Jesse Richardson: How To Think, Not What To Think at TEDxBrisbane (Transcript)

Jesse Richardson

Here is the full transcript of entrepreneur and author Jesse Richardson’s TEDx Talk presentation: How To Think, Not What To Think at TEDxBrisbane conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to think, not what to think by Jesse Richardson at TEDxBrisbane


We can probably all agree that education is important, right? That’s pretty universal.

But I want you to think back to your time in school, and see if we can remember something. See, if you can remember a time when you were actually taught how to think. But the lesson you were being given was specifically teaching little you as a kid with big wide eyes in a sponge-like brain: how to go about the business of thinking.

Now, if your experience was anything like mine, you’d probably struggle to think of a single instance that occurred. And when you think about it, that’s completely insane; isn’t it? And at least, what, 10 years that we all spent in school, we get taught all sorts of knowledge, like and this plus this equals that, such-and-such happened in 19-dickety-two, which is great. But the actual teaching of how to think, not so much, right?

So the idea I’d like to share today is that we need to teach kids how to think, not what to think. Now, if you’re unfortunate enough to be talking to a conspiracy theorist, they might tell you that the reason we’re not taught how to think, is that the powers that be — don’t want a sheeple waking up to their lizard people, GMO, chemtrail vaccine propaganda, or something. But I suspect the real reason is quite substantially more boring and plausible. As Sir Ken Robinson identified in his wonderful TED talk on How Schools Kill Creativity, it’s just kind of how the school system responded to industrialization. And now it’s a big entrenched bureaucracy and bloody hard to change, right?

And remember we set this whole education system thing up around the same time that we thought hitting kids with sticks was a good idea. And if they had a cough, we gave them heroin-based cough syrup, like with actual heroin in it, which admittedly was pretty effective at calming them down. But the point is that we weren’t exactly sophisticated in our understanding, you know.

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But now as we all know, our world and our economy are changing rapidly and how we approach education needs to adapt. So what’s different about teaching children how to think is that we’re involving them in the process of their own learning. Instead of just telling to memorize the right answer, we’re asking them to engage their own minds, their own awareness by questioning things, attaining understanding, not just knowledge. And that involvement, that engagement is so important, because it keeps the spark of curiosity alive, it often dies around the same time that kids start resenting the kind of only one right answer didactic nature, or so much schoolwork, it’s usually on grade 3 or 4.

And when you’re like that curiosity, you no longer have to push knowledge onto kids, because they actually want to understand. There’s no need for carrots and sticks to force learning because they become self-powered nerdy little curiosity machines. And they — and as a result of that, they are able to think entirely of their own merits.

But what are we actually talking about here like when we say learning how to think? Well, I think part of it is creativity. But creativity isn’t just some self-indulgent feely thing; it largely defines us as a species. I mean, when you think about it, almost every great innovation, political theory or scientific breakthrough has sprung from creative thinking, right? So from Plato to Einstein, from agriculture to iPads, because creative thinking is in essence nothing more than making new connections.

But to be clear, what I’m talking about here isn’t creative expression. Art is great, but what I’m advocating is less like art and more like design. And the difference between art and design is that art is an expression, whereas design solves a problem. So the point of teaching kids how to think creatively is to teach them how to be adaptive, how to innovate in order to solve problems, not sitting in a loft with red wine ciggies and a black skivvy suffering the burden of no one understanding their artistic genius, but sitting in a planning meeting or a startup incubator or anywhere else in the real world that contributes to our real world economy.

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So our schools need to teach creative thinking. But I think that’s only half of it, because if you – I think that’s only half of it, because teaching creative thinking is great. But if you’re just open to new connections, then that’s a little bit of a recipe for disaster as well, because you need to keep your thinking to account.

Never trust a brain, especially your own, because we are, every single one of us, prone to cognitive biases, to prejudices and to the blinding effects of privilege and in-group psychology. We’d like to think of ourselves as, you know, really quite objective and clever but the unfortunate truth is that we are all, to some extent, flawed, ignorant, and deluded, which sounds no good but happily we can do something about it by learning critical thinking skills.

What critical thinking teaches us is how to question things rigorously, how to form sound, well-reasoned, coherent thoughts and arguments and critically how to identify bullshit. But perhaps the most important thing it teaches us is that it’s good to be wrong, that the ideas we hold aren’t us, and that we don’t need to defend them to the death. And in fact, that we can change those ideas in that it is absolutely liberating to do so. It’s something really fundamental to how we approach the world to have the vulnerability and the humility to be receptive to the idea that I might be wrong. It’s profoundly transformative.

And when we’re trained as critical thinkers, something significant shifts, because we become aware of our own thinking: why do I think this? How have I come to this conclusion? We become quite literally self-aware.

This is my thesis that creative and critical thinking are two sides of the same coin, two parts of an equation that add up to how to think. And what’s really interesting is that something happens when a mind is trying to think both creatively and critically, because that equation adds up to more than just the sum of its parts. There is a seed of genius, there is a fertility of understanding that allows one to grow to such great heights when it’s able to think creatively and dynamic interplay with thinking critically.

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When those two aspects of our ability work together, amazing things happen. da Vinci moments born from the cognitive alchemy of a mind that is free to plan, explore, yet also disciplined to apply reason and rationality. And such a mind is also a fortress of understanding, it’s largely impervious to the lies and the nefarious manipulations of politicians, media and the advertising industry, which presents me with something of a segue.

So for the past 15 years or so, I’ve been manipulating people into buying things that they probably don’t need, working as an advertising creative in the ad industry. And in that time I’ve learned a fair bit about both creativity and bullshit. But perhaps the most important thing I learned is that if you want an ad to be effective, you need to create genuine engagement. And you need to do so using the power of simplicity. If you can get that right, then your ad doesn’t feel like an ad anymore, instead it feels like something that someone might actually not hate and possibly even want to read, watch or interact with.

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