fighting yourself. Accept this situation, acknowledge it, and tell yourself it’s okay. That way, you can then focus on the constructive steps that will really help you.

2. Find What Inspires You

Stagnation comes because there isn’t anything that excites you enough to take action. If you don’t have a habit of setting goals, and instead just leave yourself to daily mundanes, it’s not surprising you are experiencing stagnation.

What do you want to do if there are no limitations? If you can have whatever you want, what will it be? The answers to these questions will provide the fuel that will drive you forward.

On the other hand, even if you are an experienced goal setter, there are times when the goals you set in the past lose their appeal now. It’s normal and it happens to me too. Sometimes we lose touch with our goals, since we are in a different emotional state compared to when we first set them. Sometimes our priorities change and we no longer want to work on those goals anymore. However, we don’t consciously realize this, and what happens is we procrastinate on our goals until it compounds into a serious problem.

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If that’s the case for you, it’s time to relook into your goals. There’s no point in pursuing goals that no longer inspire you. Trash away your old goals (or just put them aside) and ask yourself what you really want now. Then go for them.

3. Give Yourself a Break

When’s the last time you took a real break for yourself? 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? Never? Perhaps it’s time to take a time-out. Prolonged working can cause someone to become disillusioned as they lose sight of who they are and what they want.

Go take some extended leave from work. A few days at bare minimum; a few weeks or months will be great. Some of my ex-colleagues have quit their jobs and took months out to do some self-reflection. Of course, some of us might not have that luxury, so we can stick to a few weeks of leave.

Go on a trip elsewhere and get away from your work and your life. Use this chance to get a renewed perspective of life. Think about your life purpose, what you want and what you want to create for your life in the future.

These are big questions that require deep thinking over them. It’s not about finding the answers at one go, but about taking the first step to finding the answers.

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4. Shake up Your Routines

Being in the same environment, doing the same things over and over again and meeting the same people can make us stagnant. This is especially if the people you spend the most time with are stagnant themselves.

Change things around. Start with simple things, like taking a different route to work and eating something different for breakfast. Have your lunch with different colleagues, colleagues you never talked much with. Work in a different cubicle if your work has free and easy seating. Do something different than your usual for weekday evenings and weekends. Cultivate different habits, like exercising every day, listening to a new series of podcasts every morning to work, reading a book, etc (here’re 6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick). The different contexts will give you different stimulus, which will trigger off different thoughts and actions in you.

When I’m in a state of stagnancy, I’ll get a sense of what’s making me stagnate. Sometimes it’s the environment I’m in, sometimes it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with, sometimes it’s my lifestyle. Most of the times it’s a combination of all these. Changing them up helps to stir myself out of the stagnant mode.

5. Start with a Small Step

Stagnation also comes from being frozen in fear. Maybe you do want this certain goal, but you aren’t taking action. Are you overwhelmed by the amount of work needed? Are you afraid you will make mistakes? Is the perfectionist in you taking over and paralyzing you?

Let go of the belief that it has to be perfect. Such a belief is a bane, not a boon. It’s precisely from being open to mistakes and errors that you move forward.

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Break down what’s before you into very very small steps, then take those small steps, a little step at a time. I had a client who had been stagnating for a long period because he was afraid of failing. He didn’t want to make another move where he would make a mistake. However, not wanting to make a mistake has led him to do absolutely nothing for 2-3 years.

On the other hand, by doing just something, you would already be making progress, whether it’s a mistake or not. Even if you make a supposed “mistake”,  you get feedback to do things differently in the next step. That’s something you would never have known if you never made a move.

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Featured photo credit: Anubhav Saxena via unsplash.com

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