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How to Sharpen Your Critical-Thinking Skills

A critical thinker looks at a situation from all angles. If you’re looking to develop this key skill, we have some advice. [TWEET]

Tony Wagner, education expert and author of The Global Achievement Gap, argues that students need 3 basic skills in order to thrive in a knowledge economy:

1. The ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving.

2. The ability to communicate effectively.

3. The ability to collaborate.

What is true for students is true for all of us professionals, or ‘students’ of the world of work: These skills are invaluable and fall on the skills list of what employers look for. I’d recommend that anyone who cares about knowledge job performance strengthen and continuously exercise all of these skills. I can say they’ve served me extraordinarily well so far in my career, from teaching English as a foreign language, to helping organizations grow as a writer and editor for a marketing agency.

The supreme importance of critical thinking.

Wagner lists critical thinking first for a reason. It’s paramount. In the classic cognitive skills of traditional education, it’s the difference between the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy (memorization) and the top (evaluation). Along with the other indispensable skills of a knowledge-based economy, critical thinking is rooted in a rigorous and balanced approach to looking at the world, what many employers look for.

Whether in a classroom, laboratory, online program or live workshop (even self-study), the sharper your critical-thinking skills, the easier it will be for you to apply your knowledge to boost your career growth. To borrow from Bloom’s taxonomy again, those who can use their knowledge to analyze, synthesize and ultimately evaluate, can adapt to any job situation and thrive within it. The particular knowledge itself is less important than the types of thought processes you’re exposed to and practice on a regular basis.

Essentially, the critical thinker cultivates a mindset (grounded in awareness) that looks at all the angles of a given situation. How do you see more angles? How do you become more aware? Well, it’s partly a function of experience, but it’s also a habit of mind. Having a healthy curiosity and drive to understand the why behind things, not just the how, broadens perception and awareness. It's also a key skill for a resume.

How do you improve your critical-thinking skills?

To start, we’ve got no shortage of literary sources to turn to in the current exploding market for productivity advice. Some of these bestsellers can help you reevaluate many of your foundational choices, which translates directly to work choices. Being active and deliberate with your life choices requires critical thinking. A good book I’m reading right now is Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath; another I’m looking forward to reading soon is Charles Duhigg’s just-published Smarter Faster Better. If you’re only going to read one book, I’d start with Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind, which uses modern neuroscience to explain the ways we can all learn to think like Sherlock Holmes. I have found her take on mental performance to be completely mesmerizing … and integral to my productivity in both work and life.

What employers look for.

At most places where you’d want to be working, employers are looking for people to ask the right questions. Indeed, being inquisitive is one of the fundamental principles of company culture where I work. This knack for probing deeper into what motivates an organization is exactly what smart employers seek. In fact, when I was last on the job market, I relied heavily on a book (maybe this one … sorry, too long ago) that helps job-seekers formulate the best questions to ask during an interview.

I got the job.

With no prior experience in the industry. And very little knowledge. Furthermore, I could tell before getting the formal offer that one reason I was on track was the quality of the conversation my questions enabled. Apparently I tricked them into thinking I was a legit candidate! In all seriousness, by demonstrating a leader’s forward-thinking tendency while interviewing for an entry-level position, I showed my commitment and potential. Ultimately, I left a great impression, thanks in large part to my questions.

Ask intelligent questions.

One of the hallmarks of critical thinking is asking intelligent questions … not necessarily knowing the answers, but the best questions to ask. As indicated in the preceding section, the ability to articulate—and refine—a powerful question is a highly coveted job skill and a key skill for a resume. It indicates you care about outcomes and can take a long-term perspective, which are signs of professional maturity. And it starts from critical thinking.

So, ask more questions. Be open-minded. Learn as much as you can. Then debate, explore and play with your new knowledge. Practice thinking critically until it is as natural to you as breathing. This is what employers look for. Before long, you will start to look at the world differently. Even more exciting, your employer and colleagues will start looking at you differently, too.

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!