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The Thinker's Way
By John Chaffee

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 The Thinker's Way

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The Thinker's Way
By John Chaffee
ISBN: 0316133337
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help

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Chapter Excerpt from: The Thinker's Way , by John Chaffee


It is never too late to be what you might have been.

You are an artist, creating your life portrait, and your paints and brushstrokes are the choices you make each day. How do you feel about the portrait you have created so far? Have you defined yourself as the person you always wanted to be, or are you a "work in progress"? Are you achieving your full potential as a human being, "actively exercising your soul's powers"—the ancient Greek definition of happiness (eudaemonia)? Or do you feel frustrated, incomplete, unfulfilled, and uncertain how to capture the meaning that you most desire in your life? Have you discovered your purpose in life, the mission that only you can fulfill? Or do you feel rootless, unsure about the direction your life should take? Do you possess a clear philosophy of life that acts as a guiding beacon, illuminating the whole of your life and showing you the path to wisdom and personal fulfillment?

Most of us rarely even stop to ask these questions, and when we do, the answers we struggle for are often unsatisfying, sometimes deeply disturbing. But as George Eliot reminds us, it's not too late for you to become that person you had imagined you would be, to create a vibrant life full of sparkling possibilities and rich in meaning. To do so, you must take the first step in this process: You need to make a conscious decision to commit yourself to a journey of self-examination and self-transformation. If your commitment is genuine, and you choose to use your courage and determination to work through the 8 Steps outlined in this book, then you will indeed improve your life in lasting, significant ways. When you complete this journey, you will feel that you are an individual with a mission, not randomly placed on earth, and you will have the personal tools you need to fulfill your mission. You will come to feel in control of your life, effectively steering a course that you are mapping, not traveling along roads others have designated for you.

The key to your journey will be learning to make the fullest use of the extraordinary power of your thinking process. It is your thinking process that will enable you to become the person you want to be, to create a life that is rewarding, fulfilling, and successful. Everybody "thinks"—Homo sapiens means "thinking man"—but most people don't "think" very well. The purpose of this book is to help you reach your full thinking potential. This kind of transformational process is possible because the thinking process is such an integral part of who we are. When we expand our thinking, we expand who we are as human beings: the perspective from which we view the world, and the concepts and values we use to guide our choices. By exploring your thinking process and using it in carefully designed activities, you can develop it into a powerful, sophisticated tool that will enrich all dimensions of your life. Developing the capacity to examine and refine your thinking process—to "think critically"—initiates a process that transforms the way you view yourself and conduct your business in the world. You will learn to live your life thoughtfully, insightfully, creatively—The Thinker's Way.

The Search for a Meaningful Life

Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

This insight by the psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl penetrates to the soul of who we are. A well-known Viennese psychiatrist in the l930s, Dr. Frankl and his family were arrested by the Nazis, and he spent three years in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Every member of his family, including his parents, siblings, and his pregnant wife, was killed. He himself miraculously survived, enduring the most unimaginably abusive and degrading conditions. Following his liberation by Allied troops, he wrote Man's Search for Meaning, an enduring and influential work, which he began on scraps of paper during his internment. Since its publication in 1945, it has become an extraordinary bestseller, read by millions of people in twenty languages. Its success reflects the profound hunger for meaning that people are experiencing, trying to answer a question that, in the author's words, "burns under their fingernails." This hunger expresses the pervasive meaninglessness of our age, the "existential vacuum" in which many people exist.

Dr. Frankl discovered that even under the most inhumane of conditions, one can live a life of purpose and meaning. But for the majority of prisoners at Auschwitz, a meaningful life did not seem possible. Immersed in a world that no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, that robbed them of their will and made them objects to be exterminated, most inmates suffered a loss of their values. If a prisoner did not struggle against this spiritual destruction with a determined effort to save his self-respect, he lost his feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom, and with personal value. His existence descended to the level of animal life, plunging him into a depression so deep that he became incapable of action. No entreaties, no blows, no threats would have any effect on his apathetic paralysis, and he soon died, underscoring the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's observation: "Without a firm idea of himself and the purpose of his life, man cannot live, and would sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if he was surrounded with bread."

Dr. Frankl found that the meaning of his life in this situation was to try to help his fellow prisoners restore their psychological health. He had to find ways for them to look forward to the future: a loved one waiting for their return, a talent to be used, or perhaps work yet to be completed. These were the threads he tried to weave back into the patterns of meaning in these devastated lives. His efforts led him to the following epiphany:

We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life, daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and medication, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

We each long for a life of significance, to feel that in some important way our life has made a unique contribution to the world and to the lives of others. We each strive to create our self as a person of unusual quality, someone who is admired by others as extraordinary. We hope for lives characterized by accomplishments and lasting relationships that will distinguish us as memorable individuals both during and after our time on earth. Unfortunately, we often don't achieve these lofty goals. In order to discover the meaning of our lives, we need to understand "who" we are. And we live in an age in which many people are not sure "who" they are or whether in fact their lives have any significant meaning whatsoever.

When we are asked questions such as "Who are you?" or "What is the meaning of your life?" we often lack any idea of how to respond. But an even more revealing symptom of our confusion and alienation is the fact that we rarely even pose these questions, to ourselves or to others. We are too busy "living" to wonder why we are living or who is doing the living. But can we afford to be too busy to find meaning in our lives? Our lives depend on our answer to this question. Not our biological lives necessarily, but the life of our spirit. We so often cruise along on autopilot—days slipping into weeks, weeks merging into years, years coalescing into a life—without confronting these important questions. If we are to become human in the fullest sense, achieving our distinctive potentials and living a life of significance, we must first have what the theologian Paul Tillich characterized as "the courage to be."

There is a terrible price to pay for this loss of wonder and lack of meaning, for it corrodes any life, eating it away from the inside until only a shell remains. Albert Camus, novelist and writer on existential themes, expressed it this way: "To lose one's life is a little thing and I shall have the courage to do so if it is necessary; but to see the meaning of this life dissipated, to see our reason for existing disappear, that is what is unbearable. One cannot live without meaning."

Many people are in fact living with a diminished sense of meaning, and they struggle to fill the void within them by frantically pursuing power, money, pleasure, thrills, mind-altered states, or the latest psychic fad. Yet these compulsive cravings only serve to reveal the lack of purpose in their lives, poor substitutes for a life built around authentic purpose and genuine meaning. Dr. Frankl provided an eloquent analysis of the desperate situation in which we find ourselves:

Modern men and women are caught in an existential vacuum, the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves. The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century.... No instinct tells them what they have to do, and no tradition tells them what they ought to do; soon they will not know what they want to do.


The Greek philosopher Socrates made this provocative observation nearly 2500 years ago, and it is even more relevant today. In many respects, we have become a society of nonthinkers and as a consequence, people often express bewilderment when trying to understand the complex forces shaping their lives, and frustration at their inability to exert meaningful control over these forces. Consider how often we have heard people say things like:

Everything in my life is moving so quickly—I just can't seem to keep up. There are so many forces that are pushing and pulling me in different directions. Most of the time I feel that I'm just reacting to situations, jumping from crisis to crisis, not steering an independent course for myself. What choice do I have?

I seem to spend a lot of time pretending to be someone I'm not. I lack confidence in my ideas, my perceptions, and myself. I'm worried people won't like the "real me," and so I try to present an image that I think they will respond to. Who is the "real me"? What values should govern my life? These are essential questions, but I don't have time to think about what kind of person I want to be.

Socrates' message was that when we live our lives unreflectively, simply reacting to life's situations and not trying to explore its deeper meanings, then our lives have diminished value. When unreflective, we are not making use of the distinctive human capacity to think deeply about important issues and develop thoughtful conclusions about ourselves and our world. We skate on the surface of life, meeting our endless responsibilities, bombarded with overwhelming amounts of information, and seeming to be in perpetual motion. We simply don't have the time or inclination to plumb the depths of ourselves, reflect on the meaning of our existence, shape the direction of our lives, and create ourselves as unique and worthy individuals.

The fact that you are reading this book suggests that you recognize the importance of enriching your life by improving the quality of your thinking abilities—a worthy goal indeed. And the truth is that your destiny is in your hands: You can shape yourself into the person you want to be, and you can construct an effective and fulfilling life. In order to do so you will have to think critically, live creatively, and choose freely. You will need to articulate the portrait of the person you want to become, use your creative imagination to invest your portrait with colors and textures, and then commit yourself to making the choices necessary to become this person in reality. Creating this portrait will be challenging work, but it is well worth the effort. Your portrait will be your contribution to the world, your legacy to present and future generations.

This book was written as a guide in your quest to create an enlightened self-portrait. It is intended to give you the conceptual tools to craft a life thrilling in its challenges and rich in its fulfillment. It is not intended to directyou to a specific life-portrait. That is your responsibility: to explore, to learn, to evaluate, to think critically—and then to create yourself in the image you have envisioned. The size of your canvas, the quality of your portrait, will expand in direct proportion to your imagination.

"Man is asked to make of himself what he is supposed to become to fulfill his destiny," Paul Tillich wrote. But how do we discover our destiny, the unique meaning of our lives? If our minds are clear and our spirits enlightened, life makes evident what is required of us.

As you follow your own path through the 8 Steps of this book, you will delve deep within yourself, laying bare the bedrock of truth that forms the core of your identity. Your journey will be a process of selfexploration and discovery, answering profound questions about your life and illuminating the mysteries of your existence. And in the course of your travels, as your mind clears and your spirit becomes enlightened, the meaning that life holds out to you will become visible—you will only have to seize it.

Enlightened Thinking Is the Key to a Successful Life

Over the past two decades I have worked with thousands of people to help them become more informed and enlightened thinkers—the key to living a life that is creative, professionally successful, and personally fulfilling. During my years of college teaching, I have discovered that many of my students—representing a broad social, economic, ethnic, and age spectrum—have repeatedly expressed concerns about their inability to control the forces that shape their lives; they are insecure about their ability to think clearly and independently; and they are frustrated by the challenge of creating lives of purpose and significance. In response to this, I created a course entitled Critical Thinking, designed to help people develop crucial thinking abilities and enlightened self-awareness in a practical, systematic, and lasting way. This course has been enormously successful in achieving its objectives. It has been taught to more than 25,000 people at my college, and courses based on my textbook, Thinking Critically, have been taken by more than half a million people in every part of the country.

The Thinker's Way reflects all that I have learned about how to improve our thinking process in order to enrich our lives. It is designed to provide the knowledge, guidance, and practice needed to elevate our thinking abilities to an optimal level.

As a natural result of improving your thinking abilities, The Thinker's Way will help you enrich the quality of your life and who you are as a human being. In our present culture, a great deal of time, money, and effort is spent seeking to improve our health, condition our bodies, and better our personal appearance. Too often neglected is the most important ingredient: the core of who we are, our ability to think and reflect, to understand our past and create our futures. And while there are many self-help books and programs designed to teach us strategies for improving our lives, these approaches will always have limited success if they don't address the need to think clearly, which in turn empowers us to think for ourselves. This is the essence of independent thought. In the absence of insightful thinking and genuine choice, "how-to" techniques will simply be empty exercises with little lasting impact. Selfhelp books and programs are too often cosmetic approaches to human transformation, promising to change deeply rooted behaviors and attitudes with simplistic techniques.

We must restructure the way that we think in order to reshape the way we are. Each of us strives for a life of purpose. Such lives are within our grasp, but to achieve them we must harness the power of our minds.

The many people I have taught over the years have yearned for such lives, and I suspect that the concerns they have expressed will be familiar to you. Their success in meeting these challenges with a critical thinking approach to their lives is compelling testimony to the strength of the human spirit and the power of the human mind.

A Thinking World

I am sometimes asked by people,"Aren't you concerned about what would happen if everyone became a critical thinker?" Let's imagine such a world. It would be a world in which everyone would be thoughtful. They would not act rashly or speak foolishly without thinking. They would be reflective, carefully considering different points of view and thinking deeply about important issues. People would listen to what you had to say and treat your views with respect, and if they disagreed with your point of view, they would explain why by providing intelligent reasons. At work, your boss would provide you with personal support and opportunities to take initiative, guiding you when you made mistakes, encouraging you to excel, and awarding you full credit for your accomplishments. Your relationships with family members would always be loving and honest, as you worked together harmoniously for common purposes. Your relationship with your romantic partner would be intimate and supportive, expressing deep commitment and emotional honesty. Parents would nurture their children with unconditional love and raise them to have respect for the needs of others. People of all ages would display enlightened values, empathizing with the needs of others and trying to help those less fortunate. Lying, cheating, stealing, personal violence: None of these would exist, replaced instead by kindness, generosity, consideration, goodwill. This would be a world filled with open-minded people who welcomed diverse ideas, customs, and personal differences. Racism, sexism, ageism, all forms of discrimination would be things of the past as all people would be treated with tolerance and consideration.

On a social level, all people would see themselves as members of the same community, with a responsibility for the well-being of all members, not just themselves. Everyone would work together to create a better life for all. Wise and principled political leaders would be elected by a thoughtful citizenry, and they would govern with insight, honesty, and compassion. Children would be educated in a system that encouraged their individual talents and respected their unique value. Television shows would be designed to stimulate thinking and expand understanding, as well as entertain. People on talk shows would express thoughtful, articulate opinions, never stooping to superficial analyses or personal insults. On the road, people would drive with safety and consideration, never letting their anger or desire to get ahead take hold of them at the expense of others. When people did make mistakes, they would always accept responsibility, never trying to blame others. Those who violated the law would be tried by juries who were astute thinkers, weighing the evidence judiciously and reaching fair-minded and well-supported verdicts.

On a personal level, you would be confident of your place in society, taken seriously by others who respected your special qualities. People would treat you with consideration, and you would reciprocate, with feelings of goodwill overwhelming any doubts or suspicions. You would think the best of people, and they would respond in kind. You would live your life under what philosophers used to call "the aspect of eternity," reflecting on the purpose of your existence and your connections to humanity and the universe. When working with others, your productive discussions would always move toward the most logical and informed conclusions. You would be able to navigate intelligently through the daily avalanche of information, separating the useful from the irrelevant. You would have a deep understanding of complex social issues, and would enjoy exploring their nuances through constructive conversations. You would live your life creatively, expressing yourself freely without fear of social condemnation. Your life would be vibrant, filled with satisfying relationships and accomplishments in which you would take great pride. You would enjoy the admiration of others as you steered a purposeful course that reflected your profound self-understanding. You would feel secure, strong, loved, happy, and fulfilled.

What would a world populated with critical thinkers be like? It would be a sublime world, the kind of world you would love to live in, the kind of world you would want for your children. It would be a world in which all people were able to achieve their personal potential, echoing the words of the writer Henry Miller:

We are all part of things,
We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians,
We have only to open up, to discover what is already there.

The 8 Steps of The Thinker's Way

Your thinking process operates most effectively when it has an idea of where it's headed. As you read, think, and work through The Thinker's Way, you can imagine yourself embarking on a journey to enlightened thinking and an enhanced life. The 8 Steps of the book represent guideposts to help direct your travels. Although each person has to discover—and create—his or her own path, these guideposts are universal and apply to everyone. You cannot achieve your full potential as a thinker or as a person if you do not successfully complete each of these 8 Steps. Of course, working your way through each of these Steps is not a one-time experience: you will find that you must return to each of these Steps as you live your life and attain higher levels of understanding. Each time you return to the themes of a particular Step, you will do so at a deeper and more profound level, integrating the insights into your life with heightened meaning. It's a spiraling process similar to understanding a complex idea like "romantic love." The "puppy-love" of your youth is gradually transformed into deeper, richer, and more complex feelings toward others, although the core emotion of responding to another person in a loving way remains constant throughout.

In addition, you will find that the principles and insights of the various Steps all work together to create your enlightenment and personal transformation, like different instruments in an orchestra producing a majestic symphony. So although there is a logic to the sequence in which the 8 Steps are presented, you will find that you are continually using abilities developed in one Step to help you succeed in other Steps. For example, you need to apply the insights and methods involved in the initial Steps:

Think Critically — (Step 1)
Live Creatively — (Step 2)
Choose Freely — (Step 3)

in order to successfully

Solve Problems Effectively — (Step 4)
Communicate Effectively — (Step 5)
Analyze Complex Issues — (Step 6)
Develop Enlightened Values — (Step 7)
Think Through Relationships — (Step 8)

As you gradually master and refine the thinking abilities and insights in each of the Steps, you will discover that they are synergistic, strengthening and enhancing one another as you deploy them in an integrated way. Their combined power will enable you to transform yourself and create a life philosophy.

Three Transforming Principles

The ability to Think Critically (Step 1), Live Creatively (Step2), and Choose Freely (Step 3) are the three life-principles of human transformation upon which this book is based. These three principles are interlocking pieces of the puzzle of your life. Working together as a unified force, these principles can illuminate your existence: answering questions, clarifying confusion, creating meaning, and providing fulfillment.

° Think Critically: When used properly, your thinking process acts like a powerful beacon of light, illuminating the depths of your personality and the breadth of your experience. Clear thinking is a tool that helps you disentangle the often confused jumble of thoughts and feelings that compose much of waking consciousness. By becoming a more powerful "critical thinker," you are acquiring the abilities you need to achieve your goals, solve problems, and make intelligent decisions. Critical thinkers are people who have developed thoughtful and well-founded beliefs to guide their choices in every area of their lives. In order to develop the strongest and most accurate beliefs possible, you need to become aware of your own biases, explore situations from many different perspectives, and develop sound reasons to support your points of view.

° Live Creatively: Creativity is a powerful life-force that can infuse your life with meaning. Working in partnership with critical thinking, creative thinking helps you transform your life into a rich tapestry of productivity and success. When you approach your life with a mindful sense of discovery and invention, you can continually create yourself in ways limited only by your imagination. A creative lens changes everything for the better: Problems become opportunities for growth, mundane routines become challenges for inventive approaches, relationships become intriguing adventures. When you give free rein to your creative impulses, every aspect of your life takes on a special glow. You are able to break out of unthinking habitual responses and live fully in every minute, responding naturally and spontaneously. It sounds magical and it is.

° Choose Freely: People can only transform themselves if they choose to take different paths in their lives, but only if their choices are truly free. To exercise genuine freedom, you must have the insight to understand all of your options and the wisdom to make informed choices. When you fully accept your freedom, you redefine your daily life and your future in a new light. By working to neutralize the constraints on your autonomy and guide your life in positive directions, you see alternatives that were not previously visible, concealed by the limitations of your vision. Your future becomes open, a field of rich possibilities that you can explore and choose among. A life that is free is one that is vital and exciting, suffused with unexpected opportunities and the personal fulfillment that comes from a life well lived.

Your "self" is in its essence a dynamic life-force, capable of thinking critically, living creatively, and choosing freely. These three essential dimensions of your "self" exist optimally when they work together in harmonious unity. When working together, these three basic elements create a person who is intelligent, creative, and determined—the ingredients for success in any endeavor. But consider the disastrous consequences of subtracting any of these elements from the dynamic equation If you lack the ability to think critically, you can't function very well in most challenging careers because you will have difficulty in thinking clearly, solving complex problems, and making intelligent decisions What's more, whatever creative ideas you come up with will be rootless lacking an intelligible framework or practical strategies for implementing them. You will be an impractical dreamer, condemned to a life of frustrated underachieving. Without insight into yourself, your freedom will be imprisoned, since you won't be able to see your choices clearly or liberate yourself from the influences that are constraining you.

If you lack the ability to live creatively, then your thinking abilities may enable you to perform in a solid, workmanlike fashion, but your work will lack imagination, you will be fearful of trying out original approaches because of the risk of failure, and your personality will be missing the spontaneous sparkle that people admire and are drawn to. You will in time become a competent but unimaginative "worker-bee," performing your duties with predictable adequacy, but never rising to the lofty heights of which you are capable. Your choices will be as limited as your imagination, and your habitual choices of the safe and secure paths will eventually create a very small canvas for your personal portrait.

If you lack the ability to choose freely, then your abilities to think critically or creatively cannot save you from a life of disappointment. Though you may be able to analyze clearly and understand, you will lack the will to make the difficult choices and stay the course when you encounter obstacles and adversities. And though you may develop unique and valuable ideas, your inability to focus your energies and make things happen will doom these ideas to anonymity. If you lack the will to create yourself as a strong individual of character and integrity, the people you encounter will come to view you as a shallow-rooted reed that bends with the wind of superficial trends, not someone deserving of authority and responsibility.

Think of what you aspire to: a life of purpose and meaning, the respect and devotion of those around you, success and fulfillment in your chosen endeavors, and a secure sense of who you are, with the courage and vision to accomplish great things. These aspirations are within your grasp, but only if you develop all of these fundamental dimensions of yourself to their fullest potential: to think critically, live creatively, and choose freely—to live your life The Thinker's Way.

Excerpted from The Thinker's Way , by John Chaffee . Copyright (c) 1998 by John Chaffee, Ph.D. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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