How to think like a you’ve got a PhD, without doing the PhD

Shortly after the completion of my PhD I began to solve the problems of my running injuries and later, my personal life by using my training to source all sorts of books, podcasts, audio-books etc. The ways of thinking I had been exposed to and the academics I had met along my journey had led me down this path.

I found myself asking, why the f**k did I have to go all the way to PhD and spend time with several philosophers to learn basic ways of thinking that are central to a life well lived? Why the f**k are these ways of thinking not taught in school and on degree programmes?

The problem with not being able to think

Much of modern life and the education system (including Universities) has become so routine and prescribed that individual creative freedom, which I define as – the ability to think, reason and problem solve challenges, has become stifled. I think this contributes to negative trends in society, in three ways:

  1. A rise in anxiety. Anxiety can be a perceived inability to cope with life i.e. low confidence in solving problems / overcoming obstacles without a prescribed method. Considering that life (nature) will remain dynamic and uncertain, low tolerance for uncertainty (excessive method following) leads to an anxious society.
  2. The abandonment of personal responsibility (learned helplessness). If our lives are prescribed then we always have the prescribers to blame (i.e. the government, health officials, the council, big business etc.). We start to feel powerless to the events in our lives. Disempowered people soon feel sad and angry.
  3. Rigid Thinking: Following prescribed methods leads to rigid thinking (right / wrong). The removal of nuance (the grey area) polarises society. This is illustrated by people’s attitude to Brexit, Trump and Coronavirus. People who choose not to have a vaccine are labelled anti-vax so that those following the method can feel better i.e. have to entertain less uncertainty about their decision (prescription). For the record, I am vaccinated but not because I think that everyone should be, simply because I want to go places and do things. The ability to have contradictory views / actions at the same time is called nuance and releases us from the burden of having to be right or wrong. For example, you could disagree with society being locked down and want to protect the elderly and the vulnerable at the same time (that is ok!)

How to solve your problem / achieve your potential without needing a PhD

Whether you’ve got a pain in your back, a goal you want to achieve, a question about the best way of doing something or a life challenge you want to overcome – the process I use is the same.

I draw a blank circle on a page to represent the problem, task or challenge at hand. I then work with the individual to list all of the possible factors that contribute to the problem, task or challenge. We now have a list of all the factors (we know of) that could influence our problem. The second thing I like to do is start to tease out which of these factors, if changed would have the biggest return on investment. In other words, what takes up most of the blank circle? Although there is a lot of variance among individuals and problems, I usually like to start with the environment and its associated behaviours.

The Environment

We are constantly interacting with our environment and our behaviour is in large part determined by our environment. Therefore, it seems wise to determine whether our environment is helping us toward or away from progress. For example, if you have back pain and you spend 12-hours a day sat a desk we should probably start with trying to disrupt that pattern, if you want to improve your diet but your house is like a sweet shop we should start there and if you want to get fit but your friends and family are not that into it, we should look at getting you into environments with people who are what you want to become.

The Basics

Let’s use the example of back pain. By now you will have arranged a standing desk that allows you to alternate between sitting and standing, you will have introduced walks at intervals to clear your head and avoid sustained posture. The use of different muscles is on the up and your stress level and screen time is down as a result. Because of adjustments in these environmental factors and your behaviour you might find your back pain has eased or vanished. This is because the 12-hours of sitting was having the biggest impact on your problem.

If you had attended therapy for an hour a week and continued living as you were, the chances are your back would not improve very much. This is the benefit of being able to break a problem down (think for yourself) and focus on what really counts.

The Details

From this platform and if you so desired, we could start to get a little more specific by tackling long working hours in cramped positions with some yoga or pilates classes to realign body and mind. If this went well, we could look at other exercises and improvements in dietary and sleep practices etc. The point is that once we have addressed the bigger picture and the most important factors, we can then start to investigate more specific factors or not bother at all depending on our goal.

The problem with a lot modern thinking being very much in specific boxes is that we start with specific details when we haven’t addressed the basic factors that would give us the largest return on investment.

One of the main reasons I still supervise PhD students is that it is one of the few remaining opportunities to coach someone through uncertainty without a prescribed method. Often at the beginning of the process I tell students, the best two things about your PhD will be:

  1. The realisation that nothing in this world is truly as it seems. This will promote lifelong curiosity and a growing tolerance for uncertainty (God, how much do we need that in society right now?!)
  2. The problem-solving process you learn to answer these research questions will also be helpful in solving many of the problems you encounter throughout your lifetime.