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

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

by Adam Grant

This book is an invitation to let go of beliefs, opinions, and best-laid plans that are no longer serving us. Instead, we will anchor our sense of self in flexibility. 

If we master the art of rethinking, we’ll be better positioned for success at work and for happiness in life. Thinking again helps us generate new solutions to old problems, handle difficult conversations, learn more from the people around us, and live with fewer regrets. 

Summary Notes

The Habit of Rethinking Opinions

“We listen to views that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.”

We cling to what we know, because questioning ourselves requires us to admit that facts may have changed. What was once right may now be wrong. 

Research shows that as we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. We tend to go into: 

  • Preacher mode when our beliefs are questioned: delivering sermons to promote our ideals. 
  • Prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: arguing to prove them wrong. 
  • Politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience. 

When we enter any of these three modes, we can get a little too wrapped up in trying to convince others that we are right. We may miss or dismiss any new information and evidence others try to share with us.

However, the mindset of a scientist can free us from this. After all, scientists often question themselves, are generally curious about new things, and regularly update their opinions based on new data. 

When you’re in scientist mode, you’ll search for the truth and test out different ideas. You can then use what you’ve learned to rethink your views, and come up with better, more accurate ones.

Actions to take

Put Values Above Beliefs and Opinions

His values put truth above tribe: “If the evidence strongly suggests that my tribe is wrong on a particular issue, then so be it. I consider all of my opinions tentative. When the facts change, I change my opinions.”

Most of us are accustomed to defining ourselves in terms of our beliefs, ideas, and ideologies. However, sometimes, our opinions can become so sacred to us that even when we are given evidence that proves otherwise, our ego drives us towards either ignoring or misinterpreting it.

There are two concepts in behavioral psychology that explain this, the first is confirmation bias - meaning that we see what we expect to see. The second concept is desirability bias - meaning we see what we want to see. Of course, all of this happens rather unconsciously, and it’s difficult to realize when you are falling prey to either of these biases. 

Who you are should be a question of what you value, and not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—examples include excellence, generosity, fairness, and integrity. Basing your identity on values enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. 

Consider the BlackBerry. Co-founder, president, and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis had a strong belief in his product. When the iPhone first came to market, he was stunned by its computing power. However, his belief in the BlackBerry and its features (such as a keyboard) kept him from updating it with a browser, touchscreen, and other such features that the iPhone had.

The iPhone went on to become one of the most popular phones worldwide, and the BlackBerry’s market share plummeted. If Mike had instead focused on a value, such as improving people’s lives with technology, he might have been able to make the right adaptations for his product to thrive too. 

Let’s put it this way. You want a doctor whose identity is “protecting health”, not, “professional lobotomist”. You want the teacher whose identity is “helping students learn”, not, “corporal punisher”. These practices (lobotomies and corporal punishment) were extremely popular just 50 years ago - and they illustrate the importance of having a value system that allows for updates based on new information. 

When you define yourself by the values you want to uphold, you give yourself the flexibility to update your beliefs and practices in light of new evidence. Basically, you allow yourself to grow and develop in the direction you choose. 

Actions to take

What To Do When Confidence Exceeds Competence

“The curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we don’t know.”

In theory, confidence and competence go hand in hand. In practice, they often diverge. When we move from novice to amateur, we lose our humility and take pride in making progress, which promotes a false sense of mastery. This puts us in danger of our confidence exceeding our competence. 

We rarely become experts in anything, but we often have sufficient information to feel self-assured. More often than not, we want to enlighten others with our knowledge. 

However, our pride and overconfidence can breed complacency, which closes our minds to new information and causes us to remain ignorant of our ignorance. 

So, the process of rethinking starts with intellectual humility. We need to delve deep into knowing what we don’t know and be open to what we discover. Research suggests that identifying even a single reason as to why we might be wrong can be enough to curb overconfidence.

When we question our current understanding of something, our curiosity is stimulated. As we look into the various aspects we didn’t previously consider, we’re likely to have new discoveries. 

This method can also help us resist becoming complacent, as it consistently reinforces how much we have left to learn. 

Actions to take

The Benefits of Doubt and Impostor Syndrome

“What we want to attain is confident humility: having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem.”

Feeling like an impostor, i.e., having crippling doubt or a chronic sense of being unworthy,  can breed misery, crush motivation, and hold us back from pursuing our ambitions. When you have ‘impostor syndrome’, competence exceeds confidence. Even successful individuals wrestle with insecurity and question their abilities. 

Fortunately, there are benefits to feeling like an impostor. It can motivate us to work harder to prove that we can do it. Confidence can make us complacent, but the imposter syndrome protects us from it. 

Impostor thoughts can motivate us to question things and encourage us to seek out insights from others, so we work smarter. Doubt won’t be debilitating if you have confidence that you can overcome challenges. 

Successful people are both confident and humble, they have faith in their strengths, but they’re also aware of their weaknesses and sure about their capacity to learn.

Actions to take

The Joy of Being Wrong

“When you’re wrong, it’s not something to be depressed about. Say, ‘Hey, I discovered something!”

Although we tend to view our failures with negative emotions such as guilt or shame, it’s all about perspective. We can choose to see being wrong as a sign that we’ve learned something new.

This change in mindset can help us to be more graceful and accepting in moments when we discover that our beliefs might not be true.  If we’re comfortable being wrong, we’re not afraid to laugh at ourselves. Instead of beating ourselves up about our mistakes, we can turn some of our past misconceptions into sources of amusement.

Being wrong won’t always be joyful - it can be a major lesson in intellectual humility - but it doesn’t need to be devastating either. We handle tough moments better when we remember they’re essential for progress. 

Take it from Jeff Bezos, the man who said, “People who are right a lot listen a lot, and change their mind a lot. If you don’t change your mind frequently, you’re going to be wrong a lot.”

Actions to take

Challenge Networks and Constructive Conflict

“Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics and make themselves weaker."

If we are committed to the pursuit of truth, to changing our minds when better evidence emerges, then the challenges to our views are exciting opportunities to develop and evolve. 

Rethinking can be greatly facilitated by a challenge network - a group of people we trust to point out our blind spots and help us overcome our weaknesses. The ideal members of a challenge network are those who are intent on elevating our work, fearless about questioning things, and able to give us the critical feedback we need to hear. 

We learn more from people who challenge us than those who simply affirm what we already know.

Productive disagreement refers to respectfully and constructively arguing. It is a critical life skill, however, many of us are lacking in it. One way to practice this skill is to frame disputes as “debates” instead of disagreements. 

In a debate, you have to consider dissenting opinions. Adopting this approach then motivates the other person to share more information with you. A spirited debate can be productive and enjoyable if the tension is intellectual, not emotional, and the tone vigorous rather than aggressive.

Actions to take

Opening Other People’s Minds by Listening and Questioning

“Listening well is more than a matter of talking less.”

When we’re trying to persuade people to change or rethink their opinions, we frequently take an adversarial approach. We bombard them with facts and lectures, we override or dismiss their point of view. Instead of opening their minds, we effectively shut them down or rile them up. 

There is a more effective collaborative approach to opening other people’s minds. It begins by listening.

Listening well is a powerful expression of respect and care. It starts by showing more interest in other people and resisting the desire to ‘fix’ their problems. It progresses with skillful questioning and responding. 

Great listeners help people approach their own views with more humility and curiosity. When interacting with nonjudgmental, attentive listeners, people are naturally less anxious and defensive. They feel encouraged to explore their opinions more deeply. 

When people have a chance to truly express themselves out loud, they often discover new thoughts and can reflect on the origins of outdated opinions.

Actions to take

Debating With Humility and Curiosity

“Defend-attack spirals whereby each party dismissively shoot down opponents’ proposals and double down on their position, prevent both sides from opening their minds.”

When arguing, the harder we attack, the more forcefully our opponents fight back and dig in their heels. The most effective way to argue is to begin by acknowledging where we agree with our critics and what we’ve learned from them. 

If we show we are open to learning and to changing our minds, our conversation partners may be receptive to revising their views.

Most people think of arguments as being like a pair of scales, as if piling more reasons on our side will tip the balance in our favor. Yet, successful debaters present only a few strong reasons to support their case. 

Making too many points means you have to explain each and every one of them. Remember, a single weak argument can dilute a strong point. 

Emotional variety provides potential for mutual understanding and progress. As the conversation progresses, people might get angry, the next curious, then anxious, and finally excited about a new perspective. 

When things get heated, having a conversation about the conversation diffuses intense emotions. It shifts attention away from the substance of the disagreement and toward the process. So, if the other person expresses hostility, you should show curiosity, comment on your feelings about the process, and test your understanding of their feelings about it.

Actions to take

Encouraging Collective Rethinking by Introducing Complexity

“When we are challenged to explain our prejudices, we realize how little we truly know about other groups and how shallow stereotypes are." 

It’s a basic human tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying a complex continuum into two categories - psychologists call this the binary bias. An antidote to this tendency is complexifying, ie., showcasing the entire range of perspectives on a given topic. 

Research shows that expecting people to adhere to a black and white way of thinking pushes people to rethink their stance less. Where complicated issues are concerned, if people are given binary accounts of an issue (say gun control, abortion, or climate control), they will defend their own perspective more often. 

However, if shown a more complex version of this issue, people identify common ground, feel more humility about their knowledge, doubt their opinions and  are more likely to reach agreement.

We can convey complexity by including caveats (limitations of our knowledge) and highlighting contingencies (unanswered questions about other places and populations where our results may change). Admitting we don’t know everything and having a more sincere, open conversation can help others understand our perspective better.

Acknowledging the complexity inherent in real life makes speakers and writers more credible. It maintains viewers and readers engagement while stoking their curiosity.

Actions to take

Teach Kids to Think Again

“I believe that good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking.”

Whether as a parent, mentor, or friend, there are ways to make rethinking central to how we teach. If we simply lecture or explain, our students become passive receivers of information. Active-learning methods such as problem solving and negotiations require engagement and lead to deeper understanding and more skills. Investigating information teaches kids to fact-check instead of simply accepting sources as credible.

Quality involves reworking and polishing. Students who are taught to give and receive feedback and to argue productively, are able to revise their thinking based on input from others. This results in children who are dedicated to questioning themselves and one another, and who are comfortable considering different views.  

Before you ask kids ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ consider this. Early on, kids can fall victim to ‘identity foreclosure’—committing to a sense of self without due diligence and closing their minds to alternatives. Time and circumstances change what we want. Kids could learn about careers as actions to take rather than as identities to claim. When they see work as what they do rather than who they are, they become more open to exploring different possibilities.

Actions to take

Create a Learning Culture in Your Organisation

“It takes confident humility to admit that we’re a work in progress.”

In organizations with a learning culture, people are aware of shortfalls in their knowledge and are open to new ideas and practices. These organizations innovate more and make fewer mistakes. Learning cultures thrive under a particular combination of psychological safety and accountability.

Psychological safety is gained by fostering a climate of respect, trust, and openness. In a psychologically safe workplace, teams perform better and have higher wellbeing. People can raise concerns and make suggestions without fear of reprisal, they freely admit mistakes and learn from them. 

Alternately, in psychologically unsafe teams, people hide mishaps to avoid penalties, making it difficult to diagnose the causes and prevent future problems. 

In businesses, focusing on results might be good for short-term performance, but it can be an obstacle to long-term learning. Instead of focusing only on who is accountable for the outcomes, we need to expand and consider who is accountable for the process. This creates a learning environment where people are constantly striving to improve. 

We create process accountability by evaluating how carefully different options are considered as people make decisions. A good process explores various possibilities, enabling people to express independent opinions. In a bad decision process, assumptions are not questioned and limited input is sought or considered.

Actions to take

Reconsider Best-Laid Plans and Open to New Possibilities

“Evidence shows that entrepreneurs persist with failing strategies when they should pivot, NBA general managers and coaches keep investing in new contracts and more playing time for draft busts, and politicians continue sending soldiers to wars that didn’t need to be fought in the first place.”

We may have pursued our career because we were eager to earn the approval of parents and peers or were seduced by income or status. A good practice is to schedule bi-annual checkups of our careers, plans and lifestyle. 

Answering questions about past and current aspirations, interests, and life satisfaction helps us discover doubts and new possibilities.

There are multiple paths to the same career and the same starting point can be a path to many different careers. As we get older, we become more focused on searching for meaning—and we’re most likely to find it in actions that benefit others. 

In both work and life, we feel we have more to give (and less to lose), and we’re especially keen to share our knowledge and skills with the next generation. The best we can do is plan for what we want to learn and contribute over the next year or two and stay open to what might come next.

Actions to take

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