Outsourcing our thinking

From the moment we are born, we look to other people for guidance and answers to the questions we have. We fall over in the playground, we run to mum to get it fixed with a kiss and a band-aid. We get bullied at school, we come home for comfort and advice on what to do next time. We want to learn about technology, we go to university and get taught by a professor.

This continues to extend well into adulthood. We look to our managers, leaders, personalities, news to make decisions for us. To paraphrase Kant, it’s easy to be immature and outsource our thinking and understanding to others. Also consider that just because you read, talk with others, get a degree, it doesn’t mean you love to actually think about things.

This outsourcing works for us in most cases. We want to lose weight, we search for a nutrition app and use it to guide us on what and how much to eat. What this doesn’t do, is encourage us to explore the reasons why losing weight is important, what it means to us and others, how we think about the resistance we might face in going down this path, and so on.

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage (immaturity)
- Immanuel Kant

To actively engage in this thinking takes work. It’s difficult. We’re comfortable with where we’re at and taking a different path is uncertain. There’s no surety on how things will work out., what others’ response might be. We may also worry about having to answer questions people ask that we don’t know the answer to. Kant talks about this resistance as laziness and cowardice.

A battery of processes and methods have been developed to help people make these steps. In the business world, systems like Lean & Agile exist. In health there are numerous diets or systems to get exercising. We have religion, mindfulness, stoicism, and many others. With all of these we can easily suffer from doing the process but not making any sustainable change. As I have been thinking on the reasons for this, it appears we should focus less on following a particular system to change our habits, and more on changing the habits of thought.

Let’s take the “fail fast, fail often” approach prominent in many business start-up discussions. If we adopt those methodologies blindly, we easily fall into short-termism and creating a race to the bottom just to get something done because we can change it later. If we think about what it means to “fail fast, fail often”, we recognise that it asks for an acceptance of failure along the process of learning and moving forward, not an active attempt to fail as quickly as possible.

The outsourcing of thinking can lead us to adopting processes without understanding their intention. We miss the opportunity to use them as a process to change our habits of thought. We must begin to make moves to applying actual thinking in a world of cautious consideration that rewards certainty in our output. Only then might we be able to emerge from the self-inflicted immaturity that Kant describes.

PhilosophyCarl Joseph