How a second level thinking will put you on an upward trajectory

All of us make multiple decisions every day and while some decisions don’t have too much impact to our lives, such as deciding to turn on the light or to brush teeth, others contribute small bits in forming who we will be and the situation that we will be in.

Therefore, it is important to recognize that improving the quality of our decisions is the key to direct our lives the way we want to steer it towards a much happier state of ourselves and ultimately be a positive influence to those around us. The best way to improve the quality of our decision is to engage in second-level thinking which is essentially asking ourselves to confirm our first-level thinking, usually a reaction rather than thinking.

For example, imagine you are walking down an aisle at a mall with your family and a marketing banner that claims ‘The best kitchen knife that cuts through anything and never gets dull. Limited time only buy one get one free!’ grabs your attention. Should you buy it?

If your thinking is something like the following, then you are engaging in first-level thinking:

“It sounds nice and the sales person is demonstrating it so it can’t be a lie right? Plus, if I buy one I get another for free so maybe I can give the second one to my mom or sister. Deal! I better buy it before the promotion ends!”

Second-level thinking, however, ask questions to the statement written in the banner as well as to the first level reaction and some of the questions might be:

- If it is truly the best knife, why are they competing on price?

- Why on earth are they giving away the second piece for free?

- How come I have not heard about this brand before?

- Could it be a scam? or What if it is a scam?

The difference between the two different levels of thinking is that the first level is more of a reaction and that the second level thinking questions all the claimed facts including of your own.

As you start answering some of the questions that challenge the seemingly correct claims, you start to uncover the layers that were concealing the truth. For instance, you don’t often see a good quality product compete on a price and you definitely don’t see a buy 1 get 1 free bargain for high-quality products. Take Zwilling Henckels for a comparison. They charge hundreds of dollars for a knife and certainly don’t give away the second piece for free. Why? because they have confidence in their product and know exactly what their product is worth in the market. So they don’t have to lure customers with swanky marketing tactics.

If you agree with the logic that I described, congratulations! You have demonstrated that you are capable of engaging in second-level thinking! But wait, that was rather easy… wasn’t it? The truth is that thinking itself is not difficult at all. However, most of us are not engaging at the second level thinking because we were never trained to think in second-level thinking. Even if we learned about it, most of us don’t want to face the truth because it takes a mental effort to do so which is pure laziness. But once we get into the habit of engaging in second-level thinking, it can be applied to many decisions that we make and improve its quality. Most importantly, we make fewer regrets on the decisions we made through second-level thinking. For example, if the consequence of the decision is good then you have a positive reinforcement to your behaviour which is worth a continued practice and development. If the consequence is bad however, it will be easier to accept it since you know the decision was based on all available information and through careful consideration. This way, you will also find yourself blaming yourself and not the others and will be rewarded with a feeling of ‘owning your decision’. Lastly, this creates a positive cycle of continuous learning which has a compounding effect when practised over a long period of time.

Now, think about some of the recent decisions that you made and think about how you would have altered the decision had you engaged in the second-level thinking. Would you have bought the stock that your colleague was bragging about? Would you have signed the mutual fund investment agreement form that your banker assured was a sound decision? Would you have fallen a victim of FOMO to buy a new car because you saw it was on a promotion?

At the end of the day, we are who we are and our situation is at current status because of the decisions we made. Therefore, the best way to put our life on an upward trajectory is to learn how to make a better decision and to put it to practice.

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Seunghwan Son

Seunghwan Son

All views are mine. Book notes include my own interpretation.