#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. Richard

    Nicely done. Not your usual fare, but something I enjoyed nonetheless.

  2. Drew Kime

    “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.”

    This reminds me of a quote I’ve had on my hard drive for so long I can’t remember where I got it:

    “Remember, people in 1900 didn’t know what an atom was. They didn’t know its structure.

    They also didn’t know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS… None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn’t know what you are talking about.”

    This, I think, is the *fourth* challenge: The tyranny of data. There are just so damn man *facts* to learn before you can even decide what you think about them.

    Before the printing press you had to travel the world — or have world travelers come to you — to understand the scope of how much you didn’t know. Today all you have to do is go to Google. See all those links past the second page? That’s all the stuff you don’t know.

    You could spend a lifetime learning facts without ever having to think about them. Learn enough of them and not only does it start to *feel* like thinking, eventually it even *looks* like thinking.

  3. Sean Crawford

    The 1900 quote is from Michael Crichton’s speech on complexity theory, where he uses yellowstone park as an example of what not to do, on his official web site, http://www.michaelcrichton.com He argues that we should have the humility to cope, not control, and that this requires that we not embrace fear. I have his site bookmarked to return to again and again.

  4. John McSwain

    I’m currently a graduate student in an HCI (human computer interaction) and I was shocked at how most of my coursework consisted of citing other sources and not much pressure was put on me to ‘create’ new ideas. When I asked a classmate why so much of our class workload was centered on reciting research conducted by other people, the reply was ‘Why are you complaining?’

    My question is, how does one help those who don’t even see the tree?

  5. Morgan Cheng

    “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.”

    That’s true. On the one side, you need multiple perspectives on the world; on the other side, you have to spent some time backing off to be think alone.

  6. Josh Leeger

    Hi Scott,

    I love your post, you hit the nail on the head. I just wanted to let you know how my father taught my sister and I to be free-thinkers as children.

    Whenever we had a question – whether it be how to spell a word, why the sky is blue, or anything else – my father would always reply with the same answer – “Why do YOU think it’s…” or “How would YOU spell ___.”

    He used the Socratic Method on us. He taught us to ask “Why” about everything.

  7. David

    It’s worth pointing out that often those chains are needed initially as “scaffolding” to build a knowledge base that allows us to ask better questions. Where things can go awry is to mistake the scaffolding for the “truth”, as Mr. McSwain implies missing the forest for the trees (or perhaps the pine needles). More than just critical thinking, it also takes a genuine curiousity about how and why things are the way they are to start letting go of those chains.

  8. Scott

    Drew: Good point. The one I always remember is DNA. Discovered in the 1940s I believe. Prior to then we didn’t have a clue about genetics, evolution and Darwinism were sketches, diseases were confusing to understand, etc. It was a huge turning point in the laypersons understanding of how human beings work.

    The tyranny of data is a good theme – David Shenk wrote an excellent book years ago called Data smog that was largely about this, and that was pre-google.

    The tricky question is whether google and instant access helps people think freely, hurts it, or is a wash. It’s all too easy to find one answer and accept it as the only one. But then again, people asked the same questions about dictionaries and encyclopedias. I’m more inclined to think the focus should be on the minds than on the tools.

  9. Scott

    John: Great question, but that’s another essay :) Most people find questions annoying. Socrates was more or less killed for asking too many questions, and that was in Athens!

    David’s comments are on the money. The folks designing the program believe you need more scaffolding before you ask questions. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t – it’s a reasonable question to ask. I’d want my money back from any university or professor who was annoyed by my asking questions about the design of my education. I’d worry less about classmates and more about those at the front of the room.

    Also some HCI programs are heavier into usability and analysis than design and creativity, which might explain the more academic/researchy bias. Follow up w/me in email if you want to chat more about this.

  10. Anne

    Nicely done, Scott. UX design advocates for our shared humanity (although we never put it in those terms to clients, who need more “professional” jargon). This kind of thinking is frequently at the back of my mind as I work toward solutions… clients are surprised when I say: “Tell me where I went wrong in my design so we can make the concept better.” It’s humbling but powerful philosophy that, if adopted more in the business world, would really make our work more fun and productive.

  11. Steven Levy

    Great essay, Scott. I agree with almost all of it.

    However, I worry that Buddha’s advice can as a side effect hurl people into the same camps free-think-all-the-same echo chambers: “Believe nothing… unless it agrees with your reason and your own common sense.”

    Some examples:
    – Many of Columbus’s compatriots thought he was nuts about sailing west to go east. Scientists since the Greeks — and most sailors — knew the world was round, but that was intellectual; common sense said it was flat.
    – 18 months ago reason and common sense strongly suggested no black man could win the US presidency.

    Somewhere I believe there is a knife that can slice the fat of old-thinking from the meat of reality, but I don’t think that knife is found in Buddha’s suggestion.

  12. Scott

    Steve I see your point. I read the quote differently. I take his mention of “your own common sense” as meaning my own personal intuition, and not the common sense of other people. Perhaps that’s me stuffing things in the passage (I’ll have to find the source and see if it’s context explains better what he meant), but I’ve always read this passage as being an admonition for following people blindly.

    I also like Buddha’s advice here for a bunch of side reasons. It’s one of the few cases of a leader, spirtual/religious or otherwise, who says effectively “you must think for yourself and not follow my prescriptions”. He told his followers this on various occasions and that he did not want to see a religion / school / system based on his teachings.

    The irony of course is that this didn’t stop his followers, after his death, from doing exactly that. There were various flavors of Buddhism and some were quite restrictive and regulatory in ways Buddha clearly was against.

  13. Richard Atkins

    I see one of the rules you’ve chosen to free yourself from is the pairing of the words “former” and “latter”. I don’t know why this bugs me so much… Maybe something to do with my education ;)

    How would you relate this total freedom with the observations that people tend to be more creative when they have restrictions on what they do?

    On another tangent, even in societies like ours dominated by the assumption of choice, we still wind up with only 2 or 3 big competitors for each type of item we’re willing to buy or spend time on. Is there really any freedom of choice here at all?

  14. Alexandre de Oliveira

    “Being free has never been easy, which explains why so few, despite what they say, truly are themselves.”

    Words of wisdom these are.

  15. Frank

    I hate that I totally agree with this essay, because it means I learned nothing from it besides that at least one other person had my exact same thoughts, and is much better at putting these thoughts to words than I. =)

    nice essay.

  16. Laurie

    I am going to share this with everyone I know, even “those who don’t even see the tree”. If they connect with even one idea in this essay, it was worth it.

  17. Bob

    “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence.” – Albert Einstein

  18. Arapajoe

    Great essay! I loved it!
    As it has been said before, my thoughts are very alike :)

  19. Sunnymama

    This is a great essay, lots of stuff to think about. I would like to suggest though that we consider if it is possible that as adults we are wrong in our belief that children have little or no sense. The Taking Children Seriously parenting and educational philosophy (which is designed around error correction) has some interesting ideas about fallibility and the possibility that as adults we may be wrong and the child may be right. I think these are important issues to consider if we want to raise free-thinkers.

  20. PenPenPoems


    A Reminder To The FreeThinker
    To avoid being Jailed by his own beliefs?

    The Last War For The FreeThinkers— From The Collection of Poems By Pen Pen

    A Poem Of Inspiration…
    To Free The Human Race From The Bondage Of Radical Beliefs!

    “Is Not The Person… It Is What Jails The Person…
    That We Must Liberate A Soul!”
    “In the far future, the real freethinkers, shall be left
    as the last defense!
    The Last Guardian Of Truth!”
    —pen pen

  21. momo

    Agreed. Just my thoughts. Thanks for putting this out there for everyone, and wording it so well.

    I also agree with Sunnymama. I’m not a mother myself, but I’ve been around many kids, and they’re just great (and I don’t even want any of my own!). It’s irritating that adults think they’re right just because they’re adults and “have had more experience.” I talk how I normally talk with kids (excluding some things, like swearing, because it’s just vulgar and rude) and I LISTEN to kids, and so most kids like me. Kids are human. Kids are intelligent too. Kids aren’t just those things you can brainwash to spread what YOU believe. They don’t need your fear and misguided thoughts to be drilled into their heads; they have brains, thoughts, and feelings of their own, and they should be taken seriously and let to go with who they really are, not who you want them to be.

    Thanks, Sunnymama, for the link; I’m going to go look it over.

    …Sorry for the slight rant. Nice article, Scott.

  22. Lark

    I find it interesting that no one has pointed out that, really, telling someone how to think for themself is a bit of a contradiction, is it not? Even if you’re giving suggestions or tips, it’s still influencing the way they think so they aren’t truly thinking for themself.

    Just something to chew on. :)

  23. Scott

    Lark: Valid point.

    The wacko extremely purest argument would say that no one can truly think for themselves, since we develop our thoughts and brains through interactions with other people, learn language only from other people, etc. Take a child, or a person, and put them in solitary confinement forever and they won’t be doing much thinking, certainly not for long.

    I’d just say anyone who uses that Buddha quote, or other concepts of self-exploration, helps people think freely more than it hurts.

  24. Scott

    Also reminds me of that King Missile quote “I want to be different, just like everyone else”

  25. Connie

    I am new to your world, Scott. In a manner of speaking you could say I was born yesterday, though over 50 years have past. I read your essay on being a free thinker and I wondered if truly there was such a thing. Its debatable.

    We are products of our time, our upbring, our environment and all that touch our lives. So, are we a free thinker? I suppose that depends how we view it ourselves. If you believe you are a ‘free thinking’ then, you are. Although, in reality manythoughts and ideas were put into your head from the moment of birth. We are all free to think, not always free to act.

    What I really wanted to mention was your quote of King Missile, “I want to be different, just like everyone else.” It, too, was new to me. I thought…Yes! Just as quickly I had a second thought…No, I couldn’t be. Then, I am not sure. LOL.

    I never wanted to be different, I wanted to ‘fit in’. I never felt there was a place for me. There was no niche for me to fit into, so I always felt different. Odd. Out-of-place. Even more recently.

    But, as time went on, I realized that I am different. It were the others who fit with each others. I was not like those that I knew, I was….a daisy growing among the roses.

    What is so wrong with that, I ask these days. Roses are praised but they lose their petals rather quickly, whereas a daisy waves happily in the breeze and can whether a storm.

    I come to realize that a daisy is not a bad thing to be. It is a wonder, a joy, and sometimes being different fits in just fine.

    What I discovered was the reason I never ‘fit in,’ it due to the fact that I am a free thinker. Even in my little world, that can create problems. For the roses do not take kindly to the daisies of this world.

  26. rattle snake

    Follow these rules in order to be a Free Thinker

  27. Thomas

    45 years ago when I was say about 8 years old, this thought went through my mind. “The world makes perfect sense to me.” Notice, there is no mention of people or society. I like to say; “In a sense we, each one of us, is (a semi perfect) mirror representation of one, to another. It is only natural that we should presume to benefit from say the (a priori-)knowledge and understanding of others. I am a being, a semi autonomous spirit! I strive to maintain my being while cultivating a fuller understanding of existence in terms of my proper physical and intellectual orientation to a world in which I find myself. Times up, I have to go. Thanks Scott for your insights, and everyone’s input.

  28. David Sange

    The other side of the fear of being wrong is what a great relief it is to discover that you are wrong about something, That means that you now see clearly, you are freed from your misconceptions, like suddenly not having a crook in your neck and now being able to move freely.

    Whenever you discover you have been wring about something that means you have learned something and that is a step forward into the light.

  29. tmacx

    Clearly this fellows mind is changed to his own understanding i.e. self indulgence. Nothing new under the sun.

  30. Dan

    “… some of what I write in this essay will be wrong…”

    Here is one point on which I disagree: the negative view you portray of raising a child. You say “undoing the damage of the last 18 years of your life” or “how to escape the evil tyranny of your corrupted youth”. You said yourself that without being strongly guided, children could not survive. Therefore why characterize child rearing as “damage” or “corruption”?

    Instead, I think the development of a child to an adult is a fascinating phenomenon. It is a macro expression of an experience that a “free thinker” repeats endlessly throughout their life. Instead of “children first conform and then ‘undo the damage’ and learn to not conform” one could say that children are first parented, and then /learn to parent themselves./

    Actual damage is only done to children when poor parenting (primary use of guilt or shame, abuse and intimidation, etc.) is involved, because that is how they learn to parent themselves, which yields disaster unless they figure out, on their own, alternative better methods.

    The existence of a “coming of age” does not imply that whatever was before was bad. It was different, and very important in it’s own way. That’s all.

  31. KaylaMag

    It is interesting to know that someone else thinks this way. I have often had thoughts to this effect, myself, but haven’t said anything about them at the fear of looking crazy or insubordinate. Drew’s comment reminds me of an episode of ‘Friends,’ where Pheobe is trying to prove Ross wrong about his views on Earth’s creation and says something about how scientists used to think the atom was the smallest thing on the planet until they opened it up oe day and there was this whole mess of crap inside. lol… yes, I just went there. Anyway, I find this interesting and very well said.

  32. Ricardo Patrocínio

    This is what Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) calls beliefs. Your beliefs define what you are, and you can never say a belief is true or false as they are constantly changing.

    You should always try to make your beliefs coherent with your principles, otherwise you may face an internal battle that can destroy you. This often happens when you work for someone that has different principles that yours, and makes you act against your principles.

    So I could not agree more with Scott that you should constantly question your beliefs and change the ones that do not suite your purpose at that particular moment in your life.

    Another factor that is very important is that

  33. John

    Really enjoyed this piece. I’m reminded of something that Aristotle said:

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

  34. Yoga

    This is good reading. I believe that most of the source of conformity starts with thinking that someone else who perhaps has been more successful or “respected (on an average)” is taken too seriously. I personally had these fears out of low self-esteem. Something like ” If I do this what would so and so think…” even before I plan to execute.

    I think if self-esteem is nurtured or gained from experience, it may help in being a free thinking individual but then again its a life long process.

    That said more recently, an interest and hobby kind of study in economics has also broken a lot of mental barriers of religion, nationhood, etc and make me feel more of a world citizen.

  35. Betawriter

    Excellent writing, Scott.

    I agree in every word you say. Free thinking (in fact, thinking itself, as if it’s not free thinking, it’s not thiking, just repeating) is difficult especially because of feelings: it separates you from the group, from your contry, it makes you realize that your beloved or your leaders were (and are) probably very wrong.

    It makes you feel alone, just unlike following an established group/movement/way of life and its rules (call it politics, religion, neighbourhood, group of friends, hobby, etc…), which provides a safe, warm environment.

    Very nice point on feelings.


    Dear Scott,
    As you already know being a free thinker is not always easy. I come from an Asian community that ridicules anyone who begs to differ. I eat using my left hand and i have been abused till no end and i know how you would have felt in India.Scott we live in dangerous times. People think they are very advanced but the question is are they really advanced? Look at the way people think, I feel sometimes that people don’t understand what they want. I’m not perfect but still I humbly believe that i think differently from many others. Further more people don’t think for themselves. They expect the thinking be done for them. Look at the self help industry. Its thriving. Why? People might be taking whatever is said in those books as the absolute truth. i believe that is dangerous.Each and every one of us is a philosopher in our own right.True liberation will only come when we understand this. Ultimately we have to decide what course of action we have to take since unfortunately it is neither said nor written. lovely article by the way!

  37. kaa

    spot on. Agree totally.
    only one small caveat though,

  38. Anirban Bhattacharya

    A thing can be done in many ways. Which one is to follow depends on various parameters and you need to judge the merit of each of the parameters. One who plays chess knows each of his movement in advance based on assumption of the opponents move. A free thinker always asks three questions.
    Why: Why is that?
    How: How is that?
    What: What is the other way?

    And last he judge the merits of all possible answers. He dwells upon the most prudent answer.

    One other aspect is that whatever we think and how we behave depends entirely upon our experience, our surroundings, our environment. In my opinion one other challenge is again to shed off our past, our experience.

  39. Crystal Tuckett

    As a student of ENG 105C who doesn’t really say much. I read this essay and found it very interesting. I also learn a huge amount of true information that can help me in the future. I always used to think that I was thinking freely, but really i wasn’t because i never really said what i wanted to and that sort of limits everything. after reading this essay I truly feel that I am going to be different, really different because I thought I was different but this just showed me that I am exactly the same.

  40. Regg P.

    This was brilliant. Everything in life has meaning. And how can we see the meaning if we are not free thinkers? I want to be a free thinker.
    Never believe anything because you are forced too. True freedom is YOUR point of view.

  41. Artiana

    This article made a lot of sense. How can we be free thinkers and you are forced to do what you have been told? Every day of our lives we haven’t been free thinkers. We follow all laws and beliefs and we don’t even realize that we are not thinking freely. Thank You Scott for bringing this out to the light.

  42. Travis

    the relevance of truth or falsity of this information should be reached from the conclusion of independent thought. Does this make sense? what is the purpose of freedom of thought? is it necessary for what I aim to accomplish?

    is it worth learning this relevant to yourself?

    learn the basic methods, then question them and come to your own conclusions. one question at a time, perhaps.
    and if you want to be a genius, never stop questioning and stick with the important questions :P

  43. Threcia

    Wow i like this.This is so true about being a free thinker. It makes sense because is all you expressing things and your personal feelings in your on way and of your view without anyone forcing you. Is great to be a free thinker.

  44. aenya

    Why do we believe what we believe? And how we know what we know? these question that the writer has asked are one we never think to ask ourselves.People don’t stop to ask themselves is this really what I want to do or am i jus doing it because e is doing it.Society makes so many rules that when we have certain wants, ideas or dreams our subconscious labels it as impossible thou most things are possible to reach.The sheep-like almost robotic way of thinking that we have confines ourselves, our minds to thinking that this is it, that there is nothing more. However this article poses otherwise, so im going to take the advice that this author had enlightned me with and take time time to myself to free my thinking.

  45. Theo

    Great post. I also believe that free thinking is something about finding your own way, listen to everyone and take the time to find out what the truth, your truth is. Influences are surrounding us and we cannot escape from them but this is good so. Diamonds also need to be polished/influenced to show their inner glow.

    Thank you

  46. Andre Ryland

    Dear Scott;
    All in all I liked what you wrote about a person being free. It’s how I think and live. The only cringe was a small shot at the word atheism, probably to slightly appease the religionists. Atheism is not a belief system so that was un-necessary to lump in there, but I understand why a writer feels the need to do it in this world culture.
    I am prepping for a book of my own—just one book. A way of language and vocabulary and expression for all of us who want to speak in a different way about our actuality. It’s one thing to say one is a freethinker, and then not have a vocabulary to express it, making communication so much more difficult with agodean imaginarianists. It is why so many are “returning to thence” from whence they’ve come, even after 50 years of forced thought.
    Thinking outside the books of today, seeking the new true of tomorrow.

  47. Daniel Poynter

    Just discovered you today Scott, and I’m glad. =)

    One of my favorite quotes (by one of my favorite writers):

    “None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

  48. Chandan

    I enjoyed your post thoroughly. Sounds silly but here are a few things that are running in my mind.

    I don’t have a kid yet, but say he/she asks me why is 2+2=4, I might not have an answer to that. Or for that matter, I’m a student of violin and I’m learning Carnatic classical. I have questions like why are there rules, the way they are? And the best answer is that the father of carnatic music defined them. Now how or why did he choose that is a question I have. I only end up irritating my teachers when I ask such questions. What do you think would be the best approach to deal with such questions?

  49. alex

    wow. this is the first essay ive read by you, but you can bet i’ll be coming back for more.

    i find it almost magic how you manage to structure your thoughts so well… *bow*. truly great.

  50. Zoom.Quiet

    alone is can be enjoy;
    – alone only one kinds of state, in fact should not make u feel different;
    – lonely is one kinds of feelings, and just base u choice;
    freedom thinking,is easy,and everyone can do it;
    but free outflow the mainstream is hard and need more and more skill * power;

    scott sharing some skill is weclome;

    – u book :”Confessions of a Public Speaker” chinese version is published:
    ??????????????? (??)
    – and i ‘d read first time just moment, so say great!
    + content is all truly
    + foto is funny
    + that Chinese foto i author intro. means “tired” is COOL and TRUE, for finished Us Book:
    ???Python (??)
    is also always feeling “tired” ;-)
    and ! that “Colophon” translated perfect,is very strong stroy!
    thanx for all;
    i ‘ll to recommend the book for every one!

  51. cynthia

    my first laugh came at the title. “how to” be a free thinker. lol – a guide on how to live without a guide.

    however, agreed that a lot of beliefs come from cultural conventions. often, they’re based in what was socially practical at one point and have become traditions.

    i went to Greek Orthodox Easter eve with my new inlaws, and I asked them if this was a Christian practice for them. They said, “No, we do it because we’re Greek!”

    Traditions surround us with comfort. Finding our own paths and beliefs amid them is both a joy and what gives meaning to life, I think. For me, this does require periods of solitude. I’m rather shocked by how many of my friends don’t (or haven’t yet) required solitude as a personal ritual of cleansing and focusing.

    Thanks for bringing up the topic!

  52. Harpreet Kaur

    This essay have provided me with the material which i want to read and absorb.I it is a really fantastic work.

  53. David

    As you are a professional speaker and writer, I was dismayed to see your article start off with a declaration that an idea (ie. a mental thought) is an inanimate THING – no it is not! And then I am invited to question a chain? I stopped reading right there. It is sloppy writing but, far worse, sloppy thinking. Nor is it to be excused by any answer of the kind, “You know what I mean” or a retort that I am being pedantic. Colourful imagery, similes and metaphors are fine – but nonsensical English never can be.

    1. Gerard Hafmans

      David I’m an average guy from a third world country…..yep there’s a big world out there with actual people living there and some of these people might be interested in this philosophy….. some might even argue NEED it to help mold safe functioning societies for their families to live in. Yet everywhere I go I find people like you seemingly deliberately trying to make the language inaccessible to the rest of us (blue collar, english as second language, etc.)
      This is the first webpage I’ve found that I feel I can recommend to people without fearing that all your freaking big words will put them to sleep.
      You probably value reason and intellectual honesty as much as I do. Don’t you see that it’s not getting to the people that need it the most!
      We have to inspire them first, and that’s what this page does better than any I’ve come across. They’ll get to the details later…in their own time.
      Look, If you think you can think of one site that is both inspiring and is written in “common” english please please please feel free to point me there.
      If you think this a debate, don’t bother I’m just a lowly carpenter I’m no match for the likes of you. Apologies for my “sloppy” english.

  54. HENRY


  55. keriq

    i’ve known a few free thinkers in my life. i would like to think i am one of them. but one thing i find consistant about all of them is they believe everyone should be free thinkers too… which is conforming to an idea. even if this idea is supposed to set our minds free to ponder the greatest questions of the universe. the problem comes when someone can’t stop thinking about these questions. then what? not such a free thinker anymore. get what i’m saying?

    I think a true free thinker doesn’t ponder or overthink things. instead they move on. often i find myself trying to figure something out. i will think about it for days. then realizing that i won’t stop thinking about it until its done seems like a rule to me. so. i allow my mind to wander in a different direction. free to think what it wants

    1. Ladon

      Yes u can’t continue to think, a freethinker don’t think the reason is because you don’t get answers to the questions you ask or you are asked, I.e somebody asked me a question that, was there a satan that misled lucifer to go against God? Why everything we do wrong we say it’s satan, ok so who misled lucifer before he became satan there should be a force that would have pushed him to envy God what is that force? That you can’t think of, so it puts you in a though situation this are why some people just move on and don’t think because know answers to there questions.

    2. J.

      The human mind is especially well developed to categorize things. However, your “all non-conformists are conformists” categorization (and any other argument following the primitive: things not in the set “X” belong to the set of things “not in the set X”) does not further the discussion.

      As for “moving on,” I think you missed the point about inquiry. What would the world be like if scientific minds thought of hypotheses, and instead of testing and validating/invalidating them, simply moved on? Are you satisfied with simply pondering questions, or do you seek answers? To be a freethinker, one must desire answers (albeit answers that are free from the bonds of dogma, heritage, and superstition).

  56. Akeem

    Nice! Got me thinking…

  57. Jeb

    I have to disagree. Free thinking is something that takes work. Anyone who needs to ‘get away’ in order to have an original thought isn’t trying hard enough. It does help to escape and occasionally a little solitude can jump start a stalled creative process, but nothing gets the creativity going like getting to work on a project.

    You are of course right with everything, but the mind doesn’t work logically.

  58. Heather Stuart

    I always had that free thinking my family and friends alway say that I hear and dance to a differect drumer. I still ask why you do something this way and why can we do it this way

  59. Bright Garlick

    Thank you. A well written, enjoyable article Scott.

    Man has always been conditioned. While ever he remains unaware of the movement of his mind, he will never be free in his thoughts but perpetually enslaved to the thoughts that arise from his conditioning.

    Perhaps an even more important question is : How to be a free feeler ? Man claims to be able to control his thoughts but to be powerless to control his feelings. I beg to differ. And control is less of an issue, than acceptance and integration. I believe the world would be a better place with less suffering if we all asked this question and moved towards liberating the answer.

  60. Leam

    Err…isn’t wanting the label of “Free Thinker” conformist? I never talked to Buddha but Jesus went off to rest, not to figure out who he was. He already knew, but it was pretty exhausting getting the rest of us to figure it out. Like him, we deal with the structures of our upbringing and society. It’s nice to leave society behind for a while and just rest. It’s also pretty neat to go see someone else’s society and realize how much we assume is normal, isn’t. It’s nice to have society to provide rules for safety but rather bothersome when lawmakers get so happy with themselves that they can’t leave well enough alone.

    Like kids, we have to grow into growth. The average kid needs to transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. This happens around age 12. Until then it’s useful to give them clear instructions. After that you need to give them guidance and let them figure out things. Like when to wear a tie and when to realize it’s a silly collar.

    Society provides some instructions and a measure of safety while we figure out the things we can figure out.


    1 , 0 and Infinity

    There is none other than 1 which is the Supreme Absolute
    Zero is Non-existent except in itself
    Infinity can be equated only with Eternal bliss , which is the direct outcome of Self- realization.
    All the faculties available amongst us when followed do seem to run infinite , offering us no solace. As Human beings We look for the ultimate solace. Because We do know that we are finite in the sense that we have limited time period within which to endure our lives. So we always long for that ultimate solace or happiness in whatever we do, in whatever sphere we are in.

    There is only a simple and single reason why we are not getting the much needed solace from all the faculties : As we explore all these faculties, The task seem to be never-ending, The moment we seem to arrive at the just solution for a long-pending problem or question, A new question crops up from nowhere making us again in fresh search .That way our life is spent just in those search engines. To put in other words The moment we begin to feel that we have reached to the end of the road, It appears all of a sudden that We have just started the exploration. The journey never seems to end.
    Our purpose is finite-a destination where we could get all that ultimately and settle therein forever. But the journey seems to run infinite.


    So Can an infinite journey fulfill us with that finite objective.?

    What If only we could have that finite journey at the end of which there is no further seeking. Does such one really exist?

    This perennial question no more exists for the one having acquired the ultimate in knowledge. Well the answer to the perennial question is not served on a platter, This is rightly called the Father of all knowledge. This is gained only by REALIZATION WITHIN. The scriptures help you, and so the discerning teachers. This is the End of all knowledge after acquiring which there is no more search or seeking activity.

    The simplicity of this particular faculty of knowledge -This is all pervading,So You understand this-EITHER YOU UNDERSTAND OR DO NOT UNDERSTAND everything else really DOES NOT MATTER to you at all. And like all other faculties, This is attainable by anyone whoever is just oriented towards this sincerely .
    Read the author’s other Blog: http://bit.ly/h4rkR2 You might also want to check:


    After nerly 48 years of living on our mind blowingly amazing living breathing planet i think it,s about time that i shared my findings and my solutions as to where most of the people are going about living their lives as you say connected by their chain like an un-severed unbilical chord. This huge “ball & chain” which i call not only religeons or all of the points that youv,e written in your really well written free-thinking article but also these points; no1, the language used in ad,s which i call ” the modern tower of BABEL” needs to be brick by brick iconic label by iconic label/brand be made to crumble down by the health ministers with new ledgislation that inc; education about “what,s in your shopping baskets, who makes it where does it come from and who has or is suffering to produce it. Withnew labels and an honest language on this new labelling system for all FOOD, DRINK,& HAIR & BEAUTY PRODUCTS.Otherwise take EROS away from the MECCA of advertising at Piccardilly Circus and put him in his long over-due reirement home in the tibeten peace garden at the Imperial War Museam.Or leave him there if the government can actually grow some balls and replace each of the ad spaces with healthy alternative powers to fossil fuels , drinks burgers trainers and shapoo,s that are eg] sold in holland& barret or in the pro salon or are made from recycled material etc so that “life really will taste good” and eating a home made veggie burger “really will make your day” and it really will be worth it scientifically and economically “be because you are worth it” to fly the flag for the “a group” salon only hair & beauty product. The bad karma that the western world is now going through is virtually irepairable with out this new radical ledgislation otherwise in less than ten years it,s goodbye amimals that have been here hundreds of millions of years before us lot. Who virtually All [6billion +] believe in different interperatations of that crazy pathetically ignorany word GOD.I hope i can meet likeminded poeple who believe in the evidence of all living fossils and carbon dating etc etc to try to save the ORANG U TANGS & THE TIGERS & THE SHARRKS & MANTA RAYS& TURTLES caught in TESCO,S so called TUNA FRIENDLY FISHING METHODS

  63. Wanda

    So excited I found your blog. Whoo hoo! Thanks!

  64. Jesse

    Very Inspiring. As long as someone has a logical premise for disagreeing with me I could respect it.

  65. Frank Steineck

    I have been looking for a speaker, while I have a Redner, German for speaker. The challenge about locating a speaker is to find one who has a clear concept about the various types of causation. Oh yes, there are glib answers. So our fish, expanding your metaphor, kind of impossible, has to leave the water. However, that is what has to happen. Since the late 60th, when my friends were ranting how everything got to change, I changed markedly – but not along with them. I claimed there got to be a way to make poetic visual art. Upholding that concept I kept eating crow. And just recently in my art blog, trying to get the point across that poetic creation is making, anything, from cause, again I was proven wrong. This black cloud „wrong“ never gives in on that eternal joy in sunny days. We are proven wrong by the very mechanics of the game. As soon as we choose our own side we are in for it, splitting the universe into at least two parts; they and us. So what? My point always was that you might feel you have to make something or do something to satisfy another cause, mainly external. Or you create as causative cause, which is never a causing as an effect from others. You go on eating crow, talk to their hands gesturing in defense. And I say you have to live with it and go on in your excluded or exclusive situation or become a creature of effect – still creative, causing and so on. But for which cause? Thank you for bringing that concept across to me, because that is how I read your position.



  1. […] I’m totally aging myself here because the title of this post is from the song the Beat(en) Generation by a band called The The, which was popular for about five minutes in the 80s. While the song itself is rather more dystopian than I’m feeling these days, that particular lyric kept coming to mind while I was reading an essay from Scott Berkun, called How to Be a Free Thinker. […]

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