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The power of learning to change your mind

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Adam Grant’s book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know wants us to embrace rethinking. That’s because it is ingrained in us to do the opposite.

‘Rethinking’ is often associated with indecisiveness. We avoid rethinking, because who would we be without that set of beliefs, opinions, attitudes and values we hold so dear? There are deep forces at work behind our resistance to rethinking – it isn’t just cognitive shortcutting.

“Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable,” writes Grant.

Is rethinking our most underutilised skill?

Think Again is packed with anecdotes and references to research and studies. For example, when exam students revisited initial answers they weren’t sure about, then changed them, the second answer was often the correct one. There is evidence that when we do query our first response, it is usually with good reason. 

The most compelling case study in the book tells of an elite firefighter who, just 100 yards from a blazing wildfire, did something that looked utterly counter-intuitive to his team. He stopped and lit matches, igniting the ground before lying down on it, while the fire raged around him. By setting alight anything combustible, there was nothing else for the fire to burn. This wasn’t taught to him in any training or manual. He was able to rethink quickly enough in that situation and it saved his life.

Rethinking behaviour, such as taking time to evaluate all options, ponder the situation, admit that we know far less than we think we know and acknowledging we often don’t know the answer, is underutilised as a skill. We rarely see examples of it in real life, such as from political and business leaders.

The book shows how a rethinking mindset would probably have prevented someone from losing their savings in one of Bernie Madoff’s investment scams, and how a lack of rethinking probably had a part to play in the ascendency of Apple’s iPhone at the expense of Blackberry’s early success.  

Grant discusses how skilled negotiators are better than average negotiators simply because they are more likely to establish common ground with those on the other side of the table and they also ask more questions, showing greater curiosity.

Values, not opinions

How do we become better at avoiding ingrained behaviour so that we gain some rethinking skills and the benefits these can bring?

A key approach is to adopt a scientific mindset. “When you start forming an opinion, resist the temptation to preach, prosecute or politick. Treat your emerging view as a hunch or hypothesis and test it with data,” Grant writes. The book refers to a social science experiment where entrepreneurs who learned to approach their business strategies as experiments maintained the ability to pivot, which yielded more successful results and outcomes.

Another tip is to define our identity in terms of values, not opinions, which frees us to appreciate curiosity, learning, mental flexibility and, when we do form opinions, to be open to factors that can change our mind.

Self-doubt should not be confused with a lack of confidence, and this book spends some time examining the concept of imposter syndrome, which many people feel, especially at work. Those who truly experience imposter syndrome tend to harness the benefits of doubt, reframing situations as opportunities for growth. Having a confidence in one’s capacity to learn, to ‘know what you don’t know’, is very different from simply being over-confident.

And that leads us onto avoiding confusing confidence with competence. There is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect that essentially shows that the better someone thinks they are, the greater the risk of overestimating their abilities, and the greater the odds that any trajectory of improvement will come to an end.  

Establish a challenge network

Another sound tip, especially applicable to project management, is about aiming to learn something new from each person you meet, because everyone knows more than you about something. Inviting others to question your thinking does not make you a weak leader.

Other tips are also applicable when putting teams together. They include “building a challenge network”, where thoughtful or constructive criticism is as welcome as the project’s “cheerleaders”.

A further tip is creating an environment for “task conflict”, which is about framing an issue as a debate or keeping the focus of disagreement on a problem, which is very different to personal conflict.

Is Think Again telling us anything new about the human condition and psyche? The Bible, stories from ancient mythology and famous works of fiction are full of stories of people who came a cropper due to hubristic tendencies or for their refusal to see the other side for fear of losing face. To always need to be right, to resist enhancing our understanding, to appear that we know more than we do, are perhaps some of humankind’s biggest flaws.

As well as examining why these traits can have negative, sometimes catastrophic, consequences, Think Again gives us the tools to unstick such a mindset and lubricate the cogs of inquisitiveness and cognitive un-bias. This makes it an invaluable book at whatever age or stage in your life or career you have reached, because it is never too late to rethink.  

So, to flout the message of this book: don’t overthink it, go and read it.  

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