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How to Think (for Future USNA Applicants)

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If you read the freshman year critical skills post, you know this is the fifth. We’ve covered:

If you’re an honors student taking AP and IB classes, How to think sounds easy. That’s what you do all day. Take the hardest classes and get good grades.

That’s not what I’m talking about. Can you take a new situation, without teacher direction, without input from smarter friends, and come up with a plan of action, a solution, an analysis? Consider: in class, you read the textbook, listen to the teacher lecture, break into groups to discuss, write research papers, make videos, present to the class. You’re used to these proofs that you ‘think’. But what’s their purpose? Not the A you earned because you did it well. Little about success in life relates to the A you got on a calculus paper or the ten-page analysis you submitted of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

What your teacher wants you to do is think. Engage your brain, make connections, use the creativity you may have shelved in kindergarten. The way you do this uniquely human skill requires all of the activities your teacher has been encouraging you to do, but on a conscious level. You need to understand what it is you are doing. Next time you’re studying for class, do the following:

  • When you’re reading, look up words you don’t understand. Make connections to what you’re learning elsewhere. Never read on auto-pilot. Be an active reader.
  • Indulge your interest in topics tweaked by what you read. Take a few minutes–you can spare it–and Google it.
  • Listen to other people’s thoughts on a subject. Don’t just pay attention to the choir of those who agree with you. Solicit the opinions of those who disagree. How do they support their premise? What are the facts they rely on to arrive at a decision different from yours? Gather all the evidence and modify or reinforce your thinking.
  • Don’t be afraid to modify your opinions. That’s an open mind. If your thinking isn’t fluid, you are probably only listening to those who agree with you.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the opposition. If you’re applying to the Naval Academy, you are probably more conservative than liberal, more patriotic than international. The education environment is generally a liberal pool of ideas. This is perfect for you, as a future leader. If you can’t support your opinion in an AP Economics class against the hordes who disagree, you probably haven’t thought it through enough.
  • Keep your thinking simple. If it’s too complex for most people to understand, it’s too complex. Consider: The average IQ is around 100. The average reading level is eight grade with 20% reading below fifth grade. That doesn’t mean, talk down to people. It means: Consider your audience when you present your thinking. Keep it so most people will understand. That’s your key to getting their support.

If you do all of these, you create a habit for learning that is applicable to not just school, but your career in the Navy and life in general. You become the person who knows a little bit about everything, who can chat with anyone because you understand the connections between what they’re discussing and other topics you’ve read about. You have an outside-the-box solution to recalcitrant problems that no one else can solve. You’re the one who seems to have all the luck.