5 Ways to Develop Independent Thought

This is a guest post by Tom O’Leary.

A classroom full of 10-year-old students is asked to solve a problem with children crossing the street on the way to school. The children come up with ideas that have been used successfully in other places: traffic calming devices, overpasses, fluorescent jackets and speed limits. All these ideas are conventional, exactly what the teacher wants to hear.

Except for one. A student recommends that the school board sell the property and move the classroom online. This is not what the teacher was expecting.

This idea may not be practical, popular, or even possible, but when it’s ridiculed by the class it might be the last independent thought that the student dares to express — the death of another independent thinker.

Independent thought is not popular — it is absolutely, pricelessly, rare. Nothing you read about in the papers or see on the television is independent. Whatever we take in from the popular media is regurgitated conventional knowledge. There is nothing independent about most of the world.

This is a tragedy — independent thought is essential for progress. Conventional thinking moves us forward gradually at best (at worst it pushes us backwards). Independent thinking is required to achieve any substantial jump in performance.

Logically, when we think like everyone else is thinking, the best we can expect is to achieve what they’re already achieving. If our aim is to over-achieve, we need to avoid the same banal influences and think impossibly. We need to become independent from conventional wisdom.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be particularly intelligent or well educated to think independently. Consider small children. Conventional wisdom says that shoes are for wearing and bananas are for eating. Independent thinking allows children try eating the shoes and wearing the bananas on their feet. Their lack of conventional wisdom and utter disregard for how others view their decisions allows children to experiment without anxiety. In this case they may be wrong, but in other cases they can be shockingly right.

Using these 5 strategies you can develop your independent thinking ability.

1. Disconnect from sources of conventional thinking

Instead of plugging into your TV, PC, or library for answers, think for yourself first. Without cutting yourself off from the world, you can increase your capacity for independent thought by limiting the conventional opinion you absorb. This means reducing the media you consume and the level of devotion you give to it. Independent thinkers aren’t necessarily contrarian, but they don’t agree with the status quo by default. They devise new criteria for perceiving the world rather than seeing everything through the screen of their computer.

2. Immerse yourself in experiences that conflict with your current perspective

Instead of substituting a new conventional thought for the old one, deliberately seek out experiences that challenge your views. These experiences may exist in foreign cultures, unusual subcultures, or between the pages of a book you disagree with. The point is not to adopt a new train of thought, but to disrupt the conventional railroad.

3. Watch the process from a distance

Leaving your normal life behind can give you the freedom to see issues from another perspective. Watching the world instead of eating it up gives you the peace of mind to think for yourself. Standing still from time to time gives you the opportunity to ridicule your own beliefs and explore new angles.

4. Randomize your sensory inputs

Instead of visiting the same places, eating the same foods, and talking to the same people, you can actively pursue new experiences. Many people cling to the familiar to simplify decisions and create a sense of security. If you truly want to think independently, you need to get outside your comfort zone.

5. Practice disbelief

Without becoming a cynic, you can develop the habit of instinctively distrusting thoughts that rely on conventional wisdom. Instead of assuming that these “truths” are self evident, suspend judgement until you’ve have confirmed that there is reality behind the logic.

If all of this sounds too difficult, consider what can be gained from independent thought. Even microscopic steps towards thinking independently will increase your contribution to the world. You will see opportunities and solutions that others overlook. You will obtain a competitive advantage over less creative thinkers. Most importantly, your thoughts will be your own and not just recycled media.

Think independently and you create a world of limitless opportunity. But don’t take my word for it…find out for yourself.

Tom O’Leary is an Australian Alien living in Japan. He considers his life a safari and the goal of his journey is to reach his personal potential. He writes about this and other areas of personal development at www.lifegoalaction.com.

  • http://slastlancer.blogspot.com/ Abdul Rahman

    Great articles. Independent thought usually come to me when I am alone, when I am not connected to anything but thinking about an event, like war in Iraq and such. One of the most ridiculous ‘independent’ (or media influenced) is to create Gundam (a robot from an anime series) and destroy every single nuclear warheads available in this planet.

    Independent eh?

    Anyway, the link to this author’s blog is broken. You should fix it to avoid any problem. :)

    Abdul Rahman

  • http://www.modern-worker.com Modern-Worker

    Thanks for the inspiration this morning; definitely will help me cook up some original thoughts at work.

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  • http://www.healthbolt.net Sara

    I really appreciate this post, thanks. #5 in particular is important to develop. I think skepticism can be practiced with a positive, curious attitude (“I’m interested in why we think/believe that”) that is very healthy and rewarding and not at all negative.

  • http://www.iwillchangeyourlife.com Peter

    Very sound advice. Thanks for the great article.

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  • Pedro

    I agree with everything everybody has said.

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  • http://www.horizonplastics.ca 10668844

    Independent thought –

    Thank you for talking about this. It seems like such a basic notion, but for most of us, we don’t realize how much we fail to do this.

    I wish there was an easy answer, at least for our students, but it seems like we’re stuck here, having to work out way out slowly.

    But on that note, there is likely more independent thought than ever before. In the work that I do, I encounter a number of high school students that regularly impress me with what they think about.

    But, on the flip side, I realize that the majority of students are just following the images they see on television.

    So, where’s my independent thought?

    Maybe there really isn’t any?

  • http://www.shinewithgrace.com Shine

    Thanks for the post. This reminds me to think twice before saying no – saying no to any wried ideas that pops up, saying no to suggestions that I have not heard of before, saying no to foreign experiences… Somehow we need a open mind and a big heart to think independently, right?

  • Frank

    It his a great post. However, the fact that you listed ways to become an independent thinker makes all followers of this guide non-independent thinkers for instinctively following your views. They must find out way to achieve this on their own rather than use a simply-planned 5 step guideline. Nonetheless, this is a well thought out article (and I agree that we should not automatically conform to societal views) but the article should be used as a starting place for independent thought rather than a literal guide to be taken word for word.

    • Anushka

      Great words! Agree with ur opinion

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  • me

    The emperor’s new post.

    Well, not entirely but it appears to me that you take an altogether too simplified view of the world.

    >Logically, when we think like everyone else is thinking, the best we can
    > expect is to achieve what they’re already achieving.
    I don’t logically agree.
    We may think similarly, yet achieve better, through a process of refinement and evolutionary, if not revolutionary, progress.
    Don’t dismiss this.
    This evolutionary progress and refinement is very important.
    It often doesn’t make as good a story, but many of the great achievements of humanity are the result of people working together, over time – the direct result of no single person’s genius, but of co-operation between many.

    For if no two people are to think alike, how will the unity of purpose required to see through complex endeavor hope to be achieved?

    >1. Disconnect from sources of conventional thinking
    “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
    We make breakthroughs because the work done by others enables us not to repeat their time spent going down blind alleys.
    While we should certainly keep a critical view point, we should strive to learn as much as possible from the experiences of others. By educating ourselves as to the opinions of others we learn faster and broader than if we go it alone.

    >Instead of substituting a new conventional thought for the old one, >deliberately seek out experiences that challenge your views. These >experiences may exist in foreign cultures, unusual subcultures, or >between the pages of a book you disagree with. The point is not to adopt a >new train of thought, but to disrupt the conventional railroad.
    This is a nice metaphor, but the metaphor seems to be more important to the writer than the clarity of meaning behind it, or indeed, a desire to make sense?

    Don’t deliberately seek out experiences than challenge your views. Seek out experiences, period, and don’t refuse to embrace them because they challenge your views. Don’t assign any extra value to something because it is different than what you are used to, but judge it on it’s own merits.

    If we each explored the world from first principle, rather than relying on the past results and learned wisdom of others, we would essentially have no complex technology, and our philosophy and education would be at the same level as the caveman.

    While I completely agree that we must learn to think critically about the world, and about the sources of information that we choose to believe and consume, the approach advocated here – little short of throwing them out and starting from scratch – is not the answer.

    The key is expending effort to ensure we choose to believe the right sources of conventional wisdom and thinking, rather than trying to rethink everyone from the start.

    IF everyone decided to eat their shoes, we wouldn’t travel very far.

    • Lindsay

      Although I am also skeptical of some of these steps (2 and 4, in particular), I think you’re missing the point of the article. It’s things you can do to train yourself how to think independently–not ways to live for the rest of your life. The point is, if you can train yourself not to be influenced by *opinions* found in media, you can think more independently. These are just exercises he’s suggesting. It even says not to Cut yourself off from the world.

      To me, the points you’re making aren’t helpful or even thought-provoking. Unless the thought you’re trying to provoke is, “I wonder how many blogs this person reads just to pick them apart and disprove them?” It would be one thing if you swayed me to see your point, but you failed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1576515678 Lisa Hogan Autry

      I  only want to think like someone else when I am trying to see the world through their eyes.  Not to imitate them, so I think its good to at least kind of think like others for learning purposes. 

    • Abby

      Funny, most truths are characterized by paradox.

      The Golden Generation
      I was brought up by two critical thinkers, a newspaper reporter dad and political activist mom. Post WWII made them passionate for raising kids who would not be snowed by “big Brother” as so many Germans were. My parent’s generation worked hard to point out the major human failings of the past and how personal responsibility, including critical thinking were essential to holding authorities from becoming unbridled dictators or oppressors of human rights. We had to settle our own fights on the playground–we had to negotiate, deal with group dynamics and bullies–the whole enchilada.

      We were taught civics and that each one of us and our actions make a crucial difference in how society works for the common good or not. We were taught history so we would not be cursed to repeat it–or have a better chance to avoid the major failings of the past–that was their hope.

      Politics for Change
      Paradoxically, despite being taught to think critically (independently), we were taught to work within a political party, because the power of the group is greater than the power of individuals. So, from a purely political perspective, if you want to influence legislation or make any kind of effective difference, you need to work within a party that can get representatives elected. “Getting elected” was a key point my parents made: the point where any kind of effectiveness to support a point of view or desired action begins. This is not to negate the power and influence of political independents, but few individuals can be independent politically and make as much of an effect as can those in our parties can.

      OK, I know there are major educators, religious leaders, news people, and so on who remain independent and benefit our society and individuals quite a lot.

      The challenge in political parties is that we have a long history of political bias and back biting. Many nonpolitical folks don’t have the stomach or tolerance for the level of dischord and rancor that comes up. One of the biggest dangers for any one of us affiliated with a party is that we may start to believe our own spin and hype. If we delude ourselves with our hyperbole and half truths, we head down a slippery slope that can lead us to no good end–and it often has done so. So, not only must we beware of the delusion of repeated, heart felt “wishful thinking” and paranoia, but we must beware of that old danger, “group think.” This kind of thinking came up in the inquisition, the witch trials of Salem, and pre-WWII Germany, and in many a situation where group dynamics have gone haywire.

      OK. I like to think independently, but don’t believe that such thinking means I must alienate myself in the process. I however must be come detached (shall I say, “mature,” less egotistical, more observant of differing opinions and curious rather than threatened, be open and willing to engage and learn something new. I need to think of FEAR as “false evidence appearing real”–get out of the comfort zone that says I know what others think and feel before I even ask or they tell me.

      And so it goes, thanks.

      ~Abby Midwest

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  • James Austin

    I agree with Frank.
    >”the fact that you listed ways to become an independent thinker makes all followers of this guide non-independent thinkers for instinctively following your views.”

    This applies for every time we ask the question “how do I do it?”, especially to someone else (or get that answer from a book or website). Because the moment we ask “how” we will get a system and then we will start following it instead of independently thinking as to how to solve the problem.

    We should also ask ourselves whether independent thinking is required. What is wrong in following the collective intelligence? Is it really true that independent thinking will help us achieve “substantial leaps in performance” as the author claims. By asking ourselves the question, we might get an answer “yes – independent thinking is required because …” or “no, collective intelligence is better because …”. Then in the answer you will find the strategies to develop independent thinking (or contribute to collective intelligence).

  • Pete

    everyone needs a “thinking chair”, get a nice comfortable chair and place it in a part of your room thats not facing your tv, computer or any other distractions and go into your mind

  • http://kWeb.wordpress.com/ Kevinin

    I enjoyed reading this article a lot, I made me think and I hope others will do the same!

    • winnie Afandi

      the article is fine yes,human beings are capable of doing various beneficial things independently.team spirit is pretty good but we need to have independent opinions to come up with an amazing article.we are all unique and we need to display our uniqueness through creativity.

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  • http://www.stevenswallow.com/home/ Steve

    Some good tips, like the “conflict with your current perspective” need to start doing that with more books.

    Guess comes down to “think for yourself, question authority” (Timothy O’Leary). Quite true the turn on your tv, pc etc through at times find can be quite stimulating taking apart a news program.

    Cheers for a good article

  • http://www.mylifestartsatfortytwo.com Beth

    I loved the article – and I would add one more thing – seek out other independent thinkers. You will expand your mind with thoughts you never dreamed of having, and you also get the acceptance that the “herd” will never give you…

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  • http://blog.jonolan jonolan

    A well written article. The education system currently is NOT designed to teach students how to either think or learn. It is designed solely to teach specific approved facts and opinions in a preset manner.

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  • http://www.myspace.com/floatingpointdub Ryan

    boundary dissolution through
    ~~~Psychedelics~~~
    Mushrooms especially.

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  • http://www.abhijit.co.in/blog Abhijit

    Isn’t it amazing how there isn’t one institution you can rely upon to teach a kid how to think? Colleges enable students to GET a good job…nothing teaches students how to DO a good job anymore.

    The biggest deprivation for independent thought is lack of encouragement.

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  • Anthony Cromartie

    Guy’s a %100 right. Independent thought is the best and is how all new innovations come about.

    When my animated series, SCAF hit TV-you’re gonna see a ton of that. *thumbs up*

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  • http://www.altpd.com Alex

    Great post. Thinking for yourself is something you HAVE to do if you want to be successful.99% of people give you advice you should completely ignore.

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  • tripps

    Do we really understand what independent thinking is? Who defines it? and what makes it independent? there can be new innovative and independent concepts based on your thinking. As with small kids they are just curious and they want to burn their hands in everything in and around them. They are independent thinkers, well I have my reservations.

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  • http://clearlyenvizion.blogspot.com/ Nadege

    Stepping out of your comfort zone for new experiences feels akward in the beginning. But after you have had the new experience you feel alive and everything you have become used to becomes somewhat bland. Soon after, you begin to seek small daily changes whenever you can and life is wonderful.

  • http://stumbleupon james

    great list, but i disagree, in part, with number 4. limiting sensory intake can greatly increase introspection, allowing for a wide range of independent thought. stepping out of one’s comfort zone can mean slowing down and introverting, especially if one has an extroverted personality. try slowing down your life to as near a standstill as you can and you will most definitely gain new perspectives.

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  • RW

    I would have appreciated this article more is the writer showed more practical examples and acknowledgment of the many great true Independent Thinkers in human history.
    Modeling is also a great tool. When I think of Independent Thought I think of the many Great humans that have lived on this Earth. One thing that they all seem to have in common is that on some level they Thought Independently. This can be learned.
    They looked at a situation, a way of thinking (challenging conventional beliefs), a problem (unaware by others), an opportunity, as a platform or a chance to achieve something better. They come from all environments, backgrounds, and cultures. They are our Artists, Scholars, Athletes, Scientists, Architects, and so much more. I believe that independent thought is a necessary ingredient for continued Human evolution.

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  • http://www.cerebratecoterie.com john galt

    Independent thought is crucial to success. If most people are not succeeding then conventional wisdom obviously is not enough. We need free thinking creative individuals to help us learn to become successful. Come join us in our continuing efforts to discover the secrets of success.

  • ali

    These issues are good but not enghough and
    i try improve them in future ….

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  • Peter

    ‘You will see opportunities and solutions that others overlook. You will obtain a competitive advantage over less creative thinkers’
    This, to me, does not sound very original, creative, or constructive. So is the purpose of all of this advice here just to prove to ourselves and others that we are better than everyone else (and can exploit and take advantage of them in the process)? If this is the case, then Tom O’Leary you are NOT an independent thinker, just another mindless drone who has fallen for the lie that, in order to be ‘successful’ (how society has defined that term, i.e. a greedy, selfish and self-absorbed multi-millionaire – like Paris Hilton) one needs to compete with, and if possible, impoverish and disempower one’s ‘opponents’.
    Apart from this major flaw, the advice is actually good. It’s a shame that he had to ruin it like this at the end.

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  • lee

    Hello . Attempting to understand and readily sympathising with comments made regarding independent thinkers , my view is that not enough of them act on their own thoughts ,if more of these independent thinkers acted on their thoughts the world in my view would be far more interesting .

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  • A 16 year old boy

    Wow this is great. Reading this just made me feel good.
    Ive been disconnected from cable TV for 2 years almost except when at a friends or at family members, but ive noticed a big change since ive had so much time to think freely.
    Ive never realized that the mind is such a big place. Thoughts flow through my head daily on the next step im going to take and not just whats happening at the present moment.
    For me being a teenager, i noticed independence through clothing and music. I dont listen to the radio ever and i dont wear Vans or True Religions ive developed my own taste in fashion and clothing.
    Independent thought is something everyone should use, forget the media and mainstream stuff. Just explore the world and your mind!

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  • wine

    can you help in doing my reflection paper bout on being independent? i would really appreciate it. :)

  • Yakuza

    It’s a quite good article for whom always follow other thoughts. So, this to tell how to be yourself and how to think out of the frame.

    Thanks a lot to remind everyone exposures.

  • Barb

    Thank goodness Christopher Columbus was an independant thinker. Imagine if he has given up when people mocked him.

    • Netra

      I can imagine that the Native Americans might of been better off.

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  • Irina

    I really liked this post actually. Thinking independently is the topic I have been interested in lately. But the hard thing about it is that it is hard to just read an article and start to think differently. It takes more efforts than it seems to change your mentality.

  • CepheiV

    Some arguments are really stupid in my view…

    If you want a person to know how to develop an skill, it is obvious that you’ll need to tell him/her “HOW” in one way or another.

    Yet MY take on it is that, I don’t think it can just be developed (I may be wrong) but I think you need to have that spark that makes you curious about things FIRST, and second, being able to apply critical thinking to the matter for -either- find the way, and/or understand a guide that will lead you to it, and have the willingness to follow it…

    In my view, the best explanation, or commitment to make someone understand this, will go nowhere (No matter how hard you try) if that spark is not there, so it’d be a waste or time and energy.
    On the other hand, if the spark IS there, then there should NOT be a “need” to teach a person “how to do it” because they would find their way…

    Hence, (and always “as I see it”) you either ARE an Independent Thinker, or you are not…

    So, I don’t think it’s a matter of telling them how to do it or not, but rather the fact that such a scenario is unreal, for it serves no purpose…

  • http://reflectivelife.com/ Jay

    Does finding this page through StumbleUpon count as random sensory input? Haha. Great post.

  • sandeep

    It is absolutely right ,but one problem is there the persons who were independent thinker getting opposition from conventional thinkers,leading this is very problematic..,there is only one choice to lead this.that is improving skills more and getting more intelligence..,
    thnq ..,
    sandeep …mhrm

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  • Gramannra

    I am an independent thinker which is outside the scope of political thinking i.e. not left leaning ….. straight down the middle which is where every independent thinker should be.  However, it seems to me that if we the people do not fit within the left leaning way of thinking, we will not be accepted.  Is this true?

  • Noobystok

    Don’t want to push my deterministic spin on this, but here I go anyway; You can’t ever have a truly independent thought since your very method of processing external data and stimulation is built upon past events that have lead you to where you are now, physically and mentally. Best you can do is take tools like these to heart in order to continue to grow as a person. 

    Whether or not you take these steps was already decided well before you got to this point…

  • Andersonsteve321

    I am going to be a dad again in 6 month’s time and I am super excited. Although it will still take a longer time for my son to grow up and understand things and life, I will surely follow this list to make him independent know how to live life properly. :)

  • Andersonsteve321

    Kids must learn real hard in order to be the kind of person everybody agrees to be. Let them grow up not grow old. If you will not train your baby, you will end up having BIG baby.

    URL: http://www.addvalue.com.au

  • Stvseh1

    Independent though brings about change and some times chaos, and chaos is only bad to those who aren’t ready or want change. Conventional thinking is safe and keeps order for the status quo. I too am guilty of conventional thinking and offer apologies to my off spring.

  • Stvseh

    Here’s an independent thought. Independent thought can only be accomplished at conception, and the host must be in compliance to solitude.  Any thought is a  dirivative for something heard, read, or seen. That thought can be expanded on, only by the individuals unique thought processes. Hence anyone exposed to external input after conception should. practice the  “5 Ways to Develop Independent Thought”  to accomplish independent thought. What is your Unique take on this?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Hewlett/1178011482 Steven Hewlett

    But taking heed to this post is contrary to independent thinking right?

    • Centre12

      No, that is wrong, it is not contrary. It is under the idea of randomizing experiences and practicing disbelief.

  • Pau1sr

    Great article. Dare to be different from the majority that claim to be different. Being different from the different doesn’t make you the same, it makes you better. Safe to piss people off, dare to disagree with the “norm”…

  • Pau1sr

    Great article. Dare to be different from the majority that claim to be different. Being different from the different doesn’t make you the same, it makes you better. Safe to piss people off, dare to disagree with the “norm”…

  • Pau1sr

    Great article. Dare to be different from the majority that claim to be different. Being different from the different doesn’t make you the same, it makes you better. Safe to piss people off, dare to disagree with the “norm”…

  • Pau1sr

    Great article. Dare to be different from the majority that claim to be different. Being different from the different doesn’t make you the same, it makes you better. Safe to piss people off, dare to disagree with the “norm”…

  • http://www.facebook.com/bingotheelectricdingo Stephen Levi Guptill

    Eat mushrooms and LSD by yourself in the dark… 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1576515678 Lisa Hogan Autry

    I enjoy creative endeavors and so do my children.  It seems my children will always be “different”.  I have always wondered why.  Then I realized that this is a gift.  So to all those who are raising free thinkers, I commend you.

  • Anushka

    Disagree with the 1st statement! Independent thinking doesn’t mean to cut urself from all media resources! That means that you should watch and analyze trying to conceive the essence !

  • Ana Caroline

    I liked that!

  • Az

    yes very good

  • http://www.facebook.com/maggie.molloy.144 Maggie Molloy

    can I get the name of the study with the 10 year olds?

  • ‘Jane’ Wausi

    Very interesting.its good and adventurous to be an independent thinker.You can explore a world of opportunities with it.
    Thanks for the info.

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  • Abass

    It’s a good post. It is going to be useful to me and i believe some other people as well. But i think it narrows down to “THINK OUT OF THE BOX”

  • http://www.chanditome.com Chandi Tome

    Quite resourceful. That kinda thing you keep telling yourself but never really get to practice it.

  • http://www.chanditome.com Chandi Tome

    Currently practicing disbelief, very hard! :-)