How to Think

Thinking Is Hard

Every so often I threaten to nestle a trash can close beside our mailbox so that most of what arrives there (courtesy of Rural Free Delivery) can hit the recycling bin at the Warren Transfer Station without ever having to come up the hill into our house. Then, there are days when it feels as if the main purpose of e-mail is the exercise of deleting most of it. Throw in social media messages, the podcasts I listen to, and the books on my nightstand, and, like you, I am standing in the drenching spray of what Alan Jacobs refers to as an “informational fire hose.” No wonder we sometimes struggle to think clearly and well.

In How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Jacobs initiates a conversation about what it means to think well, and he begins with an astute definition:

“Thinking is . . . what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help.” (14)

With the fire hose always on, our minds cope by engaging in snap judgments, often without conscious reflection. Jacobs diagnoses the prevailing orientation as “a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (21) Almost a century ago, T.S. Eliot concluded that “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotion for thoughts.”

If you are looking for step-by-step instructions on how to be a better thinker (as the title might imply),  this is not that book. Thinking is an art, but while art may be resistant to strict rules, there are good practices to follow and harmful habits to be avoided. Alan Jacobs offers surprising insights for getting our minds back again:

Don’t Think for Yourself

While we tend to attribute great thinking to independence, the truth is more likely that people with whom we agree and whose thinking we admire are thinking with other people who also think well. We recognize this more readily with those who reject our views, citing bad influences. Since thinking is such a social activity, it’s important that our interactions with other human beings lead us toward what is ultimately true and good.

How to Think draws on C.S. Lewis’s observations about “The Inner Ring” to differentiate between good and healthy memberships that lead to excellent thinking and collectives that may “make a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” (56) In fact, “The Inner Ring” (an unhealthy membership) discourages thinking and excludes those who question the group-think.  Lewis cites the camaraderie among characters in The Wind in the Willows as an example of healthy interaction that leads to good thinking: “Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad . . . are all so different from one another, made of such dramatically varying stuff, yet taken together they are far greater than the sum of their parts. Each requires the others to be complete. . . Each is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group.” (61)

Thinking Is Not Strictly Rational

We’re not called upon to suppress all feeling in order to think well. English philosopher John Stuart Mill argues that pure analysis is insufficient without joining both thought and feeling, particularly if the thinker is responding out of a healthy place that perceives the world as it truly is. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio concluded that individuals with inadequate emotional responses to a situation were also likely to be “seriously compromised” in their ability to make decisions. (84)

Practice Wisdom in Your Repugnance

It’s common to assign labels to people who hold views that repel us:  Monster! Hater! Liberal! Raging Fundamentalist! This is not a helpful practice, and tends to shut down our thinking. Jacobs’s counsel when faced with repugnant ideas is to “seek out the best–the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded–representatives of the positions you disagree with. If your first thought on reading that sentence is that smart, sensible, and fair-minded people are extremely rare among your opponents, I would ask you to reflect on whether you think they are any more common among those who agree with you.”

It turns out that James’ biblical admission that we all “stumble in many ways” is a helpful mindset in dealing with disagreements. Being wrong is not a pathological condition.

Clear thinking is the best way to avoid harmful prejudices.

English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances . . .” (86) His point is that we can’t analyze rationally every single act or thought. Therefore, it is crucial that we “distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.” (87) Of course, this only underscores the importance of learning to think with the best people and to avoid adopting the thoughts of unhealthy thinkers.

Beware the Overly Open Mind

After numerous arguments with H.G. Wells (and others), G.K. Chesterton quipped that the object of opening the mind is not simply to open the mind, but is rather like opening the mouth: the object “is to shut it again on something solid.” (126) It’s far better to remain unsettled on an issue than to snap the mind shut on a conviction that is convenient and popular–but false.

It’s easy to get lazy in dealing with the information fire hose. Jacob’s admits, to my great relief:  “Thinking is hard.” (128) But thinking is also hopeful, and the alternative to conscientious mental effort is to be “blown about” as Paul described it, subject to whatever wind of thought passes through. Making the commitment to cognitive courage may be hard work, but the choice to persevere in becoming a better thinker is an act of hope that, in the long run as well as  in the process, will produce a better disciple.

This book was provided by Currency, a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC, via Blogging for Books in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I  am participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to If you should decide to purchase How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, simply click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

How to Think
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64 thoughts on “Thinking Is Hard”

  1. Thanks for the review Michele. I have a friend and we say, together we have a whole brain. I use my husband as my brain sometimes, he’s the smartest person I know and I take full advantage of that. Thinking IS hard. Nice post, like the look of the website, very clean and refreshing, graphics look good and love that new signature. ~ Abby


    1. In our house, we share a brain. Some days, I have it. Other days, my husband has custody of it. Good think we like to be together.
      And it’s great to have your eyes out there looking at things from a visual perspective. I’m pretty happy with the new signature as well . . . 🙂 (Thank you!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m blessed to be married to a great thinker, especially when it comes to really meditating on and digesting God’s Word, how it interacts with and how it should influence our thinking. That doesn’t mean using it like a club, but rather as a filter, seeking to view things from God’s perspective (as much as possible) and with an understanding of what He says is true and good.

    Like you, I’m greatly saddened by the harsh, often mean-spirited, discourse in the world and our nation, in particular, today. May we seek to think and speak like Jesus did even with those who disagree with us.


  3. It has been said that one of the greatest tragedies of this life is that people no longer think. Even the Bible tells us to do so; we’re supposed to meditate on God’s Word, and think on whatever is good and pure….
    Thanks for sharing this review, Michele. Blessings to you.


    1. We can get away without thinking in this present age, right? Smart phones and Google puts all the data at our fingertips. No need to remember anything. Thanks for your reminder about the biblical advice about using our brains to “think on these things.”


  4. Wow – my brain is panting from exertion just reading this. 🙂 I love what you quoted from Chesterton about the point of having an open mind being to close it again on something solid.


    1. Me, too! That guy is popping up everywhere in my reading since I started in on Orthodoxy.
      And as I was reading Jacobs’s book, I realized that his name sounded familiar and remembered a book on my shelf that he wrote about C.S.Lewis. I wish I’d remembered it because he had some good things to say about Till We Have Faces.


  5. Thanks for this great post, Michele. Just last night as I was listening to a sermon, the Pastor spoke about our tendency in discussions to always have to be “right.” Why is it so hard for us to back away from the heated conversation & be able to say, “I was wrong,” if even for just a part of our thinking? I am so thankful that we can run to God for those difficult times of thinking and speaking! Oh, and yes, I would love to hear those things that Jacobs had to say about our friend, “Orual.” 🙂


  6. Thank you for this thorough review! (I love a good long book review!) Since I have been accused of occasionally over-thinking, I “think” I would really like this book! I could use some help to find that sweet spot – somewhere in between over-thinking and the snap judgement.


    1. My kids have an in joke over my (apparently funny?) tendency to over think things, so I was really helped by the way Jacobs described thinking and encouraged a thoughtful approach to life in his book.


  7. All too often I wonder why I can’t focus, can’t seem to think clearly. But then I realize all that I let in. I open myself up to everyone’s thoughts, opinions, rants, whims, and ideas without giving my own (or God’s) priority. Maybe it’s time I closed some doors and was more careful about what I let in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me, too. And I’m kind of an information junkie. I want to be listening to a podcast or reading something all the time, and I need to slow down and process in silence more of the time. I’ve set the car as off limits to “noise” when I’m driving alone, and that’s a good boundary for me.


  8. Two minds are better than one. Thanks for the review Michelle. I love the idea of putting a trash can by the mailbox. I remember when I used to love getting mail – not so much anymore. HA! My poor shredder is full all the time.


  9. I think you are absolutely right. We’ve lost the art of thinking in this country. So much of what goes on on social media is just regurgitation of what people have heard others say or written without ever taking a moments time to consider the logic or reason or do any fact checking at all. Christians need to be careful not to fall into the same trap… after all, God does say… come let us reason together… thanks!


  10. My brain never seems to stop thinking, my husband on the other hand can quiet his mind with ease. We are always on different wavelengths too. Yet we fit together well and compliment one another, he is logical and mathematical, I am all about emotion and words. Interesting to think about all you are said here. Thanks for sharing this with #mg Have a fabulous week lovely lady

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for this review, Michele. Such truth. We need iron sharpening iron. Happens regularly in my home – my husband is a great truth speaker. Love this quote – so rich with truth:

    “Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad . . . are all so different from one another, made of such dramatically varying stuff, yet taken together they are far greater than the sum of their parts. Each requires the others to be complete. . . Each is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group.” (61)


  12. Ha! I love this: “Being wrong is not a pathological condition.” Whew! It’s a good thing! lol
    I also like that: “becoming a better thinker is an act of hope that, in the long run as well as in the process, will produce a better disciple.”
    So, I guess if we want to become better disciples, we’d better put on our thinking caps! 🙂


    1. I think we all have lists that exceed our available time. It’s fun to read the thoughts of others on books we may never get to, and yes–we need a voice of reason in all the noise of loud opinions.


  13. Michele,
    I had to come back to read this post, as I have been accused of “thinking too much.” I’m not sure if that is possible, but I appreciated the insights I found here and am reminded about what a smart man and thinker C.S. Lewis was. Also fondly remember Wind in the Willows and perhaps understand why I liked it so much 🙂
    Thank you,
    Bev xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have such vivid images of Mr. Toad racing down the road in his crazy car! And his friends’ disapproval. We’re all different like that. And yet all connected by the same story line. Thanks, Bev, for the important role you play in this gathering of friends.


  14. A very interesting review. I don’t necessarily agree with the author of this book because I often think best when I’m alone but I can understand how he gets to his hypothesis on the social aspect of thinking. We are always thinking even when we don’t acknowledge that we are. Social influences over our thinking is there and we need to be aware of it. #ABloggingGoodTime


    1. Yes, his point is that we can’t avoid being influenced, so we’d better be careful who we allow to speak into or lives in any form. I loved the way he brought C.S. Lewis’s Inner Ring thinking into his argument.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. “it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be”

    I love this so much. It appeals to the philosopher in me.


    1. Ha! That’s exactly my feeling about reading this book, but I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. I’ve always enjoyed thinking about thinking, and Jacobs did such a good job without taking us into an ivory tower mode.


  16. This review made me scratch my head in a good way, Michele. What interesting points! I love a good read that challenges the common thread of belief in culture, and this book is clearly chalked full of such challenges! It’s going on the reading list! 🙂 The Eliot quote was great: ““when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotion for thoughts.” So true!


    1. I find my self doing that little lazy substitute myself sometimes, particularly in this complicated culture with so much controversy and loud voices coming from both sides of the fence. May we find grace to really think things through and respond in love rather than just picking a tribe based on how we feel in the moment.


    1. I was so glad to read your review as a prequel to the book. It’s so great to share books with friends. And I know I took more notice of the ending of the book because I’d read your thoughts on it.
      This is one book that my mind keeps coming back to as I read other books and they mention the topic of thinking.


  17. This post made me think of a response to an acquaintance who recently told me that he believed Christianity to be mythology (I happen to be a Christ-follower). He didn’t say it to debate with me and nor did I make it into a debate (like I may have at one time in my life). It allowed me to ask more questions about his background, experiences and beliefs to understand why he sees things that way. Thinking critically allows us to be patient…and allows the Spirit to guide us in conversations so that we can be shining example instead of ranting fools! Thanks for this review!


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