#60 – How to be a free thinker

60-1In the same way a person can be chained to an oak tree, a mind can be chained to an assumption, a religion, a political party, or any idea of any kind. But the idea, like the tree, should not be blamed. Ideas are inanimate things and are good or bad only in how they are used by the living. Instead it is the chain that must be questioned, along with the motivations of people who work to chain minds to things (especially if they call themselves educators).

A mind is unique in the world for its infinity of ideas, for it can be used to think about almost anything in a million different ways. Any act that deliberately confines a mind to a singular way of seeing the world can not be acting for good. Most communities, from families, to schools, to gangs, have ideas members are expected to adopt without question. This doesn’t make them evil, but it doesn’t make them bastions of freedom either.

Like the rules to a new board game, we read these rules with our minds at half-power, as our goal is to learn and follow. Even under the guise of what we comically call education, most of us, most of the time, are taught to copy. To memorize. To understand someone elses’s theories. What are we being trained for in life by this other than to perform these same thoughtless behaviors when we graduate? And the things that are considered taboo in our societies, acts that violate our traditions, are often followed without anyone involved, from parents, to teachers, to leaders and other enforcers, understanding why. Why is being seen in underwear embarrassing, but being seen in a bathing suit is not? Why are nipples and flesh so scary, when everyone has them? Why are alcohol, nicotine and Prozac legal, but marijuana and Absinthe criminal? It’s un-free thinking, this accepting of an idea simply because someone else said so. If the reasons are so good, they should do well in debate and discussion on their merits, shouldn’t they? Nothing should be beyond discussion.

The beginning of wisdom starts with asking two questions. Why do we believe what we believe? And how we know what we know? They should be stamped on every school book, in every meeting place and in every home where independence of mind and free thinking are advocated. It should be tattooed on the forehead of anyone arrogant enough to dictate orders for others to follow. The children’s game of why, where a child says “Why?” to every answer that an adult offers, often ends with the parent embarrassing the child. “Stop being silly” they say. But it’s the parent who should be embarrassed by their hubris. Why is it so uncomfortable to say “I don’t know”. Why isn’t their pride in their children learning things they don’t know?  Isn’t that the basis for progress? We all know less than we think we do, and if we wish to learn more it’s only going to come from taking comfort from questions instead of fearing them. Ignorance is not dangerous if you admit to it. Same for lack of control. It’s a fact most of what we experience in life is hard to understand and out of our control. To feel shame or joy at a fact of life is a decision we’ve forgotten is ours to make.

Without questions we can’t discover the chains we’ve hidden. Chains forced upon us as children when we did not have the will to refuse or ask questions. Chains we bound ourselves to in order to fit in to school, or work, or a community. To be a free thinker means forever seeking relief from assumptions, whether it’s those we’ve made or have been given to us, and to work towards beliefs and ideas of our own choosing. Freedom of thought means a perennial willingness to discover better ideas, smarter opinions, more worthy faiths, more honest feelings, a willingness not only to abandon ideas you’ve held dearly, but to actively seek moments of discovery, moments when you learn a closest held belief has been held for the wrong reasons. The first time I ate Ethiopian food I had to ask three times “Are you sure it’s ok to eat with my hands?”
Never having thought before that a) they are my hands b) it is my mouth, c) I’m paying for the food, and I should be able to do whatever I damn well please with all three. For all of America’s wonders of freedom, we are still tyrannized by the burdens of silverware. Then of course I went to India, and was scolded for eating with my left hand. I’m always wrong at meals it seems. Travel makes clear how arbitrary many rules and customs we defend truly are.

The first challenge is the fear of being wrong

Ready? You are wrong. You are wrong much of the time. I’m wrong too and some of what I write in this essay will be wrong (except for this sentence). Even if you are brilliant, successful, happy and loved, you are wrong and ignorant more than you realize. This is not your fault. None of our theories about the world are entirely true and this is good. If we had perfect answers for things progress would be impossible, as to believe in the idea of progress requires belief in the many ignorances of the present. Look back in time 100, 50, or even 5 years, and consider how misguided the wisest, smartest people of those days were compared with what you know now. Governments, religions, cultures and traditions all change, despite what they say, and there is not a one of them still standing that is exactly the same as it was when it started. The traditions that have remained may have value, but ask yourself: who decided what to keep and what to throw away? And why did they decide what they decided? Without knowing the answers to the questions, how can you know exactly what it is you are right and wrong about in what you believe? Especially if these traditions have been changing for 100s or 1000s of years? It’s ok to be wrong if you learn something and grow from it. In fact often there’s no way to learn without making mistakes.

In many ways you are a wiser, smarter more experienced person than you were in the past. If you believe any progress in your own thinking and understanding, especially regarding your own life and what it means to you, you must admit that the same kind of progress is possible for you in the future. And that progress is accelerated only by freeing yourself from the obligation to always be right. Instead of allegiance to a specific idea, put your faith in your ability to grow and learn. The former is a chain held in place by your own hand. The latter is a door you can hold open, a door to a better self.

The second challenge is other people

Children survive only through conformity. It’s by recognizing the behavior of adults and adjusting to it, fitting in, that they’re able to survive. If babies didn’t learn which kind of cries got them fed, or what kinds of smiles got them attention, they would not live long. We are designed from birth for survival more than freedom. Consider how absurd most advice from gurus sounds if directed at a 5 year old. Start with Buddha’s excellent advice:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who has said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your reason and your own common sense.”

This is the opposite of what children are told by every adult in their lives. Schools teach them specific answers, teachers test and judge them on their ability to memorize and internalize those answers, and parents define rules that control children’s lives in spite of the child’s clear desires. We treat children as if they have no common sense, and for good reason. Often they have no sense at all, common or otherwise. But the question remains: at what point do we teach our children to think for themselves? And how can we be certain they’ve unlearned the lessons we worked so hard to teach them until that day? There are no required college courses called “undoing the damage of the last 18 years of your life” or “how to escape the evil tyranny of your corrupted youth”. We are, perhaps as it always has been or always should be, on our own to figure out what freedom means. But there is no starting gun, no wake up call, for when to become free, much less how to go about doing it given how much of our lives function on our being unfree.

Joining a “Free thinking” group can be nothing of the kind, especially if everyone in the group shares the same brand of atheism, deism, or anything-ism. Freedom grows best in diversity. The more ideas you hear, understand and compare, the greater the odds you’ll think freely about all of them. This can’t happen if you mostly spend time “philosophizing” with people who share 97% of your philosophy. Instead you’re likely just sharpening your prejudices. Sharpening prejudices can be fun. I do it all the time. But it’s not thinking, free or otherwise, and it’s not good philosophy either.

The third challenge is to be alone

Many of history’s great spiritual leaders chose to step away from their cultures and their worlds for a time. Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Muhammad all took long retreats away from everything they knew, freeing themselves from conventions and commitments of normal life. Only then were the able to discover, to transform, to learn and understand themselves in ways that changed the world. They had to separate from the chains and bonds before they could be free, and only then, with new perspective and priorities, did they choose to return. For anyone who knew them, I doubt this choice was popular. Their children, friends, landlords, and tennis partners were less than thrilled about the prospect of them wandering off the face of the earth for 40 days, or 6 months, or however long they chose. They say the fish is the last to see the water. But what if the fish could step out of the tank now and then? You are not a fish. You can take that step whenever you like.

This begs the question, when was the last time you were free from others? The last day you spent alone and let all the thoughts you bury and hide in everyday life rise in your mind? Travel, meditation, long baths, a run in the woods, are all ways to give ourselves a taste of the solitude needed to think freely. Needed to understand ourselves and feel who we actually are. How can you know how much of what you think you want, and think you need is really coming from you? It may be that our truest, freest voice, the voice we call our heart of hearts, is always talking, but it’s quiet and timid and can’t be heard over the chatter of everyday life. Unless we make quiet time to learn how to hear it. And of course, we’re still free to ignore that voice, but at least we’ve given ourselves a chance to listen. Only then is it possible to sort through our lives to strengthen the connections with others who truly share our feelings and thoughts about life. Being free has never been easy, which explains why so few, despite what they say, truly are themselves.

By Scott Berkun, January 26, 2009

118 Responses to “#60 – How to be a free thinker”

  1. edward

    i donT wanna be influenced by anything on this earth,wat can i do?

  2. John McFarlane

    A major difficulty stands in the way of free thinking though, being that society has been carefully built so that most people find it impossible to live comfortably (in every sense) outside of society.

    There is an endless effort to get people to conform, most people will feel alienated just from thinking differently, even without doing things differently.

    Free thinking then gets abruptly interrupted.

  3. Sahar

    Hi Steve! Thanks for this courageous and thoughtful post.
    I’d be interested to know what you do to be alone? Could you share?

    Have a great day,

    1. Sahar

      Oh gosh, I was so much into Innovation that I mispelled your name. Apologies!!! I meant Scott of course. :)

      1. Austine

        Being alone conqers the absolute joy man should attain. I think I have concrete ideas based on the unknown facts which you seek.

  4. Jonah Kondro

    I remember my Mother telling me about how she had to have a special interview with one of my younger Sister’s highschool teachers. Unknowing to the ins and outs of the interview, basically my Mother told the teacher that she raised both for childeren to be opened minded and free thinking. I was suspensed for “streaking” on April Fools day back when I was in Grand Ten.

  5. jessica

    Great article. What are your thoughts on the Bible being
    the “word of God?” Leviticus 20:13 says we should kill
    gays. How can that be? It also says women who talk in church
    should be burned. this sure sounds like nonsense to me. Certainly not something a loving God would say?
    If this is nonsense how can we believe any
    of the Bible?
    Your thoughts?
    Thanks, Jessica

  6. David Osuna

    Scott, best essay about how life should be lived. The Stoics, Camus, Nietzche, and, of course, Emerson, would feel the same way.

  7. David Osuna

    Mr. Berkun, I love this post. It summarizes my thoughts and insights since I was a child. I like it so much I would be proud to post it on my wall, but, alas, I can not. Please be kind enough to make this page shareable. Respectfully, David E Osuna.

  8. Michael Snee

    In 1976, I asked my guru at the time, “Why isn’t there more free thinking? And, why don’t they teach it in schools?”
    “Because,” he offered, “the purpose of education – is to develop tax payers.”
    “Tax payers?”
    “Yes. The federal educational system is set up to serve that purpose alone … to train most to comply with the system, instead of encouraging any to challenge it.”

    I always thought his response was interesting.
    Best always,

  9. Michael Belk

    I think it is pretty easy to be a free thinker, because you are the one responsible for your actions. If you keep that in mind you should make the right decision.

  10. yitingter

    I agree with you. Believe something when it agrees with your reasoning and common sense, don’t just go with what everybody enforces upon you. It’s difficult to be free- thinking, especially when the society around us is forever “telling” us what is right and what is not. Well, screw them. There’s no black or white. There’s only grey.

  11. ammaar

    a new dimension to the thought process

  12. JC Wood

    This essay reminds me of a quote from Antisthenes: “The greatest learning for the purposes of life is to unlearn what is untrue.” (Or something like that). It also reminds me there are 2 types of ignorance: 1) The relatively benign kind where you just don’t know something, and 2) The more pernicious kind where you think you know something to be true that is actually false. Type 1 simply requires that you find help. Type 2 requires a radical internal deconstruction process that can only be done alone and for which no external help exists. This act leads to true free thinking, because it removes the filter through which previous thinking took place and allows thinking to be the tool that it really is, rather than an identity. I could be wrong, of course. Regardless, I often wonder why I’m paying tens of thousands of dollars for my daughter’s college education where she’s just “learning” more of the same worthless dribble she learned in high school.

  13. Robbie Cornelius

    Hello Thanks for this great article. I am a music artist and I just wanted to say that this article is so important to my way of life. It’s good to know others out there exercise the power of free-thinking as I do in my everyday life. The past year I found myself wanting to be alone more than ever to get my head together about life among other things. In the process I have discovered some great things about life as well as reading about great people like yourself and all the people that have commented before me. I know I don’t personally know any of you but I am very thankful to know there are others out there that see life different than the masses. I am really grateful for you all and proud to live my life as a Free Thinker. Thank you

  14. Sumit Gupta

    I want to drop a note of thanks for this great article and how much impact it has on my life.

  15. Lyricist Rex

    Being a free thinker does not mean u can discourage plp abt their own religion or beliefs plz my fellow free thinkers


    If I do not care who dose

  17. Abhishek

    A BIG thank you for posting this Article, very few people discuss these things nowadays..

    So how do we become free from our conditioning? Are we willing to find it out for ourselves? Yes but on one condition- that we find something at the end of it. It may be in the form of temporary joy, happiness, reward, pleasure, security etc; See how our mind works. I will climb the highest mountain only if I can get something out of it.

    We have evolved our capacities outwardly. But inwardly it is the same movement as outwardly, your job, your wife, your friends, your past experiences, your problems and so on; all these combine to give us this sense or image of ‘I’, And ‘I’ is nothing but the extension of outer movement (material world). I am superior to you, i want to become better, i want to get there.. Very clearly the inward movement is same as the outer movement. And we have never experienced any other movement other than outer movement.

    Now is there a quality of movement other still untouched by our mind? What if left in the mind when the outer movement ends? I feel every meditation form, religious systems were once based upon this principle!

  18. Abhishek Ashok

    Thank you so much for this article Scott. This is undoubtedly one of the most influential blog posts I’ve ever read!! I’m a fresher to your blog; however, I don’t think I can stop visiting the same until I complete reading all your posts!!

  19. Collin Smith

    I hope one day we can live in a world that encourages Free Thinking. Our live should be our own. But then that is just me thinking.

  20. Free Thinkers Society

    Not everyone is strong enough to be along or be wrong. They may follow the preacher who speaks of this but strength comes from within and over time. Life has challenges that can make you who you are and sometimes you have to break those bad habits.

  21. Cain Belhyde

    I really really feel lucky that I managed to read this article.
    Usually whenever I try to check websites for specifics “groups”, they usually filled with only their own kinds.
    I have always been thinking, that although reading their article are fun, they won’t be really good for my mind growth if I only read article that is written by people with similar ideas like me.
    Thats why I ended up, occasionally read article from different opposing groups.

    My favorite parts:
    “The more ideas you hear, understand and compare, the greater the odds you’ll think freely about all of them. This can’t happen if you mostly spend time “philosophizing” with people who share 97% of your philosophy. Instead you’re likely just sharpening your prejudices. Sharpening prejudices can be fun. I do it all the time. But it’s not thinking, free or otherwise, and it’s not good philosophy either.”

  22. Clay

    Agreed. When I moved away from my family for years, I learned many lessons. One being what it is like to be free from judgement. Family and friends mean well when they say “Come over here” “Do ______” “You should ____________” They unknowingly judge and steer you as much as you will allow it. I love my family and eventually came back, but it is difficult to teach this lesson when others have never stepped far enough away to look back and see it. So many people don’t even know they are doing it. They mean well, but be aware of your desires too, don’t be afraid to not please someone. If you can do that, you will thank yourself later.

  23. Michaela

    I found this article after googling “Are there any free thinkers left”…
    Today is a groupthink society perpetuated by social media and pc idiocy.
    Challenge your own opinions, ideas and mindsets regularly.
    Argue with your ingrained ideologies which form despite best intention.
    This good article helped me do this because whilst I consider myself to be an open minded free thinking individual I am certain that as I have grown older and wiser I have also gathered some moss!
    Free thinking doesn’t mean taking on every radical, or conversely conservative opinion and trumpeting about freedoms ad infinitum, it is more important to question the pathways one has traversed in order to arrive at the perceptual destinations and discover whether or not those paths were true.
    All true paths lead through mountains, brave travellers, rest when you need to, find sustenance and go on.
    Thanks for this great piece.



  1. […] They are inanimate things and are good or bad only in how they are used by the living. Instead it is the chain that must be questioned, along with the motivations of people who work to close minds while calling themselves educators. A mind is unique in the world for its infinity of ideas, for it can be used to think about almost anything in a million different ways. Any act that deliberately confines a mind to a singular way of seeing the world can not be acting for good. Most communities, from families, to schools, to gangs, have ideas members are expected to adopt without question. #60 – How to be a free thinker « Scott Berkun […]

  2. […] A mind is unique in the world for its infinity of ideas, for it can be used to think about almost anything in a million different ways. Any act that deliberately confines a mind to a singular way of seeing the world can not be acting for good. — Scott Berkun, How To Be A Free Thinker […]

Leave a Reply to Self Reflection | The Mindset of Robert Olguin

* Required

Click here to cancel reply.