What does it mean to be an independent thinker?

When we think of the most independent thinkers in the history of time, visionaries like Aristotle, René Descartes, Albert Einstein, and Frederick Nietzsche come to mind. 

In today’s world, we celebrate people like the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and even Elon Musk. 

Independent thinkers are given all sorts of labels by a society that is most comfortable when people conform. These people are often referred to as being quirky, weird, strange, different, unorthodox, unconstrained—and those are just the nice labels.

In some cases, independent thinkers are looked down upon as downright dissidents and radicals. 

Why are people so threatened by independent thinkers, you may ask?

Probably because they upset the status quo. People often don’t like to see something outside of their conventional bubble.  

Here are ten traits of independent thinkers that sets them apart from the crowd. 

1) They let themselves be the judge

Independent thinkers rely on their own mental devices to deduct, analyze, and reason for themselves.

It’s not that they’re “know-it-alls”—they do like to learn from other people. In fact, they will evaluate a number of different perspectives, ask questions, and use their critical thinking skills. They just don’t conform to public opinion, that’s all.

The ultimate decision will always be their own. 

Relying on one’s own judgment is a form of self-reliance, according to American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who introduced the theory and movement of Transcendentalism. 

Emerson believed that societal pressures—institutions and others—were responsible for a lot of conformist behavior in societies. 

“The idea that one can rely on his or her own judgment, choices, and be free from these societal influences is to be self-reliant…it’s better to trust yourself,” says psychologist Catherine Moore on the theory. 

2) Problem-solving is practically a past-time to them 

Independent thinkers are super-focused and analytical. They like to get to the root of the problem and they’ll try a number of things until they’re satisfied with the result. 

“Independent thinkers embrace problems as opportunities for improvement,” emphasizes Cheri Beranek, who is the CEO of Clearfield and a 2021 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductee. 

“Problems are obstacles set in the way of wherever you want to go, but independent thinkers see them simply as information to be used toward building a solution.”

They’re critical thinkers so they start out by identifying the problem and they figure out root causes. They also don’t place their bets on one solution; rather, they find multiple solutions and then choose the one they think will work best. 

This isn’t the end of it. Independent thinkers will devise a plan to implement their solution and then they’ll measure the success of that solution

They also make it a habit to keep track of what has worked in the past and they learn from past mistakes—or better yet, other people’s mistakes—so as not to repeat them. 

3) They know that authority isn’t absolute

Whether it’s your boss, a high-ranking official, or a prominent university professor, independent thinkers don’t automatically fall for everything the “higher ups” say just because they are in a position of authority, says Anna LeMind, founder and editor of psychology platform Learning-mind.com

Independent thinkers know that anyone can be mistaken and that people have different intentions. 

“In the end, having a high social status or position of power doesn’t guarantee being always right. And it certainly doesn’t equal being a truthful human being,” LeMind says. 

This goes for the “higher” powers that be, too.

The thing about independent thinkers is that they tend not to subscribe to any particular religion, per se. They can be highly spiritual certainly, but they prefer to figure out the answers to life’s bigger questions by their own means. 

They read the great philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Plato, and Socrates. They do this as a way not to follow even these great thinkers, but to pick and choose what seems right to them. 

They come to conclusions about life’s bigger questions on their own. 

4) Their self-value is self-determined

Flattery will get you nowhere fast with an independent thinker. They don’t need compliments to determine their self-worth. 

Nor do they have a need to compare themselves to people in their social circle or on social media. 

It’s not that they’re completely immune to comparison—they’re human beings after all—but they recognize any triggers and don’t allow themselves to fall down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts.

They use these moments to remind themselves of how far they’ve come in life. 

They appreciate who they are as well as being wherever they are in their own personal journey. They know that they are evolving and that makes them happiest of all. 

5) They wear their confidence like a second skin

Independent thinkers sometimes get a bad wrap for being arrogant and aloof. They actually don’t think they’re above others and are very humble at heart. 

But they are comfortable and confident in themselves. They’re genuinely happy with who they are. They don’t think they’re perfect, but an ever-evolving work in progress—and there’s excitement in that.

If they’re insulted, they may be stunned in the moment, but they don’t take it personally. They know the slight says a lot more about the offender than it does about them. 

They also don’t bother with petty things like having a “comeback” or “getting revenge.” Karma can be the one to take care of that, baby. 

6) They know that they don’t know

what does it mean to be an independent thinker 1 What does it mean to be an independent thinker?

Independent thinkers are not so arrogant or narrow-minded into believing that they have all the answers.

Despite their normally vast knowledge on a wide range of subjects, one thing has been proven to them over and over again. 

They know nothing.

What sets them apart is that they know that they know nothing.

This insight comes from Plato’s account of the Greek philosopher Socrates: “For I was conscious that I knew practically nothing…”

This is what makes independent thinkers such great researchers and some of the most curious people on the planet.

The beauty about an independent thinker is that they’re flexible in what they know and what they don’t know, and they have no problem admitting when they’re wrong.

In fact, they like to be proven wrong. It’s like a game for their mind. It means they’ve tapped into a whole new way of thinking that they hadn’t considered before. 

What can be more mentally stimulating than that?

7) They don’t let their subconscious control them 

If an independent has a particular thought or belief that doesn’t serve them or is getting in the way of something they want to manifest, they question where the belief originated from.

Did their family have a penchant for thinking this way and they indirectly passed it on? Did they pick up the conditioning from a teacher who supposedly knew “better”? 

Independent thinkers reject cognitive biases and try to see even their own conditioning in an impartial way.

This way of thinking is an amazing way to break old patterns, get past limiting beliefs, and challenge them to get out of their comfort zone—something they try to do regularly. 

Releasing notions ingrained in their subconscious—either through meditation, affirmations, scripting, or a number of other methods—helps them to profoundly level up their life. 

8) They don’t believe in being blindly guided

Independent thinkers don’t look to one person, group, or a set of guidelines for advice on how to go about their life.

Instead, they use a combination of their own experiences, research, and innovative thinking to figure out what their next step should be. 

The innovative thinking usually comes from their own intuition and they try to tap into what their gut is telling them to do.

If an inner voice tells them not to do something, they’re pretty good at cluing and taking heed. If the inner voice gives them, say, an urge to call a specific person, they trust their hunches and make the call and see where it leads them. 

While this might be inconvenient, they’re still willing to go against the herd, even if they’re ridiculed and disliked for it.

They’re fine even if they turn out to be wrong: after all, it’s a whole lot better to pay for your own mistakes than someone else’s. 

9) They like to be the ones to lead the way 

No doubt independent thinkers are leaders. That doesn’t mean that they think it’s their way or the highway; rather, they believe in collaboration and teamwork.

But they thrive on being the ones who lay out the vision. It’s the leaders with independent thinking who are often best suited to make right choices, think on their feet, try out innovative solutions, and also not be swayed by the status quo. 

Independent thinkers make for great leaders because they’re often more intellectually capable of being impartial when it comes to making decisions. This comes from the sense of being self-motivated rather than dependent on others for approval.

Instead, they go by their own observations. They’re not afraid to make mistakes. They see mistakes and  “failures,” as feedback to regroup and re-route. 

10) They always speak their truth—even when it’s inconvenient

Independent thinkers are committed to the truth—no matter what the cost.

This kind of independent and critical thinking takes courage, says philosophy professor Mark Mercer who teaches at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia.

“Thinking for oneself requires, on the one hand, being aware of the ways in which reasoning can go off track and, on the other, having the fortitude to endure the shaming, shunning, or worse (getting fired) that can easily come your way if your research brings you to conclusions not endorsed by the group or its leaders,” he says. 

An adult who regularly and happily thinks for herself is surprisingly rare, he adds.

“Thinking for oneself, or being intellectually and morally autonomous, is an accomplishment,” he says. “It takes hard work. And the rewards of thinking for oneself might not outweigh the costs and penalties.”

Being an independent thinker doesn’t come without risks. In some cases, you might lose a lot of people as they won’t agree with straying so far from the familiar. 

If you are on this path, be proud of yourself. You’re well ahead of the game. 

Feeling inspired to think more independently?

Here are some innovative ways to get your mind on its own independent wave length. 

Reading is one of the best ways to challenge your own perspective—especially books that happen to challenge your point of view. Next time you’re in a bookstore, don’t automatically choose something you’re inclined to go with. 

Rather, get out of your comfort zone and find something that directly contrasts your own ideas. 

Another way to challenge your thinking with books is to choose something that is out of your “league” or interest. If you’re usually interested in, say, biology and genetics, read up on art and architecture to expand your mind.

Another soundproof way to get out of a mind “rut” is to meet and engage with different people—particularly those who have a different perspective to your own. Why you may not conform to their point of view (this is okay and not the goal!), you might still come away with an idea that you hadn’t considered.

Of course, traveling is one of the best ways to broaden your horizons—literally. Immersing yourself into a new culture and learning how different societies approach life, love, work, and leisure can be a truly fabulous way to enrich your perspective and give you an independent streak.

You’ll come at old problems in new ways.

Talking to people in an authority position is also a great way to become more of a critical thinker. This can give you new insight into things that have challenged you in the past.

It’s ideal to find a tribe where the people think independently like you do. You can bounce ideas off each other, collaborate on projects, and give one another both personal and professional insight.

Thinking independently is the only path to personal liberation. 

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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