People Power: Are you a critical thinker? - Mar 2018

By Sam Allman

Succeeding in the flooring business, or any business for that matter, is not easy. Capitalism is mean and unforgiving. It doesn’t tolerate ineffectiveness or ineptitude. That’s why most businesses eventually will fail. Many would-be entrepreneurs open new businesses with great enthusiasm, but eventually the fire goes out, and they close the doors.

Failure comes for many different reasons: a downturn in the economy; not knowing how to “do” the business (such as install flooring or sell flooring); not knowing how to run a business (such as reading and using the numbers in a financial statement or creating an organization); not knowing how to lead and manage employees; or not knowing how to manage money, inventory, cash flow, debt or accounts receivable.

Knowledge is power. In order to succeed at an optimum level and do so continuously, you must know what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who and when to ask for help. There is no question that knowledge empowers, and the lack of it is a serious limiting factor. Another important consideration is whether the knowledge that enabled us to begin an endeavor will also equip us to continue if circumstances change-in other words, do we have the knowledge to adapt?

That’s why, in today’s business climate, keeping one’s eyes, ears and minds open to what’s going on-the trends in the industry-and to knowledge that will improve effectiveness in business is important. Going to trade shows, networking with other business owners, scouring business books and trade publications are a must in today’s very competitive business environment. May I brag a little bit here? I am so proud of my two sons, Jason and Shaun, for the success they have had in their businesses. Their growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. Both have continued their educations after college; attend a local Goldman Sachs educational program for small business owners; have joined separate CEO mastermind groups; and hire consultants and coaches for improvement of their businesses.

Yes, it’s true. Having a voracious appetite for knowledge is a factor for success. After all, we don’t know what we don’t know.

The point is that we are now immersed in the information age. There is information everywhere. No one can legitimately complain that the knowledge they needed is not available. We are overwhelmed with knowledge and information. It is not just available to scholars and MBA students. It’s available to everyone. Lack of knowledge is no longer a credible excuse for failing. It’s there for the acquiring.

The issue at hand is sorting through the overwhelming amount of information available to get to the right stuff. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? Some days I want to stick my head in the sand. I read and watch the news and don’t know what to believe. Fake news is real, as is fake knowledge and information. Just because it’s on TV or someone wrote it in a book or put it on the Internet doesn’t mean it is true.

May I vent? In my search for a source of knowledge, I have to find and identify the truth. Along the way, I may be bombarded with an overwhelming number of marketing messages. Just to keep in the know with my friends, children and grandchildren on Facebook, I have to wade through miscellaneous garbage. At least it’s garbage to me. Staying in the know on current events is also difficult. I don’t know what to believe. I often see numerous commentators on the TV screen arguing a point, all talking at the same time, interrupting and being rude to each other. Contention may increase the TV viewership, but it closes my mind. How can we find the truth when there is so much commotion vying for our attention?

The answer: critical thinking. It’s really the most important goal when acquiring an education (knowledge). The central purpose of education is not rote learning-regurgitating or parroting knowledge from a professor or textbook. Its purpose is to teach students to think for themselves in a logical and rational process of avoiding their preconceptions by gathering evidence, contemplating and evaluating alternatives, and coming to a conclusion. Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment, answer or conclusion. That’s how we separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dirt. Critical thinking eliminates cluelessness and ensures effectiveness in a very competitive world.

Critical thinking is a discipline as well as a learned skill. There is no one finite point in time in which someone can say they have mastered critical thinking. It is a pursuit that requires intentional and continued exercise. In this discipline, it is important to question one’s sources of knowledge and influence. Critical thinking is hard work! It requires a willingness to approach information in ways that might seem uncomfortable, challenging and difficult.

If you want to be a critical thinker, you first have to be mindful. As I wrote in my previous column, mindfulness is a state of observation; it is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. Being mindful requires you to observe yourself in the process of thinking. Your awareness or mindfulness must verify that you are following the criteria for critical thinking. Let’s look at each criterion individually.

Critical thinkers are flexible in that they can tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. There may be no definitive right or simple answer to a question. Acceptance of ambiguity means a tolerance for inconsistency where differences cannot be resolved but are managed in a dynamic ever-changing balance. The goal is to avoid cognitive dissonance (confusion). Acceptance of ambiguity protects us from quickly choosing easy answers to complex questions. It may require a person to simultaneously maintain multiple and conflicting knowledge in their minds while maintaining the ability to function. Critical thinkers are able to see many different dimensions, classifications, theories or alternatives to explain a situation and therefore make better decisions. Can you accept that there may be more than one right answer? Do you have to be right? Do you consider multiple alternatives?

Mindfulness allows critical thinkers to identify inherent biases and assumptions. We all naturally stereotype. It’s easier to categorize people and put them in pigeonholes. Because of that, not only do we stereotype, but we also have personal biases, some of which we are unaware of. Questioning personal assumptions is a characteristic of critical thinkers.

Critical thinkers maintain an air of skepticism, even about ideas with which they agree. It’s easy for me to remain skeptical with what I hear on TV and read on the Internet because of the issue of “fake news.” My personal goal would be to be like Albert Einstein, who was more interested in what was right rather than being right. Sometimes it is difficult separating fact from opinion. Critical thinkers work hard to separate facts from personal opinions. Skepticism helps open-mindedness. The problem with many of us is our minds are like concrete, all mixed up and permanently set.

Critical thinkers don’t oversimplify and are careful of simple answers. We need to be careful when people generalize from their own personal experience and ignore scientific evidence to the contrary.

Critical thinkers examine available evidence before drawing conclusions. What is the research on each issue? Was the research well designed?

Critical thinkers avoid emotional reasoning. Critical thinking and emotion can coexist, but it becomes problematic when emotion interferes with clear thinking. It’s like a mother refusing to believe that her son is the one causing problems at school or a spouse blaming all the marital problems on the other. Blaming, shaming and justifying are emotional reasoning. Be careful. They cloud the truth and stifle critical thinking. It helps to take the role of the detached observer; this perspective is useful when you encounter obstacles or strong emotions.

“Facts” can change over time. They represent the state of knowledge at any given time. Remember, at one point people believed that the sun revolved around the Earth and that the Earth was flat. Critical thinkers understand that they may have to modify their conclusions at a later time.

Thinking that goes beyond one’s experiences, worldview and values is essential for seeing the world from new perspectives. It’s essential for creativity and innovation. Critical thinking takes a more radical, reflective and questioning stance that does not accept at face value what is taken for granted. New facts and new knowledge should always generate more questions than answers. Critical thinkers are curious, skeptical, logical and accept ambiguity.

Knowledge is power because it provides more alternatives and choices to what actions are available to us. Knowledge and information is readily accessible. The problem is sorting through the abundance of it and finding the right stuff. If you want to increase your people power, critical thinking is a discipline that you must practice. Learning anything takes time and effort. But, it’s worth becoming a disciple of critical thinking. Start by becoming mindful of your thinking process.