We must do a better job raising critical thinkers. We’re bombarded daily with experts and evangelists, all offering their own versions of the straight and narrow, providing inflexible frameworks leading to “success.”
From eliminating entire, arguably harmless food groups, to jumping on a political crazy train, much of society demonstrates a lack of ability to parse and analyze circumstantial evidence, facts and opinions.
The new generation is faced with more access than ever before. Whether this access to information, ideas and cultures results in danger or opportunity depends on their ability to think critically.
A simple example of this took place years ago. We were at a bakery-type restaurant, and I wasn’t feeling well. My son, who was probably about 9 years old at the time, wanted more bread. I dug in my purse for a $10 bill, and told him to go get his bread. I reminded him to say thank you to the person helping him, then sent him on his way.
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My sister-in-law was with us, and she asked me if I shouldn’t have given him better instructions.
“Is there even a wrong answer?” I asked. “We’ll see what he decides.”
I didn’t care if he returned with a slice of bread, or a loaf of bread, or even 2 slices of bread with meat between them. He could spend as much as he had, and do whatever he wanted.
It was a simple, low-risk exercise, but it gave him an opportunity to research and make his own decision.
He looked very small at that counter, and the exchange took a while. I could see there was some discussion going on, and the worker pointed at a couple of different options. After a while, he paid, and then proudly presented the table with a small French loaf, sliced into many pieces, with several pats of butter.
“This was only $1, and there’s enough to share with everyone,” he explained, handing me the change. His decision was both general and value-conscious at the same time. He couldn’t have done better.
Can success be found with a tightly honed, inflexible methodology, a focused goal and strict rules? Can someone lose weight by eliminating carbs? Can we adhere strictly to dogma throughout a lifetime?
The ex-wife of an ex-professional sports player once told me about her ex-husband’s climb to success, and subsequent struggles. She described a very nice guy, amazing at his sport, who had given his sports career 110 percent.
From a young age, his coaches gave him impeccable advice, honing an elite athlete. He did everything they said. He ate their diet and followed their schedule, and memorized their playbook. He dedicated himself to following the blueprint, and his discipline and hard work paid off, carrying him to the pinnacle of his dream.
Except at the end of his sports career, he found himself painfully unprepared for life. Once he was no longer under the tutelage of his coaches, he struggled, lacking the confidence and experience needed to make a decision.
A one-track mind is a liability in an unpredictable world. It can cause us to freeze, mired by rigid outlooks when facing the unfamiliar.
Yet, those same, uncertain circumstances are chances to evolve and grow, relying on character and values, not just blindly following the playbook. And by a malleable definition of “success,” we can do just that.
Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org