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  • Dan Connors

Think you know it all, eh? Think again bucko!

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know Adam Grant 2021

How do we know what we know? Can we be certain about the things that form the bedrock of our belief structure? And why do we ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs, doubling down on them rather than re-examining them? The stakes are high. Is our world knowable, or is it so vast that we must constantly be updating our models just to survive?

We spend most of our childhood building up models of how the world works. We listen to parents, watch television, interact with computers, and learn from teachers about what's good, what's bad, and what to trust. By the time we reach adulthood, we have a somewhat functional model that can guide us through the world one way or another. The problem is that our models are by definition faulty, (because the world is ultimately NOT knowable to our feeble little brains), and often emotional and traumatic experiences in childhood and early adulthood can mess us up and lock in destructive assumptions for life.

Adam Grant looks at this problem in his book, Think Again, and encourages us to re-think the things we take for granted. Grant is an organizational psychologist, Wharton professor, and author of four other best-selling books on psychology and life strategies. He has a podcast, several TED talks, and is one of America's pre-eminent thinkers on the subject of thinking.

When it comes to discussing ideas, we have three default modes. The politician in us wants to win the support of others and adjusts our viewpoints to match the biggest consensus. The preacher inside of us wants to speak out and show the world how smart we are with the goal to change the minds of others. And our inner prosecutor is all about winning arguments, bending all evidence towards a pre-ordained conclusion in the pursuit of a victory over competing ideas.

Grant proposes a fourth mode of approaching the world- that of the scientist. Scientists are by default curious about the world and always looking for ways to gather evidence, make models, test hypotheses, and the refine the models in a continual process. Scientists rarely can provide certainty- like this vaccine is 100% effective, or that the climate will change this much by that date. But they can find trends and point us in the right direction, guided by observations and data. In a world that craves certainty and being right, nuance and mistakes are feared and demonized.

Much has been written about cognitive biases, including on this blog, and the book covers the ones that cause the most damage. Confirmation bias causes us to look to the information that supports our beliefs, and desirability bias makes us blind to unwanted outcomes. The biggest one is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which provides the illusion of mastery when the reality is that people are overconfident but unaware of all the things that they don't know.

There is a great power at work when people ask questions and express curiosity. Asking a question invites a dialogue, while making a judgment or expressing an opinion shuts things down. Grant tells great stories in this book that show how the right questions caused anti-vaxxers (the most science-resistant people there are) to re-examine their beliefs. He tells the story of how a curious black musician got to know a white KKK member, befriend him, and cause him to renounce his membership. Grant describes how an elementary school teacher assigned her students a textbook from the 1940's and asked them to question what's been learned since then, and what can be learned about the things we assume are true today.

Many of us tend to see the world as binary- good or evil. It's a great shortcut that makes things simpler to handle. Stay away from the evil stuff and gravitate towards the good. But the world isn't binary- it is infinite shades of gray. There is no "them"- only us humans, all struggling to overcome our flimsy assumptions and models.

There's a psychological term called imposter syndrome that's secretly affects many successful people- they feel like they don't deserve the positions that they hold. The alternative, armchair quarterback syndrome, afflicts all too many of us. We sit in front of our televisions and judge anybody and everybody, claiming without evidence that we know better than the experts. We've seen a lot of armchair quarterbacking with the Covid-19 epidemic with non-medical people expressing uninformed opinions about what should be done with schools, businesses, vaccines, and masks. It all goes back to Dunning-Kruger and the false sense of confidence we get with just a little bit of knowledge.

Certainty is a comforting thing. Rush Limbaugh, who hails from my home state, made a brand for himself by providing certainty to his radio listeners during an uncertain time. He held forth on multiple topics, rarely inviting guests, and spouted certainty daily, much of it divisive opinions that were not backed up by evidence. His methods were copied by other radio hosts and cable networks, all cultivating a cathedral of easy answers to hard questions. This craving for certainty, both on the left and right, has made our political discourse polarized and worthless, because we're now afraid to dive into the complexities and possibilities of the world.

The alternative, as presented by Adam Grant, is to live life with perennial uncertainty and be okay with it. Instead of behaving like a preacher and trying to bend the world to your certainty, behave like a scientist and collect data from a variety of sources. Instead of a prosecutor who bullies opponents until they capitulate, try a collaborative approach, leading with humility, curiosity, and plenty of questions that lead off in new directions. Look for outliers, think like a devil's advocate, and try to get the big picture of things rather than acting like a politician pandering to the lowest common denominator.

The world is constantly changing. Things that were taken for granted a century ago seem way out of date today. Attitudes on race, sexuality, and what it means to be a human are evolving so fast today that many are confused by "wokeness", "cancel culture", and the realizations that cherished childhood things like Barbie dolls, Mr. Potato Head, and The Cosby Show might not be politically correct anymore. Life is a never-ending balancing act between the craving for security and the need for variety and learning. When we become adults, mom and dad no longer provide that welcome security, but we still need it and find new certainties to latch onto while the world changes around us. As we age the temptation grows to cling harder to old certainties rather than to have to start over and learn new things.

Grant has advice for those who want to create environments where questioning and exploration are okay. Groups need to establish psychological safety- giving their members the freedom to take risks and admit errors when they happen. Too many workplaces are filled with phonies who hide their feelings, mistakes, and ideas because they desperately want to fit in and not rock the boat. That environment starts at the top- if a parent or boss punishes out of the box thinking, it will hide in the shadows forever.

Obviously we can't rethink, re-evaluate, and questions our assumptions all of the time, or we'd never get anything done. Models, goals, and shortcuts are essential to making it through life. Grant recommends an annual personal checkup where we look at our assumptions and get feedback from others as to whether we are on course or off course. In between checkups, he recommends a regular stream of information from a variety of sources to minimize cognitive biases and maximize resources that guide us through an ever-changing world. Instead of an echo chamber of friends who tell us how smart we are, he recommends a challenge network of friends who point out weaknesses in our strategies with the constructive aim of helping us go further and get better. That's the goal anyway.

My favorite part of the book was the final chapter, which provides a handy summary of everything in the book. Here are his bullet points that pretty much say it all.

1- Think like a scientist.

2- Define your identity in terms of values, not opinions.

3- Seek out information that goes against your views.

4- Beware if getting stranded at the summit of Mount Stupid. (The fake pinnacle of certainty that Dunning-Kruger is all about).

5- Harness the benefits of doubt.

6- Embrace the joy of being wrong.

7- Learn something new from each person you meet.

8- Build a challenge network, not just a support network.

9- Don't shy away from constructive conflict.

10- Practice the art of persuasive listening.

11- Question how rather than why.

12- Ask "What evidence would change your mind?"

13- Ask how people originally formed an opinion.

14- Acknowledge common ground.

15- Remember that less is often more. Sometimes a barrage of facts will drive folks away.

16- Reinforce freedom of choice. People hate feeling controlled.

17- Have a conversation about the conversation if emotions get heated.

18- Complexify contentious topics.

19- Don't shy away from caveats and contingencies.

20- Expand your emotional range.

21- Have a weekly myth-busting discussion at dinner.

22- Invite kids to do multiple drafts and seek feedback from others.

23- Stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up.

24- Abandon best practices- strive for better ones.

25- Establish psychological safety and build a learning culture.

26- Keep a rethinking scorecard.

27- Throw out the ten-year plan- you are different now than you were ten years ago.

28- Rethink your actions, not just your surroundings.

29- Schedule a life checkup once a year to assess goals and next steps.

30- Make time to think again.

Think Again is a book about thinking, which is one of my favorite topics that there is. Adam Grant does an admirable job of looking at the different sides of re-thinking your past assumptions, and I highly recommend this book.

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