How critical thinking can lead to creative freedom

by Annelise Mitchell September 02, 2016

How critical thinking can lead to creative freedom

When I first came across the ancient philosopher Socrates and his method of critical thinking, I was in love. Here is a method of questioning, I thought, that will help me undo the ideas that have kept me ensnared for so long.

Thus began a journey of self-discovery…

Not so fast. (Screech to a halt!)

I would like to say that the Socratic Method of Questioning led me down the golden pathway of freedom and it was a journey of pure joy and bliss. But… it was far from it. What began was a long and arduous journey, but not because the method was wrong.

I just wasn’t applying the method to my own thoughts.

What I didn’t realise is that although I was questioning everything, I wasn’t questioning my old patterns of thinking – patterns that would lead to me think that what I had to offer the world is not valuable.

This is what happens to people that are really creative. They grow up in a world where they are taught to think and behave in a certain way. When they think of doing creative work, they doubt the value of what they are doing, not because it is not valuable, but they have fallen for the values and beliefs that are not their own.

I didn’t realise that along with Socrates’ model of critical thinking, I also needed to question my own patterns of thinking, patterns that were controlling what I saw and what I thought, making it difficult, if not impossible, to see things in new ways, and to think and do differently in new situations. These patterns are like a spider spinning its web in the mind, not allowing new thoughts to escape.

And to not be able to think in new ways is death to creativity, and I would argue, death to the creative self. When we are kept down by traditional views and what to some seems like “common sense,” we are prevented from ever reaching the top of our ability. We remain reacting to events and issues in our environment, unable to transcend the boundaries of our thoughts, culture and working life.

To be creative requires courage to move away from our automatic responses, which are controlled by our old thinking patterns.

For example, we go to create a piece of work that fires us up, but then are flooded by thoughts about the work’s monetary value, how it will be perceived by the people in our lives, and most of all, will anyone ever like it.

So begins a pattern of thinking that we keep repeating.

What happens when it is not good enough? Does this mean I’m not good enough? My parents never valued what I did. Some of my teachers said I had talent but provided no encouragement, other than “good work” or “why don’t we hang this in the principal’s office.”

And around and around we go…

How can Socrates help us?

This is why Socrate’s Method of Questioning is so important. If we don’t learn how to question our thoughts and the social conditions around us, especially how we see those conditions (i.e. Are they favourable or do they meet other people’s needs but not my own?), we will never get to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy – the creator’s realm known as self-fulfillment (aka self-actualisation).

Self-fulfillment, as Abraham Maslow calls it, is where the individual begins creating. They create things with all the knowledge and skills they have accumulated over time, but only after they have fulfilled all their other needs.


Thus, creative thinking cannot happen without critical thinking. If I didn’t learn how to question dominant paradigms about what is valuable and worthwhile doing, I would still be burning my wheels, heading for burnout, and eventually despair.

Aren’t some people creative without critical thinking?

Yes, but they are indeed the lucky ones.

The children who grow up in homes that have parents who are aware that their creative child needs room to express themselves are indeed fortunate. But what happens when your home environment doesn’t encourage this type of behaviour. What happens when you feel like the black sheep?

For some individuals, questioning common ways of doing things is not a necessity. They think everything is fine and there is no need to change things. But this way of thinking doesn’t work for everyone.

This is why the Socratic Method of Questioning is so important for creatives. The method engages the learner deeply within a subject or issue, and encourages them to ask a series of questions that will help them realise where their beliefs have come from and what beliefs need to change.

The following infographic provides a systematic process of questioning that all creatives must use when trying to find their voice and find out who they are in a world that feels unforgiving:


The Socratic method was most beneficial for me, particularly after I become disaffected with the education system. Through actively questioning what I believed to be true, and the values and beliefs behind the current system, I was able to reinvigorate my love of creativity and teaching and climb my way out of apathy, a lethal poison that was threatening to devour my soul.

Here is a copy of the Socratic Method of Questioning process for you to use on your journey to becoming a critical thinker.

The Socratic Questioning Method involves 4 essentials if we are to live creative lives that are fulfilling:

The 4 Essentials of the Socratic Method

  1. Question values, principles and beliefs

Through questioning, we try to identify the values and beliefs that guide our way of life. This involves examining our thoughts, actions and beliefs to find out what motivates our life and what assumptions we should build our life upon.

  1. Focus on how we ought to live

Through examining our thoughts and actions, we gain understanding to challenge, and even refute values and beliefs that we once believed were just the way things are. We learn that an unexamined life is indeed very empty and may cause us despair if left unexamined.

  1. Walk through productive discomfort

The questioning process and its results will not be easy, in fact, it will sometimes feel very tempting to go back to not knowing, but the result (if we persist) will be enhanced experiences and greater opportunities, especially for creativity and life-satisfaction.

  1. Reveal complexity, difficult and uncertainty about the world

We finally learn that although there is no simple answer to how we should live, we understand how complexity and difficulty are invaluable for living an interesting life. We know that a comfortable world full of certainty would mean that we would not explore our creativity, and for creative people, this uncertainty (in moderate amounts) is necessary for creativity.

Indeed, after some time my dear reader, I hope you come to see that Socratic questioning (critical thinking) is not an idle luxury reserved for those who study or teach, it is something that anyone (especially creatives) should foster in themselves if they wish to live a life of active engagement and creativity.


Boghossian, P. (2003). How Socratic Pedagogy Works, Retrieved from

Kampylis, P. and Berki, E. (2014). Nurturing Creative Thinking, Retrieved from

Maisel, E. (2016). Creativity Coaching. Retrieved from

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2010). The Thinker’s Guide to The Art of Socratic Questioning: Based on Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Retrieved from

Reich, R. (2003). The Socratic Method: What it is and How to Use it in the Classroom, Retrieved from

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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