Critical Thinking

March 16, 2020
Andrew DiMeo

Today’s world is undoubtedly filled with complex problems.  To address them will require critical thinking skills. I’m seeing these words splashed all over social media, and I’m certainly contributing to that.  But I’m not so sure critical thinking is well understood. At least, I’ll admit, it’s a topic that has taken me a lifetime to learn, and I’m continuing to learn more every day.  Critical thinking was something I barely learned in school.  I heard about it a lot in school.  From K through 12 I heard that I needed to be a critical thinker.  Throughout my undergraduate studies, I heard that critical thinking skills were important.  Even when pursuing my Master’s and PhD, critical thinking was often referred to, but rarely taught.

Were there some teachers and professors that taught critical thinking?  Sure there were. But these mentors were the exception, not the rule. My mentors of critical thinking were found in diverse places: on a soccer or baseball field, at work with peers, in the lab with a primary investigator (PI) that took me under his wing, or under the dining room table during a large family gathering such as Thanksgiving.  Huh? Under the dining room table?

I was particularly shy as a child.  At large family gatherings, the safest place was being wrapped up in my coat and huddling under the dining room table.  I grew up in a large Italian family in Bergen County, New Jersey. Around the table sat my Aunt, a New York City elementary school teacher for English as a Second Language in Harlem.  You could have been standing next to her marching from Central Park in protest of the Vietnam War the day Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Riverside church.  Across the table was my father, a Catholic Deacon and staunch conservative. You could find him on Saturdays in Newark feeding the poor.  My grandfather, founder of a New York City Union. Grandmother, stay at home mother and caregiver. Grandmother, college educated working teacher. I could go on, but you get the gist of the diversity of opinion sitting around that dining room table.

At the end of the night, everyone would come together and hug and kiss, setting those differences aside.  In some cases those differences may have caused strained relationships.  It wasn’t all roses.  But everyone loved each other and family would come together when times called for unity.  It was from this position, as a very young child, that my perspective for critical thinking evolved.  I was in a position to only listen and never chime in. From this place, I found myself extracting real value from both sides of the table rather than looking for a side to take.  My first lessons in critical thinking included the following:

  • Listen to diverse opinions and seek gold flakes of value in everything and everyone
  • Don’t take a side, but rather assemble those flakes into multiple nuggets of gold
  • Develop new and unique opinions by examining the many nuggets of gold (aka the many possible solutions)
  • Respect everyone’s opinion and never judge them for having it

Critical thinking requires diversity of perspective and collaboration.  In my opinion, it cannot only be done alone in a vacuum, nor a silo. It’s not about choosing from two sides or a few options, it’s about coming up with many possible ways to address problems.

On the soccer and baseball fields, at football practice, at the track, and on the wrestling matts I learned more about critical thinking.  This is the context that brought communication, teamwork, and a common mission into focus. A winning team needs more than one person to be a critical thinker.  It needs the whole team on board. Winning teams need diversity, both mental and physical diversity. The heated debates we had participating as a team were on par with that of the family dinner.  But in the case of winning teams, we all came together as a unit rather than the distancing sometimes seen in family feuds and losing teams.

My summary of lessons learned in critical thinking from sports include:

  • It’s about the mission of the team, not about the needs of any one individual
  • Share the ball
  • Clear communication is key, but not so easy
  • Diversity is paramount for great teams
  • Winning is not guaranteed
  • It’s about preparing to win, not about winning

In a world where we see a decline in competitive sports with an emphasis on participation, this latter point is important to not overlook.  Complex problems that require critical thinking to address are complex by definition due to the uncertainty of proposed solutions. If success of a proposed solution were known up front, then it’s not a complex problem.  Preparing to win while fully embracing and owning failure is a principal attribute of critical thinkers.

In Physics and Biomedical Engineering research labs, at work on New York City movie sets and sound stages, on the job in the medical device industry, and as an entrepreneur; these are the places that as an adult critical thinking crystalized.  This was no longer a game where losing meant not getting a trophy. The financial implications of mistakes were very real. The impact on human life, especially in Biomedical Engineering and medical devices was impossible to ignore. Having a device fail in the field could mean loss of life.  Being on a team that produced a winning product could mean saving, extending, and improving lives.

Clear communication in this setting needed not just be key, but be intentional.  Everything needed to be intentional. Assembling a diverse team needed to be intentional.  Ensuring all of the voices were heard needed to be intentional. Finding the gold flakes: Intentional.  Assembling the flakes into nuggets: Intentional. The concept of intentionality for me is wrapped up into the larger topic of design thinking.  And design thinking is but one ingredient in critical thinking. This could easily go from blog to novel, so skipping to the nuggets, a few more lessons learned as an adult in the art of critical thinking include:

  • You guessed it: Being intentional (thoughtful and with purpose)
  • Diligently define problems, articulate needs, and prioritize outcomes
  • Higher order thinking and thinking at every level (ref Levels of Abstraction)
  • Life-cycle assessment (cradle to grave, multi-perspective, 2nd order impacts and beyond)

These life lessons didn’t come in order and each bullet is not a discrete item, but a complex web of interconnected ideas for what is critical thinking.  Below, I’ve included a summary in one list of lessons learned to date. Considering them all may seem impossible. I might even expect to hear a McKinsey trained management consultant suggest that I’m trying to “boil the ocean.”

A Summary of Lessons Learned

  • Assemble a team and seek stakeholders representing diverse perspectives
  • Be respectful
  • Listen to all the opinions without judgement
  • Commit to clear communication
  • Be intentional, thoughtful, and with purpose
  • Drive personal and project behavior with a mission
  • Diligently define problems, articulate needs, and prioritize outcomes
  • Consider many possible solutions
  • Develop unique and innovative perspectives
  • Prepare to win AND own failure
  • Think at every level from higher order to concrete
  • Perform a life-cycle assessment of existing and proposed solutions
  • *From cradle to grave
  • *Considering perspectives from multiple stakeholders
  • *Considering complex factors such as financial, environmental, and supply chain
  • *Considering 2nd order, 3rd order, and on down the line impacts
  • *Considering logical and emotional outcomes

It may very well be considered an impossible task of trying to boil the ocean IF one is attempting to do it alone.  It’s amazing what different people contribute when bringing diverse life experiences to the table. Critical thinking is about collaboration.  It is about bringing together left brain thinking and right brain thinking. It is about being creative and analytical. It considers the emotional and rational response of stakeholders beyond the first order.

Today, more than ever, we need mission driven minds coming together from diverse backgrounds and experiences with respect and intention to address our world’s greatest challenges.

Health & Happiness for All

Like what you read? Click below to learn more about what we do.