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Third-order thinking is the Mount Everest of cognitive performance. It’s a climb few people ever attempt, and even fewer ever reach the summit. It’s the kind of thinking that burns calories, takes effort, and requires a lot of brain power. But when you reach the top, you’ll see the world from a perspective that no one else can. The best way to enhance your strategic mind is by practicing third-order thinking.
Third-order thinking is the dark matter of the universe that most people don’t even know exists. If you’ve practiced it, it allows you to see several steps ahead, or see around corners before you make the turn. Compare it to first and second-order thinking. First-order thinking is what you do every day. It’s fast, easy, and you could almost do it in your sleep. When you want ice cream, you go get ice cream. You see an immediate problem, and you solve it. You know what you want, and you get it. But with this kind of thinking, one decision can (and will) create new (and often worse) problems.
Second-order thinking is typically an umbrella term for thinking about the down-stream consequences of first-order thinking to the 2nd, 3rd, and Nth order. It describes thinking in terms of how consequences can impact the world beyond our immediate needs, through both space and time. It says that if you eat ice cream, you will get fat, you will want more ice cream, and you will eventually go broke if you keep buying ice cream. As a second-order thinker, you ask what the consequences will be of your decisions. But I believe lumping everything after first order thinking together is much too broad and gives second-order thinkers too much credit. Think about it in terms of points of view. There’s first person (I/we), there’s second person (you) and third person (he/she/they). Calling everyone “you” is quite limiting and wouldn’t make sense when gossiping about the neighbor or talking about the ancient Greeks. Calling everything second-order is quite limiting when considering the difference between the effects of repeated ice cream trips on your health and the health of others. So there comes a need for us to define third-order thinking, which allows us to identify and explain consequences beyond what happens to you, but how your decisions affect your environment.
The wolves of Yellowstone National Park can change the direction of rivers. Literally. When wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, they set off what is called a “trophic cascade.” They changed the behavior of the overwhelming deer population, forcing them uphill, away from the valleys where they might get trapped. This allowed those areas to regenerate plants and trees, which solidified the soil on the banks of the rivers, reduced erosion, which caused the rivers to meander less by becoming narrower and deeper. As a first and second order thinker, you can’t see or even begin to understand this process. But now you can begin to see how third order thinking works.
You can apply this directly to many areas of everyday life. In chess, if you go straight for the king, you’re toast. But like Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit, if you train yourself to think several steps ahead and develop your pawns and your minor pieces, you’ll begin to have amazing success. As an online writer/creator, you can’t just walk right in and expect to make money immediately. You have to build your online presence, create good content, cultivate relationships with other creators, and give a ton of value away for free before you ever make your first dollar. Similarly, the road to good leadership is paved with sacrifice. If you want to become a leader, you cannot aim to become a leader. You become a leader through your actions, your time, your effort, and your willingness to do what others don’t with consistency and reliability.
Most people refuse to do things with no immediate benefit. And that is where your opportunity lives. Third-order thinking is all about sacrifice, patience, and empathy—hallmarks of great leadership. You can start building this habit immediately by always asking “what happens next,” by asking what happens in 30 minutes, 30 days, or 30 years, or by writing down the logical chain of events for any decision you make. By identifying downstream consequences of your actions, by getting good at thinking about what other people are thinking, and by coming to grips with the fact that your decisions won’t always yield immediate positive results, you will become adept at seeing around corners and seeing the dark matter that no one else can see. By mastering third-order thinking, you will have summitted the highest mountain of cognitive ability, and you’ll be able to stand at the peak with a vantage point that no one else has.
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