How to Think for Yourself and Why You Should (or Shouldn’t)

Thinking for yourself can be one of the most liberating and empowering things you can do in life. It can also one of the most isolating. In this installment I’ll talk a bit about how to and why you should (or shouldn’t) think for yourself as it applies to design and life in general.

Let’s start with how rare a truly original thought is. Think about it for a minute, when was the last time you really heard something new? Not something that’s new to you but something that’s actually new—an original thought? Even in design, an industry that prides itself on originality, it often feels like everything has already been done. So why is it so hard to come up with an original thought and think for ourselves?

One theory is that human beings, are for the most part, social creatures and the fear of being alienated inhibits thoughts that are out of the norm. To be perfectly honest, this fear is actually founded on some very real consequences. To illustrate this point, I’ll use an example you probably all learned about in school: Copernicus. Copernicus, to refresh your memory, was a 16th century astronomer who theorized that the earth revolves around the sun contrary to the common held belief of the time that the sun orbits the earth. Now if we’re being totally fair here, Copernicus wasn’t the first to propose this hypothesis—no it was actually first hypothesized around 1700 years earlier by Aristarchus of Samos—but that’s another story. Anyway, the point is that Copernicus waited until he was on his deathbed to publish this theory. And he did so because he knew once published he would be ostracized and possibly even persecuted for this idea.

“But that was 500 years ago” you might say. “Surely we’ve progressed as a society since then?” Well, sure we’ve made many advances—but to change human nature takes a long time. In 1933 Fritz Zwick was the first to use the Virial Theorem to infer the existence of unseen dark matter. He was largely ignored and dismissed as eccentric. Today however, while still unconfirmed, the existence of dark matter is largely accepted by the astronomical community. It took quite a while for Fritz Zwick to be vindicated and was an outcast for many years as a result of this idea.

Now even if new or different ideas were socially accepted, there are still a number of barriers to effectively thinking for one’s self in today’s society (especially here in America). The deregulation of the FCC and the subsequent elimination of the fairness doctrine in 1987, by then president Ronald Reagan, is another such barrier. The fairness doctrine, in short, ensured that the media present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. Now regardless of your political affiliation, since the removal of the fairness doctrine, we’ve moved toward a news for entertainment sake standard where real reporting is more often than not replaced by misinformation and hate mongering on both sides (the right and left) in favor of ratings. This has brewed a culture where instead of embracing our differences and discussing them in an open and civil manner we shut down and resort to name calling. Without these discussions there’s no hope of resolving our differences, be it in politics, the workplace or with your spouse.

Next comes objectivity. Objectivity is a tricky thing, in large part due to a little (and sometimes big) thing called ego (I wrote a bit about this last week here). Everyone has an ego. It’s how you perceive yourself and your place in the world. It’s totally normal to have one—just don’t let it get in your way. Now, where objectivity gets tricky is that it requires you to separate your ideas from yourself. Most people see their thoughts and ideas as an extension of themselves and in turn anchor their thoughts and actions to their ego. Again, this is normal. If, however, you are able to separate your ideas and the work you produce from yourself then you’ll be able to approach new ideas and feedback with an open mind—which can lead to some amazing results.

Finally, ask questions. A lot of them…seriously — question everything. This is the foundation of the scientific method and can lead to some sobering realizations. Imagine if Alessandro Volta, and subsequently no one else, had ever asked “I wonder if we could store and harness electricity”. We’d still be living by candle light and sending letters via the Pony Express instead of watching Netflix and sending messages instantly.

So is it worth it? As a designer I definitely feel it’s worth thinking for myself. And I cherish when colleagues do the same—even and especially when those views or thoughts differ from my own. That’s where things really get interesting in my opinion. In fact some of the best best work I’ve done has been on projects where we challenge industry standards. Take JetBlue for example: My Creative Director and I started by questioning the then industry standard of having a tiny little booker in the top left corner and spamming the rest of the page with “deals” that typically bare little to no relevance to users. Instead we decided to give more prominence to the booker (which is the primary use of the page), and elevate the login/signup module to improve TrueBlue membership enrollment (you can read more about the JetBlue project here).

The downside? Thinking for yourself can be isolating, as it tends to result in holding views that differ from the status quo. It can also be challenging when working in an environment that doesn’t place as much value on innovation or original thought. That said, I have found a number of safe havens for the creative that wants to push the bounds of what’s possible. Follow me here and on Twitter for more on that later.

The ramblings of a Designer from NYC gone feral. Formerly at Spring, Square, HUGE, Rokkan, and a few others along the way.