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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Don't Outsource Your Thinking

Updated: Jul 8

If there's one thing I've learned from attaining my Ph.D. it is this — don't outsource your thinking. As a society, we've become lazy, complacent, and passive absorbers of information and I want to urge you to fight the penchant to do this.

I'm stunned to see many adults, including talented professionals and experienced leaders continue to outsource their thinking and blindly go after and accept flashy, shiny things without using critical thinking. It's as though, if something isn't written about in a business website or magazine or talked about on a podcast in the last few years, then it wasn't already in existence. And what's more troubling, that if something is not featured or written or talked about in a business website or magazine, then you (as a living, breathing, thinking being) could not have come up with it yourself.

The dangerous lie about the Creator Economy is this: Creators Have All the Ideas and Insights. This is absolutely absurd!

Many ideas that we think of as new are oftentimes based on ideas written about and covered in great details many decades, and even centuries, ago. Indeed, when you take a step back and really evaluate the merits of these, you'll be quite surprised to discover (and quite disappointingly so) that what's peddled as new or innovative is nothing but a rehashing or repackaging of something quite old.

Many years ago, I had someone ask me how they could become an expert in industrial and organizational psychology and a leader specializing in leadership development. They thought it was something quick, like a masterclass, course, or online academy. My answer to them was most likely a huge letdown because I told them that it required many years of educational studies as well as many years of working to gain experience to become knowledgeable and skilled to work in leadership development. Sadly, this person was looking for and had expected a "hack" or a shortcut on how to achieve this overnight. They had foolishly assumed that I was either an overnight success or had taken some shortcuts to get to where I was. Neither one is true.

Whether it's in a website or printed magazine, such as Inc., Entrepreneur, Forbes, or Harvard Business Review, the amount of people who claim they invented or created something novel, ground-breaking, and life-changing is as far-fetched as it is sad.

In this creator economy where so much value is placed on the amount of contents we produce, there's incredible pressure to keep churning out something new. I believe, because of this, it has led to more instances of taking credit for being a thought leader or originator of an idea, and, particularly, the blatant plagiarizing and ripping off of other people's written words and claiming it as one's own.

It's becoming harder and harder to discern whether an idea is, in fact, something novel if we don't do our due diligence and fact-check and carefully examine the ideas, thoughts, and claims we read or hear about today.

Critical thinking is more important now than it's ever been. When we blindly accept what's promoted & sold to us as truth, without questioning the substance, veracity, and origin, we becoming unsuspecting perpetuators of these falsehoods.

Critical Thinking - What Is It?

"The most fundamental concept of critical thinking is simple and intuitive: All humans think. It is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or down-right prejudiced. Critical thinking begins, then, when we start thinking about our thinking with a view toward improving it." -Richard Paul and Linda Elder (2014a, p. 6)

"Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it" (Paul & Elder, 2014b, p. 2).

"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness" (Elder & Paul, 2008, p. 58)

Critical Thinking and Learning

"The key insight into the connection of learning to critical thinking is this: The only capacity we can use to learn is human thinking. If we think well while learning, we learn well. If we think poorly while learning, we learn poorly" (Paul & Elder, 2005, p. 10).

Critical Thinking and Teaching

More than a decade ago, when I was teaching undergraduate students (online), one of the training documents that was provided to us (instructors/professors) was a "General Teaching Methods for Applying and Promoting Critical Thinking Skills" (University of Phoenix, 2009).

When asking non-critical thinkers to address problems or assignments, we should encourage them to do the following:

  • Consider the goal or purpose.

  • Restate the question in various ways.

  • Gather information.

  • Be aware of inferences and assumptions

  • Clarify ideas used to understand the problem.

  • Understand their point of view.

  • Think through implications or possibilities.

To help people develop and foster critical thinking skills, encourage them to do the following:

  • State what they mean and provide examples.

  • Explain how they know their claims are true or how to find out.

  • Explain how their ideas relate to the topic.

  • Explain how their ideas mesh, why they make sense, and how they reached conclusions.

  • Consider how their ideas or behaviors make others feel or think.

  • Practice intellectual integrity.

  • Treat oneself and others with respect.

There are Three Main Kinds of Thinkers (Elder & Paul, 2019):

  1. The Naive Thinker: The person who doesn't care about, or isn't aware of, his or her thinking

  2. The Selfish Critical Thinker: The person who is good at thinking, but unfair to others

  3. The Fairminded Critical Thinker: The person who is not only good at thinking, but also fair to others

Becoming a Strong-sense/Fairminded Critical Thinker

It's important to point out that while you can use your critical thinking skills for your own selfish gain (i.e., weak-sense critical thinkers), you can also choose to use those skills in a fairminded way (i.e., strong-sense critical thinkers).

Weak-sense critical thinkers: those who use the skills, abilities, and to some extent, the traits of critical thinking to serve their selfish interests; unfair or unethical critical thinkers (Paul & Elder, 2014a, p. 22).

Weak-sense, or unethical, critical thinkers have the following pronounced tendencies (Paul & Elder, 2014a, p. 22):

1. They do not hold themselves or those with whom they ego-identify to the same intellectual standards to which they hold opponents.

2. They do not reason empathically within points of view or frames of reference with which they disagree.

3. They tend to think monologically (within a narrow perspective).

4. They do not genuinely accept, though they may verbally espouse, the values of fairminded critical thinking.

5. They use intellectual skills selectively and self-deceptively to foster and serve their selfish interests at the expense of truth.

6. They use critical thinking skills to identify flaws in the reasoning of others and sophisticated arguments to refute others’ arguments before giving those arguments due consideration.

7. They routinely justify their irrational thinking through highly sophisticated rationalizations.

8. They are highly skilled at manipulation.

Strong-sense critical thinkers: fairminded critical thinkers.

Strong-sense or ethical critical thinkers have the following pronounced tendencies (Paul & Elder, 2014a, p. 23):

1. They deeply question their own views.

2. They reconstruct empathically the strongest versions of viewpoints and perspectives opposed to their own.

3. They reason dialectically (multilogically) in such a way as to determine when their own point of view is at its weakest and when an opposing point of view is at its strongest.

4. They change their thinking when the evidence requires it, without regard to their own selfish or vested interests.

5. They do not place their own rights and needs above the rights and needs of others.

"We believe that the world already has too many skilled selfish thinkers, too many sophists and intellectual con artists, too many unscrupulous lawyers and politicians who specialize in twisting information and evidence to support their selfish interests and the vested interests of those who pay them. We hope that you, the reader, will develop as a highly skilled, fairminded thinker, one capable of exposing those who are masters at playing intellectual games at the expense of the well-being of innocent people. We hope as well that you develop the intellectual courage to argue publicly against what is unethical in human thinking" (Paul & Elder, 2014a, p. 23).

Universal Intellectual Standards and Questions to Apply Them

Below are Some Universal Intellectual Standards and Questions to Apply Them (For a more comprehensive coverage of the Universal Intellectual Standards and Questions, see The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools by Richard Paul and Linda Elder [2014b]):

Clarity [understandable, the meaning can be grasped]:

• Could you elaborate on that point?

• Could you express that point in another way?

• Could you give me an illustration?

• Could you give me an example?

Accuracy [free from errors or distortions, true]:

• Is that really true?

• How could we check that?

• How could we find out if that is true?

Relevance [relating to the matter at hand]:

• How is that connected to the question?

• How does that bear on the issue?

Logic [the parts make sense together, no contradictions]:

• Does this really make sense?

• Does that follow from what you said?

• How does that follow?

• Before you implied this and now you are saying that, I don’t see how both can be true.

Fairness [justifiable, not self-serving or one-sided]:

• Are we considering all relevant viewpoints in good faith?

• Are we distorting some information to maintain our biased perspective?

• Are we more concerned about our vested interests than the common good?

"As humans we live in systems of meanings that typically entrap us; as critical thinkers we learn to raise our thinking to the conscious level so we can carefully examine these systems; we work to free ourselves from the traps of undisciplined, instinctive thought" (Paul & Elder, 2014a, p. 49).

"Critical thinkers routinely ask questions that apply intellectual standards to thinking. The ultimate goal is for these questions to become so spontaneous in thinking that they form a natural part of our inner voice, guiding us to better and better reasoning" (Paul & Elder, 2014a, p. 129).

"The best thinkers don't believe any and everything they hear or read. They use intellectual standards to decide what to believe. They use intellectual standards to keep their thinking on track" (Elder & Paul, 2019, p. 11).

  • Be clear — Can you state what you mean? Can you give examples?

  • Be accurate — Are you sure it's true?

  • Be relevant — Is it related to what we are thinking about?

  • Be logical — Does it all fit together?

  • Be fair — Am I considering how my behavior might make others feel?

  • Be reasonable — Have we thought through this problem thoroughly and with an open mind?

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

Organizational & Leadership Development Leader


Elder, L. & Paul, R. (2019). The Aspiring Thinker's Guide to Critical Thinking. Rowman & Littlefield.

Elder, L. & Paul, R. (2008). The Thinker's Guide to Intellectual Standards: The Words That Name Them And the Criteria That Define Them. The Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2005). A Guide for Educators to Critical Thinking Competency Standards: Standards, Principles, Performance Indicators, and Outcomes with a Critical Thinking Master Rubric. Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2014a). Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life (2nd ed.). Pearson Education, Inc.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2014b). The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools (7th ed.). Foundation for Critical Thinking.

University of Phoenix. (2009). General Teaching Methods for Applying and Promoting Critical Thinking Skills.


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