The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
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Adam Grant’s Perspective
Adam Grant is an American psychologist and author who is currently a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in organizational psychology. He received academic tenure at age 28, making him the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School. Adam Grant has been Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years. He has been recognized as one of the world’s ten most influential management thinkers and featured among Fortune’s 40 under 40.
Grant is the author of four New York Times bestselling books with a cumulative circulation of two million copies. They have been translated into 35 languages. Adam is also the host of WorkLife, a chart-topping TED original podcast. His TED talks on original thinkers, givers, and takers have gained more than 20 million views.
Think Again delves into the territory of cognitive errors, biases, prejudices, and mental blind spots. It explores our failure to change our ideas once we have established them. No matter the knowledge and experience individuals possess, they can’t avoid logical errors in their thinking process. These include unfounded opinions, external influences, assumptions, and other subjective perceptions. Our natural tendency to rely on these distracting cognitive resources leads us to poor decision-making, inflexibility, inability to hear others and be heard, and closed-minded attitudes as well.
Through Grant’s knowledge of psychology and unpacking of many examples, he proposes a new approach to improving one’s thinking. It’s an approach that relies on doubting what we know. Simultaneously, it nudges people into developing an interest in learning new things and seeing others’ perspectives. Grant calls this approach rethinking. Adopting this mindset empowers you and your team to improve. It also provides you with the opportunity to change other people’s minds without dividing them into binary groups. Get to know how rethinking works from our Think Again summary.
StoryShot #1: Conventional vs. Alternative View of Intelligence
Grant starts his book with a story that took place in 1949. A team of smokejumpers was combating a massive wildfire. Most team members kept their equipment as instructed, despite it slowing them down. Only one person disobeyed instructions. Thanks to his ability to react on the fly, he found a different solution. Eventually, it helped him to survive.
Using this story, Grant contrasts a conventional approach to the perception of intelligence with an alternative one. We are accustomed to deeming intelligence as a skill for thinking and getting to know about new things. However, the author suggests looking at it as an ability to rethink and forget what you’ve learned before. Cognitive flexibility is the art of ignoring our instincts, even though we tend to trust our gut feelings. Rethinking and questioning ourselves helps us stay relevant in a world that knows no stability.
Adam Grant rightly notes that even constitutions accept amendments, so why should we deny amendments in our thinking process? If a thought or an idea no longer serves us well, the best response is to let it go. That is what rethinking is about.
To get ready for rethinking, you should anchor yourself in flexibility rather than consistency. Humans tend to have strong convictions and are proud that they stick to them. Grant believes this works in a world that is static and reliable. The issue is that we live in an ever-changing environment. So to excel, we have to focus on rethinking rather than just thinking.
Grant also points out that rethinking is a skill set but can also be described as a mindset. People have a tendency to hold onto old views rather than accepting new ones. We succumb to the comfort of conviction over the anxiety of doubt. We listen to ideas that make us feel good instead of those that make us think hard. A rethinking mindset involves a willingness to accept the reality that facts can change and what was once true is no longer the case.
StoryShot # 2: The Roles We Play
Grant utilizes the mindset system offered by Phil Tedlock to describe our inclinations when we converse with others or have an internal dialog. Every time we think or talk, we tend to fall into the role of one of these characters: a preacher, prosecutor, or politician.
Preachers are only interested in pushing their own ideas. They impose their beliefs on others in an attempt to protect or popularize them.
Prosecutors are eager to win every argument. They will relentlessly lash out at anyone whose opinions don’t align with their own.
Politicians, in contrast, want to be people pleasers. They long for approval but don’t necessarily see the point in finding objective truth.
When you take on any of these roles, you deny the importance of finding the truth through engaging with others. What you are really interested in is attacking dissenting views, defending your opinion, making peace, or simply winning an argument.
Grant suggests one more role that may help us to realize our cognitive potential. Scientists live to comprehend the limits of their knowledge, and we can learn from them to improve our thinking process. Being a scientist means conducting experiments, testing hypotheses, abandoning old beliefs, and embracing new truths. Grant insists that having a change of heart isn’t a weakness. On the contrary, it validates your intellectual development.
StoryShot #3: The Right and Wrong Type of Confidence
It is impossible to avoid blind spots, or cognitive bias in our own beliefs or knowledge, even while recognizing them in others. These blind spots may affect our ability to rethink and give us overconfidence in our judgment. However, it is possible to develop confidence that allows us to see flaws in our thinking process. This right type of confidence lets us keep our beliefs up-to-date. Along with that, it helps us to acknowledge our blind spots and adjust our mindset appropriately.
Neither overconfidence nor the lack of confidence is good. Overconfidence is a trait typical of people with the Armchair Quarterback Syndrome. They believe that they know more than they actually do. Its opposite is the Imposter Syndrome, found in people who, despite having the competence and skills to succeed, doubt themselves anyway. They feel they are taking somebody else’s place, and this inhibits their success.
Grant also gives the example of a survey that asked respondents to rate their knowledge in comparison to other people. They were also prompted to take a test that assessed their real level of knowledge. The survey showed that people who considered their knowledge better than that of others significantly overestimated themselves. The result of their overconfidence is a failure to learn new things and modify their views. In the end, that leads to ignorance and arrogance.
The author insists that overconfidence doesn’t let us see our flaws. He suggests that we teach ourselves to be modest, but in a self-assured way. Not only does confident modesty allow us to recognize our flaws, but it enables us to work at overcoming them.
StoryShot #4: The Blessing of Being Wrong
People hate being wrong. When someone indicates errors in our beliefs or ways of thinking, many of us will react in anger. We can easily see when someone else is wrong, but we don’t want to admit that we are not always right. We fearlessly defend what we believe in. Psychology calls our unwillingness to change our views “totalitarian ego.”
Over time, we develop such a strong attachment to our beliefs that we don’t want to let them go. Grant distinguishes between two types of harmful attachments. The first one describes our affection for the past. We should learn to detach our present selves from the older versions. If we do so, we can avoid depression. We will be able to clearly see the direction we are moving in, and this will bring us more joy.
Along with this renewal in time, we should separate our identity from our beliefs. Otherwise, when we experience a major change in our worldview, our identity is going to shatter simply because we find out we were wrong. Grant suggests that we develop a system of values instead. This will allow us to change our beliefs while staying true to our values. In this case, being wrong won’t cause an identity crisis.
StoryShot #5: The Art of Conflicting
Since we can’t avoid conflicts, we need to learn how to manage them. Adam Grants explains two types of conflicts:
- Task conflicts. They occur when members of a specific team decide who should tackle a problem, what should be done and how, etc. This type of conflict is constructive because it prompts the seeking of creative solutions.
- Relationship conflicts. These occur between people. Often these conflicts are detrimental because they impact interpersonal relationships negatively. However, if the parties to an argument show respect for one another, they may end up with a higher degree of compassion and cooperation.
Our society tends to regard pliability, or a tendency to avoid conflicts, as a positive trait. The author disagrees with this perception. He believes that people who are not afraid to show disagreement with our opinions actually push us forward. They help us evaluate our abilities and find ways of improvement.
StoryShot #6: Collaborative Approach in Interpersonal Rethinking
Grant starts this section by offering the example of an international debate champion, Harish Natarajan. In a debate, he argued the unpopular view that the government should not subsidize preschools. In the beginning, almost all of the crowd had their minds already made up that preschools should be subsidized. That said, Natarajan managed to convince the audience by using these simple techniques:
- Common understanding
- Non-judgmental questions
- Flexible thinking
Grant describes this effective strategy as the Collaborative approach. It utilizes humility and curiosity to lead the audience to think like scientists. Still, people often adopt the Adversarial approach in debates, which relies on the preacher and prosecutor modes of communication.
To help others rethink their beliefs, Grant recommends avoiding overwhelming rational arguments like a Logic Bully would use. Even if you are correct, the other party will be left feeling bitter. A more effective approach is finding common ground and expressing curiosity by asking questions. These questions let the other person draw their own conclusions, and this is more powerful than crushing them with logic or reason.
StoryShot #7: Rivals and Allies
Rivalries are an indispensable part of our lives. They exist in sports, business, interpersonal relationships, and so on. The major problem with rivalries is that we distance ourselves from the people we compete against. Emotions underlie rivalries. If we add them to the equation, we can clearly see that they keep us from finding common ground with the opposing camp.
It is natural for people to seek affiliation with some team or side in a rivalry. However, once we become a member of this team, we expose ourselves to polarization. In other words, we establish connections exclusively with other people in this group rather than with outsiders. In the process of bonding with teammates, our opinions get entrenched even deeper. When rivals attempt to challenge our views, we respond with hostility.
Think Again offers three exercises to help us rethink our rivalries:
- Find a common identity with your opponents.
- Spread empathy toward the entire group after applying it to a single member.
- Understand that our stereotypes are arbitrary.
StoryShot #8: Motivational Talking
Grant provides a specific example of how questions alone can be highly effective. In his example, a Quebecian woman has given birth to a premature child. The mother is against vaccination, but her child would benefit hugely from a measles vaccine. To change her mind, a “vaccine whisperer” was enlisted. This person used motivational interviewing to help reassure the mother and help her rethink her stance.
The three pillars of motivational interviewing are:
1. open-ended questions
2. reflective listening, and
3. encouragement to change.
An interviewer doesn’t try to persuade or advise. Instead, they act as a guide to help lead an interviewee to a beneficial conclusion or decision. The main trait of motivational interviewers is that they don’t leave a know-it-all impression. Rather, they induce their interlocutors to feel smart.
StoryShot #9: Binary Issues
The final third of Think Again focuses on helping groups embrace the rethinking approach. Grant starts this section with another example, this time from Columbia University’s Difficult Conversations Lab. They found that when talking to a group, representing matters as black and white (i.e. binary) ended in polarization. However, when an issue was unpacked in all its complexity, it generated many viewpoints. As a result, the group was able to debate fruitfully and find better cooperation.
Grant builds on this point and states that preaching a point with passion is not an effective way of persuading others. Being able to recognize the complexity of an issue instead will make you far more credible. For example, when talking to conservatives, you shouldn’t be pushing for caps on vehicle emissions to tackle climate change. Instead, frame the idea around the economic benefits of green-tech innovation. This approach better accounts for the complexity of the issue. Simultaneously, it lets you engage your audience.
StoryShot #10: Ever-Changing Knowledge
Knowledge isn’t frozen in time. Things we deemed correct 20 years ago now may seem outdated. When we acquire knowledge, we either trust what we learn or retain a skeptical attitude. Skeptics focus on things that are left out instead of things that are in focus. This approach helps keep their minds open and promotes rethinking.
Many tend to equate skeptics and deniers. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Skeptics don’t trust the new information they learn. They will take their time to establish the credibility of these newly-learned ‘facts’ before they can believe them. Deniers, on the other hand, reject anything they learn from external sources. They believe that only their opinions are true. They normally assume the role of a prosecutor, preacher, or politician, whereas a skeptic is a prime example of a scientist.
Think Again also takes a closer look at the role of a teacher in learning. A good teacher gives us food for thought. A great teacher helps us find new ways of thinking. The instruments we can use in evolving our thinking process are: fact-checking, rejection of popularity as a proxy for credibility, and differentiation between a source of information and its sender.
StoryShot #11: Collective Rethinking in Corporate Culture
Collective rethinking is also about changing organizational cultures. A culture of collective rethinking encourages psychological safety, for instance, the ability of team members to take risks without fear of punishment. In these types of teams, employees are more willing to report problems. The team can change its mind collectively based on the information obtained from its mistakes.
An organization that respects collective rethinking checks the following boxes:
- It avoids ‘best practice’ as this assumes the team has arrived at an optimal solution. This type of belief will prevent effective rethinking.
- There’s no obsession with results. Such an obsession might help in the short run but will impact long-term success. Organizations should remember that good outcomes are not always the result of good decisions.
- Every team member is willing to ask themselves and others, “How do you know?”
Organizations that successfully embrace learning culture welcome experiments. For them, rethinking becomes an integral part of their activities. Eventually, it becomes routine.
StoryShot #12: Avoid Keeping Your Eye on the Ball
It’s human nature to make plans. We have visions of where we want to live, what person we want to marry, or how large we want our family to be. With all of this in mind, we tend to set boundaries. In the best-case scenario, they help us achieve our goals. More often, however, they give us tunnel vision and prevent us from seeing better possibilities.
What’s even worse, if our plan doesn’t go the way we envision, we usually start spending more time and resources to fix things. Alternatively we could ask ourselves a simple question: “Was this a good plan?” To question your plan instead of executing it at any cost is the essence of rethinking. Determination to success is great, but it has the opposite result if it leads to mental rigidity.
Final Summary and Review of Think Again
Think Again is an exploration of the importance of adopting a rethinking mindset rather than a thinking skill set. Grant argues that our tendency to cling to our beliefs is ineffective. The world is always changing, and if we are not willing to change with it, we will fall behind. So the best way to adapt to an ever-changing environment is to embrace rethinking. Moreover, we can encourage others, including the members of our team, to implement this approach.
We rate this insightful book 4.3/5.
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