Habits of mind: sharpen up

Have you ever sharpened a knife the old fashioned way, with a honing steel? (If not, here’s the full run-down on how to sharpen knives, from Lifehacker, and some knife-sharpening sounds to get you in the mood for today’s blog.) 

There’s an old proverb, a favourite of mine, that says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”. 

It reminds me that one way at getting better at thinking is thinking with other people.  It’s like sharpening my kitchen knives – the result is good, but sometimes the noise of the process is not my favourite ambience – for example when my ideas get strongly challenged.   

It also makes me think of the sport of fencing with the routines of lunge, parry and riposte which we have adopted to describe debating techniques.  Iron on iron sharpens the skills of the players. 

So what is it that sharpens up our thinking? And why is sharp thinking important? 

Why is sharp thinking important? 

  • It is important that we commit to things that are based in reality. I find it appalling the current fad in politics that promotes outrageous untruths. How can that possibly lead to human flourishing? But even in the smaller scale around BT, it takes a sharp mind to see what is happening in true perspective and distinguish the statements that are based on evidence from the ones that come from well-intentioned passion, especially when the passionate statements are louder. Just this week I was challenging someone on the difference between his passionate perspective and the observable facts. It affects system design, process design and the whole way we target our efforts to make a difference for our customers or for the company.
  • Sharply defined thoughts help us to communicate, especially with people who are different to ourselves. I’ve noticed two kinds of communications professionals: some who can make anything sound and look marvellous; others who will interrogate the meaning and look for substance, precision and clarity before making it sound and look marvellous. I’m becoming more and more aware of rhetoric and how it convinces us at the emotional level without necessarily having any substance. I don’t want that to happen, nor do I want to do it to other people. I want to think more clearly than that.
  • Thinking clearly helps us apply principles, transfer knowledge to new contexts, and to become adaptive experts (I wrote about adaptive expertise in my blog recently).
  • Clear thinking is required to hit the higher goals. So many things conspire against the outcomes we really want to see for ourselves and for the organisation (such as an excellent customer experience). There is a time and a place to challenge and overcome the rules of the process, the norms of our culture, short-termism and natural psychological biases to get closer to those higher goals. Corporate life is complex and spotting those moments requires sharp thinking.

What sharpens up our thinking? 

This blog started because I spotted a pretty chart about “habits of mind”. I liked the simple, practical language. A “Habit of Mind” is a repeated behaviour that sharpens up our thinking. It gives us a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems. Which of these resonate with you?


Now those were written for schoolkids, but I think there’s good application at any stage of life. 

If you want the technical term in adult language, this is metacognition. Thinking about thinking. We’re all slightly different in how we learn: this is about becoming aware of what’s working and adapting your strategy so you CAN think clearly and learn effectively.   

I also want to add in an adult perspective: when brains are more developed, there are a few more habits of mind to add to the chart above. 

  • Know the limits of your memory, and create a means of external support
  • Monitor your learning strategy and change it if it isn’t effective
  • Notice whether you comprehend something as you hear, read or watch it. If you didn’t, do something about it.
  • Be aware of your unconscious psychological biases, and try to overcome them
  • Consciously choose to skim to filter irrelevance or unnecessary detail, and adapt those filters
  • Take opportunities to repeat a skill or to apply it in a new situation in order to consolidate and deepen it through experience
  • Reflect on what actually happens, and connect that honestly with your theory and expectations.

So which of these resonate with you? What are your own “habits of mind”, especially as you apply them in the workplace?

A lot of these are individual, but there is also an inter-personal dimension too.  What do you find improves your thinking in collaborating with others?  How does iron sharpen iron in your experience?  


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