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Book Review: Clear Thinking

CLEAR THINKING: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results.  Shane Parrish. (2023, Kindle Edition)

Clear Thinking notably was an instant bestseller with the New York Times, Globe and Mail, and Toronto Star. The author, Shane Parrish, is a leading expert, writer and speaker on decision-making, and the curator of Farnam Street (FS) found at a highly acclaimed newsletter, podcast and series of resources focused on the art and science of how to think better, learn faster, and make smart decisions. According to Parrish, Clear Thinking is a practical guide on how to master clear thinking, and offers a proven framework and practical strategies for making smarter decisions in everyday moments at work and in life. 

In his book, Parrish asserts that to get the extraordinary results we desire, we must do two things: (1) create the space to reason in our thoughts, feelings, and actions; and (2) deliberately use that space to think clearly. Accordingly, the first half of the book is about creating the space to reason⎯whereby Parrish explains what clear thinking is and what its common enemies are (i.e., reacting without reasoning), and offers practical and actionable strategies for counteracting them. The second half of the book is about putting clear thinking into practice⎯whereby Parrish offers effective real-world approaches to thinking that have been learned from others and tested on thousands of people from various organizations, cultures, and industries. Indeed, Parrish acknowledges upfront that this book presents a distillation and synthesis of the best of “what other people have already figured out”, rather than new research from the field⎯an important clarification.

Clear Thinking is comprised of five parts, the contents of which are summarized below.

  • In the Introduction, Parrish establishes that the greatest aid to judgment is starting from a good position. What many people miss, he maintains, is that ordinary moments determine your position, and your position determines your options. Clear thinking is the key to proper positioning, as it allows people to master their circumstances, rather than be mastered by them. Yet, when faced with a situation, people tend to be unaware of the need to pause and apply reason. Instead, they react impulsively, which often makes things worse. Sound familiar? Thus, the first step in improving situational outcomes, he contends, is to train ourselves to identify the moments when judgment is called for in the first place, and pause to create space to think clearly.

  • In Part 1 of the book, Parrish goes on to describe many of the contributors to impulsive default behaviors (i.e., enemies of clear thinking), such as “the emotion default” that stems from anger and fear, “the ego default” that prompts us to protect our self-image, “the social default” that inspires us to conform to social pressures, and “the inertia default” that pushes us to maintain the status quo. He acknowledges that these are ingrained biological tendencies that cannot be eliminated, but can be managed. What we can do, he contends, is reprogram ourselves by creating an intentional environment where the desired behavior becomes the default behavior. The best way to overcome these types of default behaviors, Parrish maintains, is by harnessing and building strength in the power to press pause on the default behaviors and exercise good judgment.

  • In Part 2 of the book, Parrish defines four areas of strength that are critical to exercising good judgment, and discuss how each counteract default behaviors, as well as how to cultivate them as “habits of the mind”. These include:

  • Self-accountability: holding yourself accountable for developing your abilities, managing your inabilities, and using reason to govern your actions 

  • Self-knowledge: knowing your own strengths and weaknesses—what you’re capable of doing and what you’re not 

  • Self-control: mastering your fears, desires, and emotions 

  • Self-confidence: trusting in your abilities and your value to others

  • Parrish stresses that it’s equally as important to implement safeguards for managing more troublesome weaknesses and blind spots. Accordingly, in Part 3 of the book, he describes many of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses that can push us toward reacting instead of thinking clearly and that blind us to the deciding moments of our lives. In addition, he offers numerous “safeguard strategies” for protecting ourselves, as well as strategies for effectively handling and learning from our mistakes⎯which is a section that is particularly noteworthy from the perspective of this reviewer. 

Everyone makes mistakes. They are an unavoidable part of life. But mistakes also present us with a choice: to learn from them or ignore them. Part of taking command of our lives is managing those missteps when they do happen, and learning from them in order to do better as a result going forward. Yet, the biggest mistake made by many people typically isn’t their initial mistake, but rather it’s the mistake of trying to cover up and/or avoid responsibility for it. Parrish offers a practical 4-step ‘how-to” strategy for handling mistakes more effectively that involves accepting responsibility, learning from the mistake, committing to doing better, and repairing the damage as best as possible.

  • In Parts 4 and 5, Parrish describes how to deliberately use the created space from managing default behaviors for clear thinking. Specifically, in Part 4, he describes how to master the skill of decision-making, and offers tips and tools for reasoning better when making decisions by employing a step-by-step process for defining the problem, exploring possible solutions, evaluating the options, and taking action while ensuring a margin of safety. He also emphasizes the importance of mastering the ability to learn not only from one’s mistakes, but also from one’s successes; and offers several principles that should be employed when evaluating the outcomes from decisions made. Finally, in Part 5, Parrish concludes the book with insights and perspectives on how to get the most value out of clear thinking by making decisions that get you what you really want—beyond just what you think you want at the moment.

In the words of the author, improving your judgment is “about implementing safeguards that make the desired path the path of least resistance.” Whether you live a life run on autopilot and are not achieving the results you desire, or you just seek to improve your ability to make good judgments, this book is a must-read. 


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