Plato was right when he said, “Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.” If you wish to excel academically, professionally, and personally, know that it is very important that you know how to think rationally and develop your own opinion on any particular subject matter. Not having your own opinion can lead to a lack of self-confidence and self-doubt. Thinking outside of the box and having your own position on many matters can help you to ace your job interviews, produce high quality essays, and enjoy being effective in debates, and much more besides.
However, it is not always easy to form your own opinion, especially when you are swamped with other people’s opinions, mainstream media and social media. And this is here where critical thinking comes into play. It is a very useful skill, luckily one in which we can train ourselves. Critical thinking means collecting important information from a range of reliable sources and filtering through the relevant information to establish your own informed position. This helps us withstand other people’s beliefs when they fight us on something. It will make you less likely to be influenced by others’ lines of reasoning and more likely to inculcate in you the habit of rational thinking. However, having your opinion doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing that makes us stubborn and hesitant to accept what other people have to say. Part of critical thinking is to form an opinion that you can logically back up. I have written about how to think critically and how to think scientifically before, here I’m sharing a number of tips that will train you to form your own opinion.
- Make reading a habit
One of the best things to do in order to learn how to think critically and develop your own opinions is to read extensively. After all, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body”. Reading stimulates your brain and allows you to exercise critical thinking and read between the lines, which is crucial in forming your own opinions. However, reading books on different topics by different authors is just as important as reading itself. It is important that you read broadly so that you are exposed to a range of opinions that can help you approach a problem from multiple points of view. Don’t limit yourself to the work of one or two authors. Being exposed to the work of only one scholar would be limiting in the sense that you would only believe that his/her stance on a particular issue is the correct one. On the other hand, developing an interest in the works of multiple authors can make you more open minded and more willing to challenge the already established arguments no matter how widely accepted they are. So, if you want to develop your own opinion, go to a bookstore, randomly pick up a book or journal and start reading it (or heck, the internet is literally filled with references on your chosen subject to read)!
- Don’t resist change
As I mentioned before, developing your own opinion is not about rejecting all other opinions and sticking with your opinion. It is about choosing a position that you believe you can logically back up. Therefore, it is very well possible that you will change your opinion with the passage of time. This doesn’t have to mean that others can easily sway you or that your previous opinion was wrong. It just means that you came across new information over time, and in the light of the new information, you now have a new stance. It is okay to change your opinion. It doesn’t make you a hypocrite. It makes you more open to new ideas and possibilities and can help you form a better-informed opinion. On the other hand, resisting change can stunt both your personal and professional growth.
- Don’t be swayed by “join our team”
This is how humans are normally wired. It is normal for us to convince other people to share our opinions. But sometimes, these opinions can become a huge hindrance when we are trying to come up with our opinion. Others are going to try their best to settle you on their side of the fence, but it is your job to ask them the reason behind their stance. Now, I’m not saying that you will always get rational answers in response to these questions. You might get a lot of dumb answers such as “this is how it is” or “my way is the right way”, but these answers will definitely help you make up your mind about a particular stance. Such dumb and illogical answers might encourage you to dig a little deeper before you settle on one side of the fence. So, always try to explore a particular opinion in light of all the facts and information before you choose sides.
- Hear other people’s opinions
While staying true to yourself and not letting other people sway you easily is important, don’t bar yourself entirely from others’ opinions. In fact, it is quite normal for people to solicit other people’s opinions before coming up with their own opinion. The reason behind this is that aggregating opinions results in an improvement in judgement. Ilan Yaniv from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem talks about accuracy gains from aggregation. He says, “research has demonstrated repeatedly that both mechanical and intuitive methods of combining opinions improve accuracy.” Just like averaging the results of different experts help achieve more statistically accurate results in quantitative estimates, integrating opinions can also have the same effect by improving judgement.
- Identify your own biases
An important aspect when it comes to thinking critically and rationally is trying to identify and confront your own biases. It is very normal to have biases. However, you must know how to address those biases and prevent them from coming into your way of thinking critically. In order to think rationally and develop your own opinion, try to be more accepting and open-minded and try to see beyond your biases to encourage more critical thinking. More often than not, we have a good or bad experience, and we associate that experience with a particular matter. Our experiences can mould our beliefs on a particular matter. In order to establish your own opinion, it is important to acknowledge the need for separating facts from emotions. Put aside your personal experiences and realize that not all personal experiences accurately depict the truth.
- Avoid unreliable sources of information
In order to stay true to yourself and form a logically correct opinion, make sure you don’t only refer to mainstream sources of thought such as television, YouTube and Google. This will prevent you from being influenced by others. Avoiding such sources that don’t mean that you completely cut yourself off from what is happening around the world. It just means giving yourself a breather and exploring less conventional sources of information to gather information and develop an independent opinion.
- Immerse yourself in new experiences
Don’t shield yourself from trying out new things. New experiences are usually the most effective way to change your perspective and the way you deal with things. For example, travelling around the world, travelling locally, experiencing new cultures, meeting a variety of people and testing new cuisines can be illuminating experiences. Such experiences can expand your horizons and give you access to new information. New experiences can help you become more socially and intellectually aware and can help you in your mission of forming an independent opinion. New experiences are also a good way to step out of your comfort zone and try something out for yourself before you straight up make an opinion. For example, if you think you won’t like sushi, don’t let your belief form an opinion about it. Try it out first, and then see if you like sushi or not. People who are often hesitant to try certain things end up loving them after they have tried them.
- Investigate the source of information and look out for the language
Before you obtain information from a source, don’t forget to check its reliability and validity. A good source of information is that it provides information that is logically backed up and one that addresses both sides of an issue. A lot of sources on the internet nowadays are usually only one sided and lack any scientific reasoning. Moreover, such sources lack factual data and use phrases that push the reader toward one side. Therefore, only refer to sites and material that is recognized and reviewed by experts and professionals. The language used in a book, article, or essay can also tell you a lot about how confident the writer is in his own opinion. For example, the phrases “I think so” and “seems like it” are clear indications that the writing lacks objectivity and may not be a good source to form an opinion. Similarly, look out for subtle yet convincing use of persuasive language in writing that can convince to agree with the writer’s opinion.
- Pay attention to the relevant information
Pay attention to the relevant information, and don’t let trivial and irrelevant information keep you from forming your opinion. Always keep your eyes out for the right information. Being distracted by trivial information might keep you from paying attention to the important points. Although generalisations are vague and broad in interpretation, and this way, most academic work is so finely detailed, it is very easy for us to get bogged down by details and forget about the bigger picture. Don’t do that. Keep on hunting for the facts!
- Add your own thoughts to your book or write them in a separate journal
Annotating your books is a good way to remember important things you come across while reading. Doing so helps you engage with the book on a deeper level and helps you in reading between the lines. Make comments in the margins and underline points that you feel are important. These annotations might also help you ponder these points more critically when you refer to them later on. You can also keep a separate journal or diary where you can write down what you feel about a particular matter. Writing would force you to organise your thoughts, and doing so will allow you to reach conclusions. Another good idea to help you form your opinions by articulating your thoughts is to start a blog. A blog would offer you an informal outlet where you can express your point of view, which will eventually help you develop an opinion.
- Participate in debates actively
Research has shown that debating can sharpen the critical thinking skills of people. Debating forces a person to critically examine the question at hand and challenge the opponent’s arguments. It also encourages the person to look out for loopholes in their own counterarguments. Debates also sharpen the ability to think and respond instantaneously. These critical thinking skills enhanced by debates encourage you to stop believing blindly in the information presented to you and ask questions to dispel your uncertainty. Also, debating exposes you to new opinions and information, which aids you in developing your own opinions. So, if you want to form your own opinion, take an active part in debates.
Having your own stance on every matter is crucial if you want to grow personally and professionally. Although there is no fixed algorithm and methodology which can help you form your own opinion, the ways of developing an opinion I have shared here might help you establish your own stance. According to my experience, hearing other people’s opinions, reading extensively and widely, engaging in debates, and being open to change are the most effective ways to establish your own independent stance on different matters. And if your opinion differs from others, don’t be afraid to share it with them. This is what diversity of thought essentially is. According to Anju P., strategy and planning lead in the New York Life’s Technology team, “Diversity of thought really is bringing your uniqueness, bringing your true self, and looking at things from your own perspective.”
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