by Christopher Zimny
“Although your mind’s opaque
Try thinking more if just
For your own sake
Do what you want to do
And go where you’re going to
Think for yourself
‘Cause I won’t be there with you."
These are the lyrics to the famous Beatles song, “Think For Yourself” from their celebrated album Rubber Soul. It was written by the most talented songwriter of the group—as any true Beatles fan would know: George Harrison.
As it turns out, independent thought, or thinking for yourself, surprisingly today isn’t something that is held to a very high standard. If today, one looked at society as a whole, one will likely find that independent thought is in fact absolutely, pricelessly rare. In her 2009 article “Is Independent Thought Extinct in America?”, social commentator Leslie Weise concludes that soon, “we will live in a country where independent thought will be a thing of the past.” So let us examine three different areas to determine why independent thought is in danger, and realize how important thinking for ourselves really is. First, we’ll look at how we seem to so easily adopt the views of others; second, how individual and independent thought is so vital for our progress and third, ways to break away from society’s grip and learn to think for ourselves. In the end, we will see that â€œThink For Yourselfâ€ is not just another one of the Beatles’ top hits, but in fact has a message that we should all consider.
“In the moment of our creation we receive the stamp of our individuality; and much of life is spent rubbing off or defacing the impression.” said Augustus and Julius Hare in their book Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers. But why do we continue to erode that impression? Doesn’t it seem like a good thing to keep? Authors Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, in their books Generations and Millennials Rising, explain that this generation’s team oriented activities and constant encouragement to accomplish things together, leads teens to develop a sort of sameness mentality which will be lasting throughout life. They point out many generational trends that show us that we will strive to be standardized, and for the most part we’ll do things and think the same thoughts as everyone else.
When I read those books, I thought of the short story Harrison Bergeron. In the story, everyone is the same. There is no creativity, there aren’t any new thoughts, and there is no such thing as above average. Everyone is literally equal. No, Kurt Vonnegut, was not describing Soviet Russia where car drive you, he was describing the United States in the relatively near future. And if we don’t stay on our toes, we just may arrive in our future in just that fashion.
Well-known developmental psychologist William Perry explains that as we mature to adulthood, we go through different stages in determining our own thoughts and opinions. As young people, many of us see the world as if there’s only one right answer, and it’s always the adult’s job the authority figure to give us that answer. Unfortunately though, many adults never really grow out of this stage. Â Instead of first looking to their parents or teachers like they did when they were young for answers, adults immediately look up at a television or down at a newspaper, without thinking about a given situation for themselves first.
But when we rely solely on others to give us all of the information, we lose the ability to think for ourselves. And it is at this time that we can take George Harrison’s timeless advice.Thinking for ourselves is imperative for both our progress as individuals and for mankind as a whole.
Independent thought, as far as the individual is concerned, is vital for learning anything in life successfully. As you might think, it all starts with education; but Howard Gardner, developmental psychologist and professor of Cognition at Harvard University, notes that simply studying and memorizing material doesn’t quite do the trick. He describes how even when students do well at problems like those that are found in the textbook, they do not truly understand what they’ve learned. His point is this: that we have to actually engage ourselves, interact, and explore what we’re learning in order to gain a full understanding of it. Simply reading it or seeing it on television doesnâ€™t do it. Independent thought is crucial, even in these beginning stagesâ€”just as much as it will be fifty years down the roadâ€”in the development of an individual’s mind.
And how it benefits us collectively, well that’s easy to see. The best minds mankind has ever produced are those of independent thinkers: Thomas Edison with the light bulb is a… shining example. Alexander Graham Bell might call in second with his telephone. John Lennon, at least I would imagine, would in third with his vast array of songs. These people truly did change the world, and they did it all with their own minds. Galileo Galilee was the first to prove that the Earth was not the center of the universe… and his radical claims landed him on house arrest for the rest of his life… but don’t let that deter you. If Galileo would have given in to the status quo, thought like everyone else and adopted conventional wisdom, maybe we would still be at the center of the universe and centuries of gaining knowledge of the cosmos may have never even happened.
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted,” said famous British philosopher and social critic, Bertrand Russell. That’s a small bit of advice for those wanting to think independently. I think we could agree, for instance, that if we usually eat at the same restaurants, always eat the same food at those same restaurants, and interact with the same people while eating the same food at those same restaurants… it’s time for a change. Instead of going through the regular routine (whatever that may be), we might read a different type of book, meet new people, take a road trip. Be a little spontaneous.Â Exploring different ways of thinking and doing different things will help us to think for ourselves, because more divers experiences that we have, the better off we will be.
Tom O’Leary, in his article “5 Ways to Develop Independent Thought,” recommends that instead of immediately turning on the television or running to Google, we try thinking for ourselves first. We try to figure out a situation on our own, without the input of anyone elseâ€”at least initially. Further, if you disagree with something, go and throw yourself into the other world for a while. Putting what you hear through this kind of test is certainly the prizewinning way to think independently. Try to really understand the other point of view; whether it’s reading a controversial book or truly listening to the words of someone you may not agree with. In the end, if our views have change somewhat, good. If they haven’t, we can now say that we’ve really looked at both sides and can draw conclusions that are actually ours, based on our own knowledge and experience.
Christopher Hitchens, in his Letters to a Young Contrarian, notes that, “The essence of an independent mind is not what it thinks, but how it thinks.” Thinking for yourself is certainly important, and the results are worth it. The sad part is, although independent thought is by no means hidden, it’s also not fully realized by a vast number of people. So that’s what I ask of you: spread the word of independent thought; encourage it in your parents and classmates, or your friends and coworkers. Remember to think for yourself, “’cause I won’t be there with you.” Don’t forget to question everything. Above all, remember the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous 19th-century German philosopher, who said, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. But no price [—no price—] is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
The article was originally published by The Libertarian Review.