Outsourced thinking is today’s biggest problem

The biggest problem in the world is that too many people outsource too much of their thinking. Too many people are letting others decide what they like, what they feel, who they support, what their opinions are, and even who they are.

Benefits of outsourcing
Outsourcing is generally a good thing – you gain leverage from another’s expertise.

Most of us outsource milk production to dairy farmers and conveniently buy it at the grocery store.  We also outsource our piping problems to a plumber. We can outsource our knowledge too: most of us believe the world is round even though we haven’t proved it ourselves. And, of course, when we are around friends, we subsume their thoughts, tastes, and values as our own (sometimes called homophily).  This too is generally a positive trend since it allows us to gain knowledge and learn from their experiences quickly.

In fact, if we never outsourced ANY of our thinking, we would be paralyzed by the simplest decisions and would essentially become useless in society (or become the Unabomber). 

But it is easy – and intellectually irresponsible – to outsource too much of our thinking. These days, it seems like people can too easily adopt the opinions of the people in their lives: their professor, downstairs neighbor, pastor, boss, community, or favorite talk show host.

Dangers of largely outsourced thinking
The biggest problem with over-outsourced thinking is that we can become homogeneous, resistant to change, and lose our ability to think of new ideas. Instead of being independently-minded, we are in danger of becoming walking phonographs that repeat what we have heard. Given that so much of our economic and technological progress to date has been from our ability to think fresh for ourselves, outsourcing too much thinking can stifle continued advancement.

A light-hearted yet sad example of outsourced thinking: In September 2008, one comedian interviewed Obama supporters and asked them what they thought of “Obama’s Vice President pick, Sarah Palin.”  The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Outsourcing your decisions is very different than outsourcing your thinking.  We cannot decide everything.  We are in a representational democracy where we elect others to make decisions for us. But outsourcing who you are going to elect (or hire) to make these decisions can potentially be disastrous.

Not only can outsourced thinking stifle creativity, it can also impact your career. In business it can be a red flag during interviews with people who cannot display that they think for themselves.  When someone always thinks like the majority it generally means that they will have trouble going against the grain or coming up with anything revolutionary.  One of my favorite interview questions is “what is a belief that you have that most of your friends think is crazy.”  I’ve heard some really interesting responses but I have also heard some things that are utterly conventional.

How not to outsource your thinking
Here are some simple steps to start repossessing your own values and beliefs.

•    Seek out opposite opinions

One way to start developing your own values and thoughts is by talking with people who subscribe to different values. This will force you to identify what matters to you and speak your mind. For example, if everyone you know voted for McCain in 2008, you should seek out 1-2 people you respect who voted for Obama. You might still vote for McCain, but you can try to understand the other side and see why they differ from your beliefs. The same is true on contentious issues like abortion or drug legalization. And if you don’t respect anyone who holds a different view from you, you should spend a lot of time looking at yourself.

•    Guard against bubbles

People who play into bubbles generally have trouble thinking for themselves.

In 2006, it was obvious to everyone we were in a real estate bubble. During that year, I couldn’t find anyone who did NOT think we were in a bubble. When the crash came, it wasn’t really a shock to anyone (though few predicted how fast the bubble would burst).  However, almost all investors kept betting that real estate would continue to rise.  

Why? Because they outsourced their thinking to others.

People who kept investing money in real estate despite recognizing the bubble were riding an unsustainable wave of outsourced. If they had thought for themselves, they would have made fewer investing mistakes.

•    Strive to be wrong

To be true to yourself, you need to be wrong sometimes. You need to be ok with being wrong and you should be ok when others around you are wrong. That means going against the grain and speaking your mind, especially when it’s different from what those around you are thinking.

Striving to be wrong forces you to be a more creative thinker, someone who is not tied down by the status quo and how things are typically done. These are the people who, ask the “why’s” and ask the “why nots.”

Additionally, the process and conversations needed to understand why you are wrong is itself an exercise is un-outsourcing your thinking since it makes you explain your thoughts and values.

People who fear being wrong generally end up adopting group mentality and outsourcing their thinking because they are afraid to voice contrary opinions or to have their ideas shot down. In contrast, people who are ok with being wrong tend to have a freedom around creativity and less impeded by herd mentality.

Special thanks to Michael Hsu for his help and edits.

13 thoughts on “Outsourced thinking is today’s biggest problem

  1. Matthendrick

    Auren,
    Very good point. Widespread access to readily available information has made it easy for people to not only outsource their critical thought, but also reinforce existing prejudices and opinions through the consumption of media that simply serves to justify their position. Ironically, those who outsource the most would argue they’re not outsourcing at all – which suggests to me a lack of self-awareness on a fundamental level. If someone is smart enough to consider, and follow, the advice you’ve given above, they’re already way ahead of the pack. The real challenge lies in reaching those who can’t even recognize the problem, and waking them up to the reality they’ve built for themselves.
    Great interview question by the way.

    Reply
  2. Greg

    Great post. There’s a meta-level to this: recognizing *when* we’re outsourcing our thinking is a huge challenge. I catch myself all the time outsourcing my thinking to blog-gibberish I barely remember reading nevermind knowing the validity or the source of. Today’s web makes these countless “mini-memes” fast to spread and hard to avoid, silently being absorbed into our brains without us realizing it.
    Eventually a few bubble up into our speech and world view over time; the brain’s tricky like that. It seems the mind slowly sorts things out in the background until you blurt out some “fact” confidently that you originally heard through a guy who linked to a blog you sorta remember reading last Tuesday on Hacker News. And, if you’ve garnered enough respect, you propagate this meme to your peers instead of just looking like the fool you are!

    Reply
  3. Evren Kiefer

    That’s a great article, thank you !
    The consumption of “expert” advice has become as easy as subscribing to an RSS feed and sometimes the experts echo each other in such a way that one might start to forge opinions without thinking about them. I’ve been guilty of this too. For example, I always thought that ideas about personal branding and having only one message didn’t suit me because I was too much of a generalist or poly-expert. However, some dissident voices started to reach me recently (http://www.horsepigcow.com/2009/12/who-am-i/) and, well, got me thinking about this in a fresh way.
    Thanks again 🙂

    Reply
  4. NicoF

    Good points, but I disagree with your your conclusion as its written.
    I don’t believe outsourced thinking is bad or harmful for an organization. In fact, I think it’s necessary. This could simply be an interpretive accounting problem as you cite that internal thinkers and decision makers should seek out the thought of others. Are they not doing the ‘thinking’ for you then? Be it creative, analytical, process, etc. thinking? I feel that by using others to think (or explore) brings an outsider or fresh perspective that might not otherwise hatch within an inbred organization.
    What I do think is harmful is the reliance or overuse of outsourced thinking. When qualified like this, I find your points and conclusion to be spot on. When you farm out total (or majority) control, you cease to be a thinker and really just a manager of others.

    Reply
  5. NicoF

    Good points, but I disagree with your your conclusion as its written.
    I don’t believe outsourced thinking is bad or harmful for an organization. In fact, I think it’s necessary. This could simply be an interpretive accounting problem as you cite that internal thinkers and decision makers should seek out the thought of others. Are they not doing the ‘thinking’ for you then? Be it creative, analytical, process, etc. thinking? I feel that by using others to think (or explore) brings an outsider or fresh perspective that might not otherwise hatch within an inbred organization.
    What I do think is harmful is the reliance or overuse of outsourced thinking. When qualified like this, I find your points and conclusion to be spot on. When you farm out total (or majority) control, you cease to be a thinker and really just a manager of others.

    Reply
  6. geekmba360

    Great post.
    Critical thinking skill is one of the most important life skills. Unfortunately, I think our education system hasn’t done a good enough job to teach critical thinking.
    Also, in today’s age, we’re all overwhelmed with information (blogs, web sites, TV, twitter, etc.). However, people need to recognize that information is useless unless you can think and take advantage of the information.

    Reply
  7. Jim Matorin

    Two thoughts:
    1.) Outsource thinking is more objective for those that are constantly putting out fires.
    2.) Smartphones are the greatest source of outsource thinking and will result in the demise of innovation in society since everything will be one touch away. Think about it.

    Reply
  8. Mark Earls

    While your complaint about the lack of critical thinking in business today seems fair enough I’ve got to say I think you’re jousting at windmills here.
    If you take a step back and consider human beings in the broader context, outsourcing our thinking to those around us is one of the most important sources of evolutionary advantage of our species. Outsourcing perception and thinking to other group members is a highly efficient practice – it means few of us ever have to do the heavy cognitive lifting. There are lots of good examples of the upsides of this (not least of which is the well-documented wisdom of crowds phenomenon).
    It’s also something that we all do all of the time – whatever opinionated folk like us tell ourselves. Online or off. And throughout human history. To paraphrase Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemann, independent thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats.

    Reply
  9. Auren Hoffman

    Nico: very good point and well said. you’re right … it is the overreliance on outsourced thinking. everyone needs to outsource some of our thinking. the problem us that too many people outsource almost all of their thinking

    Reply

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