Thinking For Ourselves

Wisdom is all around, or so we’re told. But how much of this wisdom is really wise? Are we thinking for ourselves? Can we tell the difference between deep knowledge and educational aspirin? Or between treasure and photocopies of diamonds?

The internet plies us with pithy quotes that name-drop borrowed braininess, but do they really help us?
So, are there tests that we can use to judge the good judgement? Something better than ‘persuasively worded’ or ‘makes sense’? Or irrelevant?

Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Journalism is a good place to look. Amuse yourself reading interviews and noting that the author is struggling to identify phrases to highlight as wise, albeit out of context. Conversely, other articles need no such treatment: their sagacity leaps at you, but may leave you dreaming and wondering as the power of the key comments blunt your will to read.

Classic books, survivors of a million reads, pass on a handy clue: endurance. These, by definition, are candidates. Top charters still after decades or centuries.

Successful authors too are candidates, irrespective of the field of their achievement. Kick out ego trips though, we’re after quality, valiant sharing of insight.


Quotes: Borrowed Thought

Quotes hold a special place. Not because they’re amazing but because they seem misused and overused.

It’s de rigueur to break up an article with quotes. I do it myself. Don’t we all reel a little when biffed in the face by a 500-word paragraph or 10 dense pages without so much as a cup of tea to rest our eyes? The quote gives us a pause for breath: we can accept it as a single unit, without trying to relate it to an inconvenient line of thought.

But quotes are dangerous too. They create an illusion of wisdom and not wisdom itself. How many of us would willingly fly on a plane piloted by an ubtrained captain who’d read some wise pilot quotes?

No, quotes are really summaries, excerpts which, while they might stand-alone, are best used to identify books and authors to read. It’s like the difference between going on holiday and simply buying a set of holiday photos. The depth of a quote resides in its context, the surrounding narrative and as an aide memoir to the bigger picture. Just like a holiday snap.

Let’s not forget our friend, the quote’s cousin in a smart business suit: the ‘one thing that will make you rich’. Clickbait, or as proponents prefer, success programming. Sorry dude, I prefer to know what I’m getting. I don’t need to learn the secret of which chamber the Russian roulette bullet is in. Would a clothing store impress with ‘three garments to make you a winner’? Not me. Writing needs to do more than that to win my attention.


The Great and the Wise

Whilst we’re here, let’s pop the bubble of mystique surrounding authority and rank. Society confers rank and authority. Whereas, the building blocks of experience are pain, mistakes and healed wounds, and cleverness that comes from love of knowledge for its own sake. Ranks and authority might be clever or experienced. Or not.

It’s easy to confuse authority and wisdom. All presidents are authoritative but not all are wise. Authority bestows no inherent wisdom, which could explain why it’s often surrounded by detachment and secrecy.

When you see the other side chopping off heads, waterboarding doesn’t sound very severe.

And indeed

Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’?

Donald Trump

Popular wisdom, an oxymoron if ever there was, is dangerous when accepted without critical thought. But have fun with barfly sages, play along, and ask earnest questions. There’s no harm in it, in a bar.

And if you don’t agree? Excellent. Because critical thinking, thinking for ourselves,  and awareness make all the difference. Tear it apart if you must but don’t blindly accept opinion as wise or you might end up the proud owner of a bottle of snake oil.

I always advise people never to give advice.

P.G. Wodehouse


You may enjoy The Misdirection of Self-Improvement

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Writer & Coffee Drinker. Authenticity is the new zeitgeist.