How To Become A Great Thinker

“There never was an idea started that woke up men out of their stupid indifference but its originator was spoken of as a crank.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Over the Teacups, 1891)

So you want to be smart? Think great thoughts? Change the world with your ideas?

Then you’ll need the following:

* an above average IQ

* time to think

* (most importantly) the temerity to think the unthinkable

The great thinkers of the past — from Socrates to Christ, from Copernicus to Einstein — were all similar in one regard: They had different ideas than most of the smart people around them.

Socrates was convicted to die for his ideas. So was Christ. Gandhi and Copernicus were persecuted. And Einstein was made fun of.

There is a reason for that. For an idea to be great, it has to change the way people understand reality. Change means something new.

Most people — including most smart people — don’t want to be different. Instead, they want to be admired. Most people, in my view, think that the best way to get admired is to have conventional ideas.

Conventional ideas, today, include not only politically correct ideas but also socially correct ideas, economically correct ideas, culturally correct ideas, and more.

There are differences, for example, between Republicans and Democrats, as well as between artsy types and nebbishes — but within each one of these groups, there usually exists a very identifiable pattern of “correct” thoughts that any adherent of the group must think or risk censure.

This kind of group thinking — whether done by dolts or geniuses — is the antithesis of great thinking.

You are much better off being a contrarian — one who almost instinctively disputes conventional ideas — than you would be to think the correct thoughts as well as they can be thought.

To be a great thinker, you must be willing to:

* spend some serious time noodling over life’s important questions

* reject any idea that comes to you prepackaged

* discover the principles in play behind big ideas

* be rigorous in testing your ideas against your experience

And most of all, you must be brave enough to voice opinions that aren’t popular. After all, if independent thinking means anything, it means thinking thoughts that differ from those of the mainstream.

I personally know only a handful of great thinkers. JG, BB, DC, and GN come to mind immediately. Every one of these people has spent more than 30 years trying to figure things out — and every one, without exception, rejects most ideas that most people agree on.

That makes these guys very much admired by a relatively small group and very much despised by most who listen to them, including most of the smart non-thinkers, the defenders of group thinking.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • Taiwo Gold Ayodeji

    Really good write-up and I couldn’t agree more. I currently face a similar issue with family and friends here in Nigeria. I want to pursue a PhD abroad as opposed to working in a company and earning lots of money like many of my smart colleagues. I believe I am well suited for one, and I would be creating new knowledge whilst fulfilling my personal goals. The best part of the PhD for me is that I would come back to Nigeria to take up an academic position wherein I can mentor young Nigerian minds and contribute to my country’s rebirth. That way posterity would never forget me-as for most of my smart colleagues, they may become billionaires but they may never get any rememberance from posterity or even any personal fulfillment. I love your article and it only pushes me further to achieve my goals.
    Please keep up the good writing!