I think, therefore I am

May 10, 2023 | Mirta Fagundes dos Santos

cogito ergo sum ancient original Latin quote of mathematician Rene Descartes translated as - I think therefore I am, combined on vintage varnished wooden surface

Most of us know Descartes’ famous proposition: “I think, therefore I am”.

But few of us know his original insight “I doubt, therefore I am — or what is the same, — I think, therefore I am”.

The thinking ‘keystone’ for Descartes was, fundamentally, the act of doubting…

Questioning our own underlying beliefs is one of the most essential thinking skills. If you know why you believe something to be true, you are then in a position to make it NOT true, if you so desire.

For example, In order to buy a house, I have to get a loan from the bank.

This is a statement most of us would nod along to – not much to be questioned there. But amuse me for a second. Without reading ahead, list all the assumptions we make when we claim the above. 

For example, In order to buy a house, I have to get a loan from the bank because I don’t have enough cash saved up.

Once you are done listing as many assumptions as possible, read and compare your list with mine (below).

Don’t read ahead!

– The cost of the house is higher than the amount of cash I have on hand.

– I don’t have enough money saved up to purchase the house outright.

– I don’t have any assets or investments to sell or liquidate to pay for the house.

– The house seller is unwilling to accept a payment plan or trade for other goods or services instead of a lump sum payment.

– I do not have a pile of money under the mattress.

– I am not willing to rob a bank.

– I can not get one million strangers to give me $1 each to help pay for the house.

– The house is not free.

– The house’s seller is unwilling to barter for goods other than cash.

– I cannot find a wealthy partner to marry and join finances with

– The house is not being sold at a discounted price, where I can afford to pay for it in cash.

– I do not have any generous family members or friends who can lend or gift me the necessary funds.

– I cannot find any other lender willing to offer me a loan with more favorable terms or interest rates than a bank.

Assumptions are ultimately where the breakthrough solutions come from. If we can invalidate even one of our assumptions (above), we can get a house by means other than a loan from the bank.

The problem is that we often don’t question – we accept.

We are too busy to question, we don’t dare question, we think we’d be silly to question, or we believe that it is pointless to question. 

Embrace our inner child and ask the magic “Why” 

  • In order to lose weight, I must go on a diet – WHY?
  • If I go to university, then I will get my dream job – WHY?
  • If I ask for a raise, then I will not get one – WHY?
  • In order to be happy, I must marry my partner – WHY?

Assumption-raising is not something we are taught in schools or colleges. And it is certainly not something parents encourage their kids to do when they are little. (It is much easier to raise kids who don’t question your every decision all the time)…

But if you agree this skill is imperative, there is still time to develop it!

All it takes is practice! 

Try coming up with 10+ assumptions on any one statement.

But be wary; raising assumptions is harder than it looks. Throughout our lives, we were taught to give the correct answers – which is true in schools, at home, and at work… This means our creativity is hindered as our brains work hard to filter out crappy ideas, ensuring the ones we put forward are ‘right.’ 

This means that when we raise assumptions, we get stuck at maybe five to seven assumptions that sound ‘right’, and we can’t come up with any juicy, innovative ones! Unfortunately for us, those juicy assumptions are ultimately where the breakthrough solutions come from. 

When this happens, don’t give up.

My advice is to practice raising assumptions on something trivial so that you are not emotionally invested in coming up with a solution. You can afford to be silly and creative and give the ‘wrong’ answer. 

I’ll even give you a trivial prompt that we often use in our BBIT Thinking Foundations course to get you started with your practice: “If I run out of carrots, then the project will be late because….” And go!

P.S. If you do the exercise, I’d love for you to send me your list of assumptions. If you show me yours, I’ll share mine with you in return 🙂