Critical Thinking is Bad for Your Health (or at least your happiness)

I'm about to go on record as a hypocrite. In the classes I teach at Bates - especially my upper-level seminars - I stress the importance of critical thinking skills. A liberal arts education is about learning to think, write and speak critically and creatively, I always say, my chest puffed up professorily. I even put critical thinking at the top of many of my syllabi. But here goes:  Critical thinking skills will be your undoing. Or, in the context of our class, they'll be your fast path to an A. (I suppose they should top our syllabus, too...) I began thinking about this when reading sweetlyindecisive's recent post What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? She did a nice job identifying and laying out her five dream careers. What struck me, though, was how she immediately justified why each path wouldn't work for her. I recognized myself in her post. Here's a younger version of me:

  • I'd love to be a television news anchorperson. But I'm not competitive enough to cut it, and I hate cities, where they're based.
  • I'd love to be a fashion designer. But I can't sew worth beans and I don't follow fashion trends closely enough.
  • I'd love to be a cow farmer in the Swiss Alps. But heights freak me out and cows scare me. (Alright, some justifications make sense.)

Why are we so quick to shoot down our dreams? Why do we naturally follow up our desires with our "and here's why I can't/won't/will never do it"? It's our critical thinking skills, I tell you. They're the culprit. So hone up those bad boys up, committed Career Avoiders. The finer your critical thinking skills are, the more readily you can train them on yourself. If you want to get really good, go to grad school. Particularly a PhD program. First you'll learn how to tear apart other people's research and writing, bloody shred by bloody shred. Then you'll start tearing your own work apart. Then you'll start tearing your self apart. Before you know it, you'll be criticizing your actions before you even make them. Me at the dining hall (circa 2002):  What was I thinking, reaching out to get a hamburger? That's an awful choice, both for my health and for the well-being of animals the world over. I'll get a salad instead. But wait, is that lettuce locally grown? Or was it shipped from across the country - or worse, from another country - unleashing barrels of used oil in its wake? I think I'll just sit down and eat my nails instead. It's fun. My grad school classmates and I were very happy people. (So what if more than one of us was flagged as "hypochondriac" at the Health Center?) We do the same critical thinking with our dream careers. We shoot them down before we've even begun to make progress toward them. Yes, decision making requires us to discard options so that we can zero in on one choice. But what if we discount ALL of our options? Or worse still, what if we discount them for questionable reasons? Like with my childhood fantasy careers above, I could've learned to sew or to be more assertive; I could've started following fashion trends; I could've realized that many cities aren't big and bad like the New York City in my hometown's backyard. (There is, alas, absolutely no way of saving the cow farmer dream.) I see my students doing this all the time - discarding all of their options, and largely for reasons that are well within their control. There's a term for this:  analysis paralysis. The venerated scholarly source Wikipedia defines analysis paralysis as "over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome." It's highly related to the paradox of choice, which we explored in a previous class. Case in point:  I've been planning this very blog for five years. FIVE years. Talk about paralysis. Entire cities have been planned, built and occupied in less time. But my laser-sharp Ivy League critical thinking skills generated every conceivable reason for why I shouldn't start a career blog for twentysomethings. (I'd reconstruct those criticisms for you here but I'm afraid it would then take me another five years to post again.)

Water dream

If you're going to dream, then dream. Lose track of reality. Imagine possibilities, not limitations. Conjure what's possible, not probable. After all, is there a little thought cloud that appears in the middle of your nighttime dreams that says "That doesn't make sense! That could never happen!" When I was recently married to Daniel Craig, kissing my real-life husband, and flirting with Dan Stevens all while boldly navigating a raft down a raging torrent that led to a boiling sea of chocolate sauce, nobody said, "that is ridiculous!" (Least of all me; it was hella exciting.) Let your dreams grow - without interference from your meddling critical thinking skills - because I'll tell you, life will throw plenty of "reality" into your path soon enough. The only way you'll make it to some reasonable approximation of your dream career is if you've let that dream grow super-sized and robust enough to survive the chipping away life will inevitably do. It's like hurling a snowball at a friend - if you start with a teeny, tiny, soft, dopey snowball, the friction with the air will make it disappear long before it reaches its target. But if you start with a large, tough, herculean snowball, it won't only reach your friend, it just may knock him out. (Score!) Unless, of course, you're actually here to learn how to avoid a fulfilling career. In which case, enroll in one my real-world classes. I'll give you plenty of training in the critical thinking skills that'll screw you up royally. So tell me, what's your dream? (No reality intrusions allowed!)

I don't know what the heck this is. But it looks as otherwordly as a dream to me. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)