In another lifetime I am certain I would have become a social scientist. I love learning about why I and other people think and do things like we do. So naturally when I stumbled upon a new interview of author and Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant, I couldn’t wait to hear his thoughts. Just to be clear, I haven’t yet read his new book Think Again—The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. But I was so excited about his ideas from several interviews that I simply couldn’t wait to put some of them down on paper and share them with you. Call it cheating if you want, I like to tell myself I have yours and mine best interests at heart. Undoubtedly, that is just another example of how we can easily fool ourselves into believing what we believe is true for everyone. So yes, there is power in being willing to know you can’t be certain about those many things you think you know.
Let’s start with the idea that most of us believe that intelligence is highly desirable. Grant challenges that assumption because he says that a far more critical skill might be the ability to “rethink” and “relearn” things. Unfortunately most of us (yeah, me too!) don’t like thinking too hard about things. Or, if people challenge our thinking we often see it as a threat to our egos (who me?) rather than a learning opportunity. If we continue to just hang around with those that agree with us, our thinking gets brittle—considerably more quickly than our bones (who wants that?) In fact, Grant is convinced that in some ways the “smarter” we think we are, the worse we are at rethinking and have blinders on about our own mental limitations.
I think as the last couple of years have shown us, just trying to convince those who disagree with us that they are wrong, doesn’t work that well. Research shows that even when you offer what you believe to be convincing facts to the other (we judge as wrong) person, they seldom change their minds. According to Grant that is because what they are doing is exactly like what we are doing, becoming one of three metaphors (or the Three “Ps”) for how we address other people:
- The preacher. The preacher is so convinced that he has already found the one and only truth he just needs to pound the truth into you and you’ll get it. This person literally stands on his pulpit and tells others what and when and why his thinking is the one and only right way to think.
- The prosecutor. This approach sees every disagreement as a court case they must win. Others are simply wrong. The prosecutor will continue to throw out their certainty by giving example after example of their “rightness,” and finishes up with what they believe is an irrefutable closing statement. This goes far beyond a mere debate because they aren’t really hearing the opposing lawyer at all—they are just in it for the win.
- The politician. This person doesn’t care as much about being right. The politician wants your vote or approval. If they can get you on their side, or jump over on yours, they are okay with that. Of course, they don’t always change their beliefs, they just act like they do.
The first two types of people tend to get activated when they feel any resistance from others to their ideas. Unfortunately, according to Grant they aren’t really thinking—they are just resorting to automatic pilot and attempt to show you they are right and you are wrong. The Politician appears more flexible in their thinking and easier to get along with, but their true motivation is to fit in, be liked or to get your support. In other words, they aren’t really thinking either.
Regrettably I see a little bit of each one of these approaches in my own thinking. The more I care about the subject/topic, the more likely I am to become them. Just knowing that I often resort to being a prosecutor makes me want to do better in the future. Besides, I would rather be known as someone who allows her mind to be provoked, flexible and relearn things, than to be fossilized with the mind that thinks it knows everything to being with.
Grant makes a strong case for us all to challenge everything we believe. He advocates that we approach our thoughts and beliefs like scientists proving our theories rather than warriors defending our honor. He is also a big fan of humility. He says, “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.” And while that might make sense, living that on a daily basis especially with people or ideas more challenging is likely more difficult. That’s why he offers several suggestions to keep us rethinking and relearning what we know. Some of his advice includes:
- Come up with at least one reason why you could be wrong.
- Beware of founders’ syndrome—where something worked well in the past but is no longer viable.
- Get over your discomfort at being in doubt. Actually appreciate it when you don’t know something!
- Be curious about what you don’t know.
- Become a scientist about your idea/belief rather than a salesman (or preacher or prosecutor!)
- Start with the mindset that your idea is just a theory. Try to poke holes in your own theories!
- Find joy in being wrong. Technically being wrong is just one step on the path to relearning!
- Collect a small group of people you trust to critic and question your ideas and truly listen to them.
- Don’t blindly follow your intuition, test your intuition.
- Instead of giving answers, ask more questions.
- Listen like you are interviewing the other person about their beliefs and talk much less!
Grant offers many specific examples of the value of an open mind that can rethink and relearn in both the home and at the workplace. He is also adamant that cultivating flexibility, humility and curiosity are far greater attributes than a foolish consistency. Sure it is nice to think we know things, but if it doesn’t lead to wisdom, is that really what the world needs now? I remain intrigued by what Adam Grant details in his book so much so that I still intend to buy and read it. In a world that is changing rapidly and so quickly, it is likely SMART to remember that most of us don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. But we can always rethink and relearn!