Thinking critically in the age of choice overload
Critical thinking could be the most valuable skill you can invest in for the future. This doesn’t sound like something one can learn? Petr Ludwig, bestselling author of The End of Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing and Live a Fulfilled Life, argues that you can get there step by step, and you’ll live a more fulfilling life thanks to it. Especially if you feel overwhelmed at work or by a plethora of choices and information bombarding us every day.
We spoke with Petr (PL) about the qualities that set apart those ready for the future, his own journey that took him to new beginnings in New York, and the how to foolproof company culture.
What are going to be the people skills of the future?
PL: I think that critical thinking will become absolutely essential. Even the Future of Work report released by the World Economic Forum suggested that it would be the most vital work skill of 2020. I think this will grow increasingly important, and we will also need the ability to distinguish which activities are worth pursuing. Many people work somewhere and don’t feel fulfilled – it’s approximately 80 percent, sometimes more. I think that recognizing your strengths will be a must-have quality, as well as the ability to get passionate about something you’ll live for. Psychological studies show that success is mostly the result of two ingredients: passion and perseverance. Today, people have trouble with these, but I think they will matter more and more.
You’re working with critical thinking yourself. Do you think it’s something that can be learned?
PL: Multiple studies show that similarly to learning how to drive, you can also improve your critical thinking. For example, you could learn to verify photos through Google and double-check if it wasn’t misused for a different context. There are skills related to critical thinking that can be trained, and I believe it could be a subject at schools. It’s the age of fake news. Manipulation was always here, but now it’s on steroids due to social media & the internet. Noticing this will be extremely important.
How are you teaching people to think critically?
PL: We’ve been working with this topic for six years, even regularly organizing a big conference in Prague. I’d love to say that it got better in those six years, but it didn’t. We’ve started organizing the event at a time when the word “fake news” didn’t exist, but it seems that the importance of this topic just keeps growing.
It’s essential to love what you do. You have two international companies: how do you lead your people to feel motivated and enjoy their work?
PL: One of the topics we do workshops on is leadership and company culture. We are trying to lead by example, and I really believe we could show others what it looks like in our offices. We don’t have employee turnover; barely anyone ever leaves; we have great people leaders who have autonomy. All I need to do is manage the company for 2 hours weekly, as capable people are doing it for me. I think we give people a lot of space to take responsibility for their projects – if someone says let’s do a conference, we do it.
Someone else might want to focus on a particular topic as a consultant, and we give them the freedom to do so. For example, my colleague gave birth to her 2nd child and wanted to educate the public on evidence-based parenting. That means raising kids based on scientific studies, building up their healthy confidence, teaching them to deal with failures, etc. Because I give people a tremendous amount of freedom and responsibility, we innovate and have plenty of new products and new topics. Thanks to this, each member becomes an intrapreneur, has their projects they are responsible for – it’s a company within a company.
Could freedom at work be the thing motivating the employees?
PL: That’s important, but the responsibility for the result needs to be there too. There are plenty of companies that give their people freedom, but there’s still someone keeping an eye on them. I don’t want to check their work. All I want is the result to be good, and if it is, I don’t care how they got there.
Talking about getting to the result, you are the author of The End of Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing and Live a Fulfilled Life. What led you to write this book? Did you have a problem with procrastination yourself, or you saw it all around you?
PL: Both. I was procrastinating because I started my own company when I was 20, studied at two universities, and felt that I could do so much more if procrastination wasn’t there. Then I had 20 people in my company, mostly around 20-25 years old, and all of them were procrastinating. First, we were seeking a way to tackle it, and when we found something that worked for us, we thought it would be a pity to keep it for ourselves. We started lecturing for free at universities, and then a couple of companies got in touch. After a few years, we realized it’s such an impactful topic that it’s worth writing a book.
Our company switched to education; we organize five big conferences annually on various issues, including critical thinking, company culture, and leadership. Personal development is one of the key topics – how to work on oneself to have that strong vision for their life, find the inner motivation to do something, and have the discipline to push through until the end. These are my main topics, and it’s really fulfilling to do it at home in the Czech Republic, but to influence the whole world. Typically, I have a lecture almost every month anywhere around the world.
You’ve experienced procrastination when you were young; you travel all around the world. Does procrastination strike you as a problem of youth or a particular age category? Or is it rather a 21st-century problem?
PL: It’s becoming a general problem – no matter where you live, you have the same phone in your pocket. Apps, social networks, YouTube, Netflix, never ending access to TV shows… The procrastination of someone who lives in Japan is similar to that of people living in Prague or New York.
Speaking of New York, you’ve lived there. How was it to start anew? You came as an established author from the Czech republic to a country where you weren’t publicly known.
PL: I knew I wanted to do it, and I’d feel sorry if I didn’t. I strongly felt that if I don’t do it now, it will never happen. Because a huge publisher was releasing my book, it felt like the moment to just go for it. On the other hand, I was leaving the Czech Republic when my book became a bestseller – one month before leaving, I was in all the big TV shows and was doing really well. I landed at JFK, and no one cared. It took a whole year to build new contact, build a new business from scratch, learn English well enough to present in front of 500 people. It was the most challenging period, but it was also necessary. I lived my book – if I didn’t do it, I would not practice what I preach. I can get on that stage and tell people to follow their dreams because I know I did it. It’s not that I didn’t walk the talk.
Why was it the most challenging period?
PL: Home offered the comfort of having 35 employees, getting a full room anytime you present, and going back home. You wake up in New York, your diary is empty, and there are no scheduled meetings. I had to make the opportunities happen, but in Europe, they were already happening even without trying. It took a considerable deal of humility to go back to basics, with no name, to build my personal brand for the US.
It all sounds so perfect – everything you ever tried succeeded. Is there something that didn’t quite work out?
PL: I think I’m quite lucky that the things we’ve done as a company or as individuals worked out one way or another. There wasn’t a significant failure, but I think it’s because I pick carefully what to pursue. I only go for those I deem very valuable or important. I told myself that I would do a podcast, and indeed, I’ve been doing it for two years. I told myself to write a book, so I did. It’s about perseverance for me – sooner or later, you will reach those goals. Our company motto was “growth without coincidence” for a long time. When you go for it, and you’re aware of your direction, taking a few steps forward every day, you can’t fail. Many people give up, but if you don’t… I also had to make it through that first year in the US, and then it started rolling.
What are your next plans? Are you planning another book?
PL: I really want to write another one, because a book is an integrated thing that consists of so many things: a snowball you’re growing. I have a topic already: I want to write a book about finding meaning at work and life. Many people don’t see a purpose in what they do – living in the US next to Wall Street, I see people making a lot of money, working at corporations being empty, on antidepressants, disconnected. They don’t have a relationship with their work – it’s a vast topic. Otherwise, I just want to continue with what I’m doing. I love my job, lectures, meeting people. The best thing that can happen is someone writing me that it works, that they started jogging, lost weight, changed a job, and changed their life.
Before we say goodbye, can you give our readers advice on beating procrastination?
PL: Baby steps. Split your task into parts. If it’s running, don’t run 5km all at once. Just start with 500m or get in front of your house and back.