Words and photo by John Kite
Essays, academia, & thinking.
The word ‘essay’, forewarned by a teacher or older sibling, struck a deep terror growing up – surmised in innocent minds only as unfathomable boredom and preposterous sacrifice of time, freedom, and soul to academia. Yet here we are, masters of the formula: contextual introduction, point-per-paragraph, impactful conclusion, all interspersed with the ever-pedestalled ‘critical thinking’. It might be ‘critical’ – of other authors’ ideas, cocooned within an intricate shield of references – but ‘thinking’? I think not!
Starting at university, or soon after, our free-thinking and curiosity dissipate – overwhelmed by socialisation and exhaustion – and with it our dreams of escaping normality and ‘beating the system’. Citations reign over emotion and novelty, and we do as society says. In a world of infinite distractions and wicked global problems, answers to individual and global concerns require the self-mastering of our minds.
What is thinking?
Thinking is coherent only to consciousness. We think not in linear words and phrases but abstract, endless explosions of meaning. Often rhetorical, we have infinite possibilities yet no ascertained conclusions; this piece captures but a clumsily construed fraction of relevant thinking on thinking. In this way, thinking creates novelty, manifests inherent human creativity, drives progress, and charts a path to contentment. It’s the only positive solution to personal and global problems; it can transform the world and our lives. Thinking has encouraged me to opt for minimalism over consumerism, overcome social media addiction, overhaul everyday priorities, and become immeasurably happier.
It’s not easy.
Whilst most would be happier with these same changes, we live within a pervasive capitalist paradigm whereby consumption is inherently social, reinforced through a constant barrage of advertising, and where escaping norms requires bravery, self-belief, and deep introspection. Hence me writing this piece; we think regularly, but to think hard enough to unpack and overcome the social forces that shape our reality and to self-reflect even when synonymous with self-criticism is no mean feat.
It’s scary, too. We fear looking too deeply inward and conceding unhappiness, regret, wasted time, or, worst of all, a need for change. Artificial Intelligence’s recent proliferation has proven our tendency to tread the path of least resistance; we outsource thinking to machines to free our minds, instead dedicating them to a Brave New World of scrolling screens and spaces crowded by material things. Broken attention spans (are you restless reading?) and a global mental health epidemic signal the slow death of global reflective thought.
Our minds are not mere tools but the answer! We must think hard about our values, beliefs, goals, and everyday realities, challenging everything. Take a topic – start with something externally motivated like consumption – and determine the optimality of your status quo; is it thoughtfully intentional or an entrenched, unquestioned habit? Despite my deep-rooted belief in capitalist organisational agendas and ruinous structural forces, I prioritise individualistic reflection before global dilemmas for my own pragmatic contentment.
True critical thinking, though, should be a universal approach to existence. We cannot autopilot life, policy, or any other decisions, and instead of endless hours poured into essays, question and improve your everyday and the world. It will only get harder to find the time and energy to resist convention as life’s burden mounts. Thinking is high leverage and always time well spent, although take care not to overthink; we must recognise and overcome unproductive worry loops with the helping hand of compassionate, emergent conversations.
Our generation is well-suited for the openness and vulnerability required for progressive, collaborative thinking and there are countless examples of critical thought driving youth-led movements. We need to continue in this vein, not pledging ourselves to tribalistic ideologies but evaluating every issue in idea labs of creative thought. In addressing global problems, ego and pride must be shelved and constructive collaboration granted centre stage.
If you struggle putting thoughts into words, write in a journal, blog, or for UnEarth, which offers an escape from academia’s confines in pursuit of raw thought, emotion, novelty, accessibility, and impact. Writing teaches us to clarify and articulate thinking. This is a piece of my thinking, and hopefully a springboard for your own, but true answers cannot be written and read; as dismissed clichés ring true, the most impactful realisations are not consumed but self-discovered.
I urge you to think.
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