Critical and Creative Thinking in a Hacker’s Work

Imagine yourself in a labyrinth, vast – endless for all you know. You wander the corridors, stumbling upon a closed door. You could invest some effort into unlocking it to find out what’s inside. Pretty soon you realize there are many more doors in the maze and you wish you had some sort of tool to help you see what’s behind them, and whether they are worth the effort.

If the labyrinth is a metaphor for your life or your work, then you should know that there is such a tool, and its name is Critical Thinking. It can save you a lot of time and money, sometimes your health and even your life. It can help you optimize or debug your projects, and even boost your creativity.

Why Should We Think Critically?

Even though many equate it with criticism, critical thinking is not a negative process. It keeps you open to new ideas, and at the same time it acts as a firewall against harmful ideological, political, or marketing delusions and scams, and especially against your own self-delusions. It suggests how to think, not what to think.

You can find a lot of definitions of critical thinking on the internet, and most of them are worth reading. I like the definition which [Richard Paul] gave in an informal presentation: “Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to make your thinking better”.

In a hacker’s work, critical thinking is very useful as a defense mechanism against self-delusion in problem solving, and dead ends in creative process. If you want to be a creative hacker, you have to think critically. It is even more severe in science, where the process called scientific skepticism (also spelled scepticism) involves systematic doubt – questioning every single step in scientific activity. It results in scientific method, which is not just doubt, but a set of methods for examining reality.

Here is an example in which critical thinking takes place and saves not only time and effort, but also leads to a creative result. When you start creating a concept for a new project, you get an idea and you probably like it from the beginning. That’s good, as it keeps you motivated, but the first idea is not necessarily the best one, and a process of trying out alternatives often leads to a better solution. If you know how to use critical thinking to attack your initial concept, it can help you get a better idea. To do so, you have to restart from the beginning many times, trying out a different approach each time. You will probably not have a perfect concept until you have made several modifications, some of which assume you forget everything up to that point and start fresh. It may seem like a waste of time, but it is quite the opposite – your initial concept is crucial for the final value of the project, and it is better to modify it in the early stage of the process.

Don’t despair even if you have to do it when you are already halfway through the project. In the early days of the computer era, data storage was not very safe and backing up data was slow and expensive. On several occasions I had lost all of my data and had to start from scratch. Yet every time, I was happy that it happened like that, as in redoing it I could add a new quality I hadn’t thought of before.

How to Think in a Creative Way

Critical thinking is a learned skill, that can be reinforced by habit. The same is valid for logical thinking, but we shall not discuss it here, as most hackers have already practiced logic over many years, and they surely know how to apply it in their activity. You can say that the logic is a necessary part of critical thinking.

brain_2It is hard to imagine debugging, servicing or any other form of problem solving without critical thinking, but if you are creating a project from scratch, you also have to think creatively. Creative thinking is different from critical thinking, but they share a strong bond. The creative process needs to have a critical check of ideas, and on the other hand, creative thinking can help you imagine all the possibilities when you need to pinpoint a problem.

Creative thinking is more motivating and generally brings more pleasure than critical thinking, and you can use it even when you are relaxed. While daydreaming, but still holding the problem in the back of your head, you may suddenly get a burst of creative energy and arrive at an “Aha” moment. Seems like a naive game, but it can be empowering.

If you hang around artists and designers, you can observe from how many different angles the creative process can be approached. Some of it can be applied to the hacker’s domain as well. You might, for example, start composing a new project that does not have a defined function; imagine the shape you like, define its dimensions, color, even draw it or make a 3D model. Then ask yourself – what would I like that shape to do? This inverse process can result in some pretty cool projects.

You will notice that many creative thinkers with have a small notebook on hand (not a computer, but an ordinary copybook) to write down ideas the moment they appear, so that they can be examined later. I knew a painter who held an exhibition which had no actual paintings, but a hundred of such palm-sized papers with rough sketches.

Who is a Good Critical Thinker?

Do you think that you can think critically? Let’s say someone wants to find a specific place in an unknown city. If you can give them a good, eloquent explanation, which helps them find it, you probably have the gift of critical thinking. This ability means that you can “observe” your own explanation through someone else’s mind, and the same “parallel processing” engine is used for critical thinking. If you can deliver that explanation in a witty and imaginitive way, then you are not only a good critical thinker, but also a good creative thinker.

It is much easier to recognize non-critical thinkers. They egoistically take their facts as the only relevant ones, seeing things in binary form: black or white, right or wrong, clever or dumb and so on – rather than recognizing all alternatives. They never doubt, especially when evaluating their own creations: “My idea is brilliant, because I’m a genius”.

This attitude is the worst possible basis for critical thinking; the bad news is that most likely none of us is a genius, but the good news is that even a real genius is hardly ever sure that their ideas are good. Being a genius does not mean having ideas without trying hard, but quite the opposite. So, if someone always admires their own creations and doesn’t ever doubt them, he is no genius – he simply doesn’t match the milieu.

There is one more parameter which can help us evaluate someone’s thinking qualities. If he believes that astrology, dowsing, and similar techniques are based on true facts, he is probably not very familiar with critical thinking. Not familiar enough to be a hacker that builds cool stuff anyway.

How to Become a Critical and Creative Thinker

So, how do you think we should evaluate new ideas? However appealing they might seem, they should be treated as 50/50, good/bad ab initio. Some people will tell you that’s being optimistic, as 9 out of 10 initially bright ideas turn out to be worthless. It would be prudent to expose your idea to scrutiny. Consult with someone or publish it online and read the comments, but remember to always take public commentary with a grain of salt.

Critical thinking is an unnatural act. We evolved to survive in a cruel world, not to play around with our hacks. To make things worse, we evolved in a herd, which means that we intuitively respect the authority of the leader. But we also have to be creative, so we have to respect ourselves first. Finding the right dose of self-respect is a crucial thing in creative work. Too little self-respect could destroy our motivation and creativity, and too much will interfere with our ability to estimate the value of our ideas, and can easily result in investing time, money and effort in worthless projects.

Noone is born a critical thinker, but almost anyone can become one. Think about what [Edward de Bono] said:

“The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas. It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to be always right by having no ideas”.

65 thoughts on “Critical and Creative Thinking in a Hacker’s Work

  1. Terry Pratchett calls this “second thought”: “First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.”

  2. Voja’s articles are officially my favorite, couldn’t agree more with it.

    On a side, rather ironic note (and in the spirit of critical thinking) I wanted to point out that the left/right brain thing is actually a myth about how the brain works.

        1. Yeah I read further after correcting myself and apparently despite some evidence that different sides of our brain are used for different things, there is little evidence that one side is analytical and the other creative. So perhaps my first comment still stands.

          I still am a big fan of Voja and I’m sure he would wholeheartedly agree with the scrutiny of the diagram

          1. Thank you, Alex.
            The idea of brain lateralization was never abandoned, as some typical processes are more dominant in one hemisphere than the other, as your link clearly says. But if you don’t like that idea, you can accept it conditionally – something like the planetary model of atom, which is surely a rough simplification, but helps us understand.
            I am not a neuroscientist, so I didn’t discuss the brain lateralization phenomenon in the article. I just used it to clarify the creative thinking process.

          2. There is a lot of disagreement about left-brain vs. right-brain. For example, long ago I read Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, and was surprised to learn that the distinctions others make are nearly the opposite of what is presented there. Most people think of “right-brain” meaning intuitive and creative, while “left-brain” is analytical and literal. Edwards’ contention is much different: in her book, the right side of the brain records things literally, while the left side analyzes and reduces them to patterns. This means that creativity is a left-brain function, since it operates with symbolic representations and other non-literal interpretations of perception. This is why one of the right-brain exercises in drawing, for example, is to draw something upside-down: doing so inhibits the applying of recognized patterns, and forces the artist to draw what is literally there. Same goes for drawing or painting with negative space – by drawing what is NOT there, we can’t fall back on just replicating an accepted pattern.

            But never mind all of that – I’m not at all interested in which side of my brain is doing what. The point is that all of this comes down to the observation that we often apply two different thought processes to problem solving, which often involves a back-and-forth internal conversation, similar to what [Voja] describes.

            It’s all very interesting.

  3. What is thinking?
    Tests showed that when you want to solve a problem (could be as well a creative one) it helps to gather as much info as you can, have a clear question and than go to sleep with that question in the back of your mind.
    More often than not, you have the solution when you wake up.
    So, there is a way of processing data where you are not conscious of.
    Is that thinking? Or is thinking a conscious process?

    1. Voja touches on this when he mentions carrying a notebook

      I look at it as avoiding “brute-force” thinking and I figure it’s what sets us apart from computers. We take in seemingly random input and turn it into worthwhile thought. Can’t find the path to a solution? Go talk to a bunch of people; both about this and about other things. Go mow the grass, wash the dishes, walk the dog. The swap file in your mind will keep crunching on it all while you take on more info on non-related things that help you get to epiphany.

      Kind of makes you want to study neuroscience.

      1. The way I learned to code BASIC on Apple] [g was to write out all my code on paper first, and space my instructions by 10s to leave space for the things I inevitably still got wrong. I still write out code in my own pseudo-c/ask in a little note book; it is filled with snippets that most people would find useless.

        Another notebook keeps almost everything else. Poems, song lyrics, short stories, or even just one line that I think may become one of those. Why? Thoughts are fleeting, and I disagree with Terry Brookes who said that he didn’t keep a notebook because story ideas that he couldn’t remember were probably not worth it. I like letting my thoughts wander, so capturing a few in flight lets me compare the ones that do return and stick to the ones that don’t.

        And it’s that last bit, I think, that makes for critical thought.

        As for it being a conscious process, I think that depends. You can let your mind wander like Mike says. Or you could train that process, like a program that intentionally fills the swap file with patterns. With practice (aka better code) the patterns become usable ideas and allow you both the benefit of new ideas and the self-learning aspect of training you to purposefully think better. Some people refer to this process, sometimes derogatively, as daydreaming.

  4. Good article Voja. I liked it very much, and certainly, creativity is a state of mind. Also it’s very important try to make your ideas reality, although they seems unfeasible or impossible. Picasso said that inspiration exists but has to find you painting.

      1. 3:12, that’s when I quit. It’s like buzzfeed making an hour long video by cramming in as many buzz words and hyper simplified examples as they can. I really can’t stand watching stuff like this.

        1. Incidentally I also stopped at 3:12! It was because I was still confused what ‘TRIZ’ means, yet they were showing me archival footage and talking about inventions.

          I suppose this is how founders spend their time, watching stuff like this while their engineers try to make intractable untenable twaddle into the next big thing.

          1. It is a pity because 3 seconds later, from 3:15 to 4:30 she explains about the origin of TRIZ, that is an acronym from russian that means ‘theory of resolution of inventive problems’.\\ Inventive problem is a problem that has no easy solution or seems impossible to solve. The girl gives a good example with the problem of how to hold water with a basket. The solution seems trivial (mostly because of the bad timing it was showed) and even make the problem looks trivial, but if you ask several people how do they would solve it most of them would not come with freezing the water. \\ But going on, the principle behind TRIZ is to run the cycle Specific_Problem->Generic_Problem->Generic_Solution->Specific_Solution. The path between Generic_Problem->Generic_Solution is extensively mapped and gives you a much narrower path than simply brainstorm from Specific problem straight to the Specific Solution. \\
            Don’t think about TRIZ like another ‘miracle method to solve everything ™’. TRIZ is not that cheap, rather is definitely an engineering solution of how to taught (or train) people to solve problems, proven with control groups and improved along decades. I am surprised that I never came across TRIZ here on HAD.\\

          1. Yeah, I looked into it.

            The whole concept makes me giggle. I am sure in some isntances this type of matrix-based-problem-solving can stand in for creativity, but I also think it is somewhat hilarious they are like ‘BE INNOVATIVE. OK! FIRST STEP, STUDY WHAT IS CURRENTLY BEING PATENTED!”

            I get the idea that we can learn a lot from trends and statistics, but I also think it is misguided to claim that is somehow ‘creativity’ or even ‘analytic thinking’.

            Russia is a country that spent the 60s, 70s and 80s largely knocking off inventions from other parts of the west. I wonder if TRIZ is popular in China?

    1. This video is nothinng but a teaser – they want to sell you a class, so they’re not giving away any actual information. Thanks for nothing. The Wikipedia article on TRIZ also reads like marketing hype. I’m filing this under “Scientology-like crap”.

        1. That may be so, but I HAVE heard of big, successful companies trying just about any course that comes along that promises to reduce the complexities of running an innovation-based company into step-by-step processes. Just look at the Wikipedia article on “quality management” for a few dozen other examples. From what I can see, the TRIZ process just documents how creative people usually think, with the (fallacious) conclusion that anybody can become inventors just by following a set of steps. It’s like an expert system on how to generate experts. I’m sure there was a lot of groaning in all of those companies when they tried to make their engineers document how they think about solving a problem.

          1. Well, I see you missed the point. TRIZ is not a miracle solution and will not allow you to solve hard problems as “quality management”. Instead it can help you solve simpler problems like how to walk over the waters.

      1. Nope, I am not involved in a company that sells TRIZ. I do work on a company where we use TRIZ. A Co worker found TRIZ by chance while googleing for ‘creativity’ about a decade ago. He studied the method and liked it, then used it to solve some problems, and adopted it as an useful engineering tool. Since then he have been teaching TRIZ to many of our engineers once or twice in a year. No consultants or money involved. Just engineers teaching other engineers something that our critical sense have considered good.\\
        Forget the opportunists that try to sell TRIZ as a miracle, specially those who claim to have merged it with another creativity methods or expanded it to non technical areas. \\
        Remember that I have advised people here to STUDY TRIZ, not to BUY it. Several literature about can be found online, even two powerful TRIZ tools are available for free: the Contradiction Matrix[1] and the Effects Bank [2]. All you need to use them is your browser. Of course you have to study a bit about the matter but let me try a better introductory lecture this time [3]
        And by the way I was not joking about walking over the waters! Triz gives you not one but two ways of doing that!\\
        -First one is the principle #35 – Parameter change: Just Freeze the Water! That was easy.\\
        -Second is principle #12 – Equipotentiality: Without the gravity you will need no lift to stand over the water.
        As for “quality management” I have no idea, lol!!!\\
        [3] (last time link)

  5. You are too creative with your idea of critical thinking.

    Critical thinking is about judging the thought process. EG recognizing argumentative fallacies or reasoning from first principles.

    Just saying things are bullshit, such as dousing, regardless of how true or commonly known; is not critical thinking.

  6. Critical thinking isn’t “unnatural”, it has been a natural part of human evolution.

    Deference to authority is not an instinct in 100% or even 99% of humans. Neurodiversity conveys a survival benefit for the group. If a few percent of the tribe do not blindly follow the chief, there is a much better chance of survival when the chief goes senile and tells the tribe to follow him out into the desert where they will find a great oasis…

    I will agree that a majority of humans are genetically (or epigenetically) programmed to accept what they are told by authority figures. I think Einstein recognized this when he said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

  7. Say what you want about dowsing, I had a seismic exploration driller once break out the wires and then tell me we would hit water at 80 feet and to be ready. Now mind you we were up on a hill out in the middle of a prairie, I looked at him like he was an idiot, well I was covered in mud about 5 minutes later. The guy was a complete bullshitter the rest of the time, but he could witch a well.

    1. That my friend is called chance. Just like astrologers will tell you that you will come into money today, of the millions of people that share your star sign at least some of them will win a competition, get a bonus at work or find a dollar in the street. Those things would have happened anyway regardless of the prediction.

      1. Dowsers are known to rely on other environmental and geological cues in their well witching. Things like the grade of the land, the location of greenery, and other factors apparently are taken into account.

        Dowsing is one of those weird ones, where the practicioners would have long ago gone out of business if they failed more often than chance.

        It does not mean they are using anything spiritual or mystical to ply their trade, no matter what they themselves believe.

  8. Well they way I like to go about it is when I have an idea first I beat the hell out of it, criticize it from every angle, how it can go wrong, why it won’t work, how it’s been done before, etc… and after this savage beating, if the idea is still standing I figure it’s a good idea and get on with implementing it.

  9. The brain hemisphere metaphor seems to be causing a few disagreements so I will offer you a completely different alternative that I hope you may find useful.

    You can even try this yourself if you download a copy of the free audio editor and recorder, Audacity and perhaps a few free filters collections.

    Creativity is like starting with white noise and filtering it down until you have what you want, it is subtractive, whereas analytical thinking is additive, you start with silence and you build up the sound with simple waves. This actually highlights a paradox in that both approaches are really the same in that they require knowledge to guide the choices that get you from nothing to something meaningful.

    1. I guess this is how analogies go – I would think of it the other way around. Analysis is taking what exists and removing the noise and other information in it that’s not useful, i.e., reducing it to its essential parts. This makes it subtractive. Creativity is imagining what could make something better, and adding it.

    1. Actually, I heard a guy named Joseph P. Farrell ( say that when you are born, your DNA has imprints of the subtle vibrations from the planets and their positions that influence your personality for the rest of your life. Maybe Astrology is just what used to be a real science and over the centuries just got watered down or the real meaning was lost. I’ve got some stuff bookmarked but never had time to look into it.

        1. One COULD argue (but I wouldn’t, I hasten to say) that the positions of the planets affect the way your genes combine at the point of conception. Since most getstaions are close to the same length, counting from the day of birth is just a convenience.

      1. That’s exactly the kind of theory that falsifiability criterion takes down. You have no mean to make it wrong, thus it is not a hard science according to Popper’s definition.
        It differs with science (let’s take astronMy, for example) in that a scientific theory can be proven wrong: when the weather guy say “Tomorrow the sun will rise at 8am (local time) and fall at 5pm” you just have to wait for tomorrow. If the sun doesn’t rise, the theory is wrong, and until tomorrow, it has always been true.
        Astrology and other theories give you way too vagues concepts you cannot prove wrong. If an astrolgue say “Tomorrow, you’ll be lucky”, one person might say “it’s true, I woke up this morning and I am alive, I’m lucky today”; another one can “BS, I’m not lucky, I had to wake up this morning to go to my job that I hate”: you have no mean to say this theory is correct or not because I relies on you beliefs and not on a science.
        But, it’s the same for religion, if you feel better to believe in it, I want to keep open minded and if someday I am proved wrong, I will change my mind.

        1. Just for fun: let’s have the jumbology “science”. For a gravitational point of view: the position of jumbo jets in the sky has a heavier effect than other planets. So it must influence your personality more than astrology would.

          1. Sigh. I can’t believe you broadcast that idea into the Universe. Now we’re going to see a jumbo jet tracking app for the iPhone, that can plot the positions of the 20 or 30 nearest airliners at a given time and place.

          2. Now who’s the one who’s taking ‘hard science’? Just do a search for “dna planets frequencies” and you’ll get all kinds of data. As with everything esoteric, take it with a grain of salt and skip over the stuff about Anunaki, Planet X, UFO’s and the like.

  10. When I did air conditioning in the 80’s I developed a method of trouble-shooting: I ask myself 2 questions: 1) what the system is doing that it’s not supposed to and 2) what the system is not doing that its supposed to do. Then I come up with a list of the most likely causes of the problem because a lot of times (when trouble-shooting mechanical or electrical systems) you can have more than one problem and the symptoms can be misleading, causing you to resort to parts-changing and guessing.

    1. I can’t give you any proof but “Nikola Tesla measured the Earth’s frequency at 7.83 Hz, which was later verified by the physicist Winfried Schuman. When we are in REM sleep, our brain goes into the same frequency as our own planet. The frequencies of all the planets have been measured, and as it turns out, they all correspond to one of the five major brainwave states that our brains produce.”

      1. Except our brain waves are not like that, those are entire ranges that they fall into, the Hz value listed by mystics is the mid value for the range. Furthermore if the Earth frequency was the same as your REM brain waves it would not matter, unless they were in phase i.e. synchronised, and there is no evidence to suggest that all sleeping people have their brain waves in sync to each other and therefore the Earth.

        I am Dan, you are Dan_the_Hippy.

  11. Now if only I could get my conspiracy theorist nut of a friend to practice some creative thinki g. You hit the nail on the head with how problematic it can be to consider oneself a genious and to know everything, have everything be black and white and not to consider other sides of the argument ~_~

  12. The article quotes Edward de Bono but doesn’t seem to make use of his heuristics for creativity. He distinguishes critical thinking (logical, vertical, identify contradiction, avoid error) and constructive or creative thinking (provocative, lateral, break the pattern to make a new pattern, embrace error and fix it later). Our brains are good at creating patterns and recognizing them. Creativity and humor involve finding a new pattern, which is logical in retrospect but too close to an old pattern to be found easily. de Bono is the author of several books, Lateral Thinking is probably the best one to start with.

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