#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. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. Harpreet Kaur

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

  6. 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.

  7. HENRY


  8. 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).

  9. Akeem

    Nice! Got me thinking…

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  16. Wanda

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

  17. Jesse

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

  18. 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.

  19. edward

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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

  24. David Osuna

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

  25. 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.

  26. 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,

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. ammaar

    a new dimension to the thought process

  30. 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.

  31. 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

  32. Sumit Gupta

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



  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 […]

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