How Do You Become an Original Thinker?

Steven Pinker: A contemporary example of an original thinker.

I had recently gave a breakfast talk to a group of finance/ops executives in Austin. The presentation was called “How You Lead is Your Brand” and it made the case that leadership and brand are directly connected. I proposed that brand is no longer just an external construct but the cumulative result of leadership beliefs, behaviors and standards. As part of my presentation, I proposed that we need a new kind of leader in this post-industrial age era we call the Human Age. One of the traits of this leader is to be an original thinker.

One of the attendees reached out to me and asked to meet for coffee. We met up this morning and in the course of our visit he asked me this question:“How do you become an original thinker?” I thought this was a great question so wanted to share my response to his question.

First, there are two primary indicators that you are an original thinker:

  • Original thinkers have original ideas. People frequently tell you “I’ve never thought of that before!” We live in an information-saturated world full of meme-madness and a parroting of books, “inspirational quotes” and the ilk — what I call being a karaoke singer. Original thinkers are not fans or followers of any particular thought-leader. Of course, they will be inspired and even admire certain figures, but they see themselves as peers not groupies.

The ideas of an original thinker are often heretical and threatening to the status quo, which leads to this trait …

  • Original thinkers are immune to identity politics and refuse to be jammed in to any particular box. As such, original thinkers frequently offend conventional wisdom, corporate institutionalists, political ideologues, religious dogmatists and politically correct “social justice warriors”. This produces an array of reflexive and under-thinking haters and trolls that will try to silence them or mis-label them.

Now back to my new friend’s question on HOW …

The first step is to go inward. When coaching people on original thinking, I/we start with three questions:

  1. What have you always known to be true? (What did you know that you weren’t taught)
  2. What idea or principle would you be willing to commit civil disobedience over? (I asked this in my talk)
  3. Who will you most offend? (See above!)

The second step is to pick up some specific skills — like learning to confidently speaking on your ideas, becoming a prolific creator/sharer of original content, learning to relate with every human that crosses your path, embracing the discipline of reading, becoming a master of personal growth and more.

The third step is to begin to express your ideas. This could be speaking up in a meeting, challenging a teacher in class, pushing back against dogma in a conversation. It could be starting a blog, writing a book, teaching a workshop. Regardless of format, just start expressing! Life will present you many opportunities to share your ideas, but you must be willing to do so.

Finally, an original thinker thrives on being uncomfortable through self-examination, skepticism and questioning everything. This includes being physically uncomfortable at times (it’s no coincidence that most original thinkers frequently take cold showers!) It is nearly impossible to become an original thinker by being in comfort mode — drifting through life with a maintenance mindset. All of which numbs the mind and the soul and robs you of original thought.

Many thanks to my new friend for sparking this with his thoughtful (and original) question!

I have a curated list of original thinkers across business, society, personal growth, spirituality, creativity and more. Send me a DM and I will send you my list!

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