If you aren’t thinking like a researcher you aren’t embracing the full capabilities of your mind. You are engaging with the world superficially as a hapless participant. Scrolling and swiping, clicking and staring in an endless cycle of mindless distraction. While we all do this to some degree, those that are able to go beyond that low-level consumption are able to make profound contributions to our world.
So, how does a researcher think?
- A Researcher is Curious. Why? How? When? I wonder… These are the words most often on the mind of researchers. At the heart of any great undertaking is the insatiable curiosity that drives human understanding, deep learning, and innovation. The questions can be quite simple-“Why does the bathtub water rise when I sit in it?” asked by Archimedes and which led to a profound and important branch of understanding of fluid dynamics. “Can I make a computer small enough to sit on your desk?” This simple question led to the greatest technological revolution in 100 years and allows us to communicate with each other as we are doing now, across time and space, instantly and permanently.
- A Researcher Loves to Learn: To answer any question, you must learn. You must learn everything you can about a subject and a great deal about analogous subjects. Learning allows you to actually answer your questions and prevent you from going down too many rabbit holes, slippery slopes, or dead ends. You will still go down them, but through learning you will not go as far or at least you will know how to get yourself out. You will read a wide variety of materials from a wide variety of sources and develop enough intellect and awareness to be able to eliminate bad questions and spurious answers. To think like a researcher is to embark on a journey of lifelong learning that is both invigorating and frustrating, but always worthwhile. A researcher patiently reads and reads and reads.
- A Researcher Thinks Critically (and humbly) To think like a researcher is to understand certain topics deeply. To acquire this knowledge they must continuously evaluate information with a keen eye to discern what is true or not true, what is essential or not, what is relevant or not in order to answer the question at hand. This ought to lead one to some level of awe at the vast complexity and depths of the universe we inhabit. For behind every simple question or problem, there is layer upon layer of problems that need to be answered and understood as well. This sense of awe ought to lead to humility as well, for the human mind can only grasp a small portion of what can be known, so our solutions are meager, halting, imperfect, temporary. The best that we offer today is sure to be swept away tomorrow or in some distant day by new knowledge, new understanding, new technology. A researcher too is humble in the face of the realization that they are interdependently reliant on other researchers, creators, thinkers, and institutions which are essential for their own individual success.
As humans, we all begin as researchers. Exploring the world around us, taking in data, evaluating situations, loving to learn. I believe we continue this behavior throughout our lifespan to some extent. But as adults too often we settle for assumptions about people, about the world, about ourselves that are based on limited information, lack of context, or which keep us merely comfortable.
The greatness of the “human spirit” or at least of our brain is that we have tools to help us go beyond the “merely comfortable” and live a life of full engagement and curiosity, perpetually wanting to learn more and to be in awe of the universe and its inhabitants.
The choice is clear. The answers are not.
But I believe there are answers and questions that I am compelled to ask:
“What does a world where people are filled with awe and curiosity look like?”
“Can our public education system foster curiosity and critical thinking in all students?”
“Can we develop critical thinking and curiosity throughout the lifespan?”
“How do you think deeply and slowly in a society that rewards superficiality and speed?”
While I may never answer these questions, I am grateful to so many great researchers who have inspired me to at least ask them and who have given me the confidence to know that I have the ability to begin to understand.
That’s a start.