Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In the new year, 'think better to do better'

A Gaffar Peang-Meth,

In four weeks, the New Year will be upon us. Usually, around this time of the year, I dust off reading material from my library shelf, looking for something that will energize me for the new year ahead.

A Christmas present from my wife, given several years ago as I settled into my retirement from teaching, "Think Better," by Tim Hurson, a specialist of a firm that provides training, facilitation and consultation in productive thinking and innovation, is, again, what I read: "Your future will depend less on what you know and more on what you think."

A lifelong student, I try to learn something new every day. Since my retirement, each day seems extra special and precious -- for which I give much thanks. I smile as I read what Winston Churchill, who led Britain to victory against the Axis powers in World War II, said: "It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations."

My regular readers know I am a real quotations buff. Some may see them as platitudes, but I find a kernel of truth in those I share in this column. As each presents a way of looking at the world, I learn from them. As 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Our best thoughts come from others."

So I find this time is a good time to remind, and reconnect with Hurson, who has a pragmatic, readable style: "It's not what you know but how you think" that determines your future and your life. His philosophy may be summarized in five words: "Think better to do better." 

Quality of thought 

Surely each of us thinks. That ability separates us from animals, which operate on instinct. But some people confuse opinion -- an idea unsubstantiated by knowledge -- with thought -- which involves careful analysis. This careful, reasoned thought can be characterized as critical thinking.

The Foundation of Critical Thinking posits, "all thinking is not of the same quality. ... Much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced." High-quality thinking improves our quality of life and the quality of everything we do.
The Foundation's publications describe the pitfalls of "aimless thinking" -- the "monkey mind," as Hurson calls it. Rather, we should engage our mind in generating further questions -- the foundation sees this process as a "substantive learning" -- "A mind with no question is a mind that is not intellectually alive." 

'Essential questions'

Without further questions, a mind does not know how to proceed or to process. Recall Aung San Suu Kyi's call on her compatriots to maintain a "questing mind."

Hurson, an optimist, assures us that whatever intelligence quotient, IQ, or creative quotient, CQ, your brain may have, "every brain ... can be taught to think better: to understand more clearly, think more creatively, and plan more effectively."

Thus, any person can develop and grow.

Like the foundation, Hurson urges us to "keep asking new questions," even if it seems clear and obvious what the answers are, because to stop asking questions is to stop productive thinking and deny ourselves new possibilities. We need to ask "essential questions" in order for us to deal with "what is necessary, relevant, and indispensable to a matter at hand," whether in reading, writing, speaking, or doing anything.

Recently, I logged on to a Web site and spent time dissecting a former Cambodian professor's call for a "progressive and systematic overhaul" of Cambodian society to enable the country to gradually resolve its current economic, institutional, legal, political and social problems. As I found Dr. Tith's explanations of the main causes of the inertia and the failure of new ideas, capable leadership and entrepreneurial spirit to grow in Cambodia, to emanate from a dearth of quality thinking, I wrote about his call in my columns.

I also wrote in this space of my thinking about how it is desirable to have a hundred different thoughts bloom in the garden of ideas to enable us to choose from the best, to develop and improve society. My recent columns deal with ideas, commitment and change. Change upsets some people as their world is disturbed.

Yet, as we are the product of thoughts, what then do we become when ideas and thoughts are seen as damaging to progress and development? I dread what authoritarianism can do to mankind.

Last week, I wrote about Thomas Friedman's "The Power in 11/9" when people power brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989 without firing a shot. Friedman's thoughts: "Where there is people power wedded to progressive ideas, there is hope -- and American power can help. Where there is people power harnessed to bad ideas, there is danger. Where there is no people power and only bad ideas, there will be no happy endings." 


On Nov. 22, Friedman's "Advice From Grandma" says most seem to agree that "it's all but certain that China will own the 21st century." But Friedman is "not ready to cede the 21st century to China just yet," because America still has important things that can't be commoditized -- one is "imagination," and Americans still have the ability to "imagine and spin off new ideas" to thrive. The other is "good governance, which can harness creativity."

Friedman is worried about America's ability to forge "optimal" solutions to her biggest challenges, and suggests America "need(s) better citizens."

As we're prepared to leave the old year behind, I look to renewing "Think better to do better" for myself, and wish the same for my readers in the New Year 2010!

A Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at



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