The first footprint on the moon.
Photo Creds: NASA

Thinking on your feet is one of the most essential life skills we could ever acquire. Whether it is high-stress situations such as a job interview or talking in front of a group – to more mellow settings such as a dinner conversation – thinking on our feet is certainly a trait that we should constantly nurture and improve upon. This life skill is encompassed in skills that are known as transferrable skills – being skills that will certainly pay dividends many years into the future if we invest the time and effort to improve day by day. Developing such a broad skill as thinking on your feet will take time, but the rewards will certainly be bountiful.  

Thinking on one’s feet is one of the integral traits of public speaking. We can certainly prepare to think on our feet – where preparation can make speaking feel less daunting. If we have a large repository of knowledge to draw from, that will provide a large boost of confidence to think on our feet. When speaking to a large audience, we should be very familiar with what we are talking about – having comprehended many times more what we say at the minimum. The more the merrier would be the rule here. Knowledge will provide a boost, however, it is not necessarily enough to know. We also need to develop our own opinion and interpretation of the subject at hand. In this regard, we need deep critical thinking to form our unique stance and angle on the issue.

Preparation aside, however, there may be situations when we have to think on our feet unawares. In these situations in which we have little knowledge to find a foothold, we need to not only be able to think critically but to think critically as fast as possible. In a way, critical thinking can be broken up into two components – quickness and quality. Our speed of thinking can be improved in a myriad of ways – some fun ways could be playing bullet chess (chess games with a 1-minute timer), or trying to see how fast you can watch YouTube videos past x2 speed. As well, the quality of thought can be improved by writing to a high standard. Ensuring we have a logical and consistent flow while maintaining clarity will inevitably improve our logical reasoning. Writing will help to build precision in the way that we speak, and when coupled with thinking faster, it brings us closer to thinking on our feet with a high degree of precision.

Additionally, to achieve a high standard of writing, reading is indispensable. As Charles Spurgeon muses:

Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.

Charles Spurgeon

As technology continues to invade the very fabric of our lives, fewer and fewer people read for pleasure – as discussed in the “Value of Books”. Though this is a sad reality, on the bright side it does make the competition easier. Engaging in reading and writing will not only allow us to mature and grow faster than the general population, but it will also help us build our own repository of knowledge. In tandem with writing, it allows us to build connections within this repository, helping us to form our interpretations and opinions.

A prime example of being able to think on one’s feet is Jordan Peterson. When giving his lectures or podcasts, he does not have any notes – being able to speak brilliantly ad libitum. Peterson in the YouTube Video “Guide to speaking” describes his lectures as a “trapeze act without a safety net”. He states that what makes his talks so gripping is because there is such a high probability of failure. In the video, Peterson further details how he is able to achieve this feat – where he relies on his large repository of knowledge – being a repository that he has been accumulating for decades through reading and writing as an academic. On his website, he has a book list that I will certainly aspire to try and chip away in the near future to try to have the same repository as his one day.

All of these skills or subskills – thinking on one’s feet, critical thinking, thinking quickly, thinking precisely – blend and complement one other. All these attributes coalesce to form a sharp mind – in which a sharp mind is a deadly asset to have in this world.