The man born as Samuel Clemens but better known as Mark Twain has a famous quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Our certainty that we know how things work and what the right answers are gets us into far more trouble than the things that we don’t believe we know. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know seeks to encourage us to remain curious about the things that we do know and to learn how to relearn when things change. We all know the rate of change is increasing, and the ability to reconsider our truths is critical to our continued ability to survive and thrive.
Surviving a Fire
It was 1949 when a lightning-ignited fire was spotted in a remote part of Montana known as Mann Gulch. It was the policy at the time to extinguish any fire no matter whether it was a threat to human life and commercial property or not. Fifteen smokejumpers loaded into a single plane and were delivered to the fire. Smokejumpers are an elite group of purportedly fearless individuals considered firefighters at their core.
When the fire blew up and began chasing the smokejumpers, it may have been their identification with their profession that got thirteen of them killed. They ran up the slope to escape the fire with their heavy packs of tools. They might have looked at their retreat from the fire as a temporary setback instead of as a loss. They had never lost to fire, and it seems unlikely that they were willing to let that day be the day. They clung onto their tools in the belief that once they got to the top of the ridge, they could again take the offensive against the fire.
The leader of this group, Wagner Dodge, couldn’t give up his identity either but was willing to look at the problem differently. He knew he was being pursued by a big, out-of-control fire that he couldn’t compete with. However, he reasoned that he could create a small fire, burn out the fuel the larger fire needed in an area, and then survive by staying in that area as the larger fire passed him. He was right – and he was lucky. All save two other fearless heroes lost their lives in the fire.
The Meaning of Heat
In the mid-eighteenth century, every scientist seemed to subscribe to a theory of heat called the caloric theory. It suggested that it was an invisible fluid called caloric that was present in all matter. The amount of heat in an object was the result of this caloric fluid. The problems of the theory were many, from a lack of mass change when an object heated or cooled and the inconsistent heating of different kinds of matter to the lack of explanation for the heat generated by friction.
By the mid-nineteenth century, James Joule was able to validate the kinetic theory of heat proposed by Benjamin Thompson in the late eighteenth century. We now believe that heat is the result of atomic vibration – kinetic energy. The idea that heat was an invisible substance would seem laughable.
Around the World
Understanding the objects of the night sky was a source of fascination for centuries. We found patterns in the arrangement of the stars that surround us. We created constellations and elaborate stories of how the formation of stars came to be. As we sought to understand the motion of the heavenly bodies, there were two competing views from about 300 BC. One was geocentrism – that the Earth was the center of everything. With much less recognition was the idea that the Earth – and all the planets – circled the Sun. In Europe, it was a fact that the Sun and planets orbited Earth.
That was until 1514 when Copernicus published mathematical formulas of the movement of the planets. Only then did people seriously consider that the Earth might revolve around the Sun. Most dismissed Copernicus as a self-promotor or a crackpot until, in 1610, Galileo Galilei discovered moons around Jupiter, and he realized that Copernicus was right.
By 1616, there was an inquisition, and the Pope banned all materials related to the heliocentric model. By 1633, Galileo would be sentenced to prison for his refusal to adhere to the papal decrees regarding heliocentrism. His sentence was commuted to house arrest where he spent the rest of his days. It wouldn’t be until 1758 that the papal decree would be lifted, and we could officially recognize the order of the solar system as we understand it today.
In the world of computer databases, the language is still that transactions are atomic. That means they’re either completed together or not. It’s an important aspect of how to keep data integrity, but it exposes another place where our thinking has changed. Atomic used to mean indivisible. It wasn’t possible to break the atom down. It was as small as we could go. We know now that this is not true, as we’ve learned about quarks and even smaller particles called bosons that make up the Higgs field. Haven’t heard of them? You’re not alone. Nerds have heard about these experimental edges of science where it’s believed all objects get their mass, and thus their attraction to other matter, from.
What we seem to find is that the world is much more complex than we’d like to believe. Every time we believe we’ve got something nailed, we learn about a whole new world that had not yet been uncovered. Every time we uncover something new, we have to reevaluate all we know – and that can be very scary.
These examples represent fundamental shifts in thinking – and may explain why they take so long to eventually become accepted. There are a variety of cognitive biases (see Thinking, Fast and Slow, Superforecasting, and Sources of Power) and ego defense mechanisms (see Change or Die) that attempt to keep our current perspectives intact even in the face of irrefutable evidence that they’re wrong. The slow, defensive posture for protecting what we’ve worked so hard to learn is a reasonable thing in a world that changes very little. However, our world is far from unchanging.
In 1950, it took about 50 years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every 7 years. By 2010, it was doubling in half that time. What 70 years ago would take 50 years to double takes less than 10% of that today. Consider that it was 68 years for aircraft to get to 50 million users. It took Pokémon Go 19 days. In other words, we’re living in a world of change that is unlike anything in history. (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible for more.)
Superforecasting explains that if we want to be good at forecasting, we must be willing to consider multiple perspectives. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied eminent scientists, he concluded that it was their cognitive flexibility that separated them from their peers. (Csikszentmihalyi is more well known for his work on Flow.) They had bucked the trend of becoming locked into a single perspective and instead embraced multiple views as the situation required. Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself” section 51, explains, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He, like the eminent scientists that Csikszentmihalyi studied, wasn’t afraid of contradicting himself.
This willingness to be cognitively flexible may combat one of the most challenging aspects of knowledge. The more we know, the more resolute we become about what we know. Instead of discovering what we don’t know, we turn inward to protect what we do know. In so doing, our convictions lock us in prisons of our own making.
Confidence and Humility
The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name given to why those that know the least about a topic are the most willing to believe in the importance of their knowledge and their command of the topic. Grant draws a graph with “Mount Stupid” – the place where we’re most likely to be subjected to the Dunning-Kruger effect and therefore comment upon our intelligence while exposing our ignorance. At some point, we discover we don’t know as much as we think we did on a topic, and we suddenly fall silent, aghast at what we don’t know.
What we’ve come to learn is that our confidence isn’t solely a measure of the validity of our words. While great leaders can be both humble and confident, it’s a difficult place to reach. It’s too easy to believe that humility is about thinking less of yourself, but my friend Ben says it’s not about thinking less of yourself but rather thinking about yourself less. Humilitas says that humility is “power held in service of others.” I like that, because it makes it difficult to believe that we could possibly confuse self-deprecation and humility. Jim Collins in Good to Great describes this as the Stockdale Paradox. It’s unwavering faith and relentless reexamination.
The Joy of Being Wrong
It’s always a tense moment. It’s the moment when, sitting in the audience, you know the presenter missed something. It can be that they missed something small or something important. It’s tense, because every fiber of your being is at war with itself. You wonder whether you should tell them – privately, quietly, respectfully – or whether you should ignore it. If you ignore it, you deprive them of the opportunity to learn and to be better. You also protect yourself from learning that perhaps you’re not right.
The problem is some people take great offense at even the slightest hint that they may have made an error, a mistake, or an omission. Their response can be direct and abrupt. At least this response allows you to learn what they really believe. Their response can be silent or sullen. It’s rare to encounter someone who says that they appreciate the feedback or that they need to further consider the point – and it’s a mark of excellence.
Grant shares a story about Daniel Kahneman being in the audience while he presented data that contradicted Kahneman’s beliefs and the resulting exchange afterwards. Danny was thrilled. He, wisely, recognized that being wrong is necessary, and it’s when people point out that he is wrong that he has the greatest opportunity to learn. Danny says, “My attachment to my ideas is provisional.” He embodies the perspective we all need to take to survive in our changing world to look for ways to change our opinion and work with the best and most recent facts we have.
The Need for Conflict
We want to believe that it’s possible to consistently get it right on the first attempt. We hear success stories where people seem to have stumbled across the right idea immediately. Brene Brown would say that we’ve gold-plated grit. (See Rising Strong.) We somehow missed the missteps, struggles, and challenges that made the path more winding, dangerous, and uncertain as the retrospective might seem to imply.
In our quest to remove the pain from others’ lives, we often forget that conflict and struggle are essential for everyone’s growth. Baby sea turtles must struggle to find their way to the ocean to calibrate their internal sense of direction. Chicks must break from their shell on their own to understand how to struggle and succeed. That’s why The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable is so tragic. While thinking they’re doing what is best for their children, parents are harming them.
An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (The Titleless Leader is the source of this reference.) When we’re working with others, there is bound to be conflict. They’ll see things differently or have different values. However, these differences in perspective allow us to become better – to rethink our perspectives – and to develop clarity.
The key challenge with conflict is not the conflict itself. It’s when the conflict is not managed well. Poorly managed conflict leads to hurt feelings and broken relationships. Having had these experiences, many of us fear the poor outcomes from conflict. When we learn to manage conflicts well – and we interact with others who manage conflict well – we can find conflict rewarding rather than debilitating.
A Weak Argument Dilutes a Strong One
When trying to win over another to a new way of thinking, we often load both barrels of our gun and give them everything. The problem with this approach is that it generates resistance. (See Motivational Interviewing for a better approach.) However, it also means that we’re loading up every argument regardless of its strength. The problem with this is that the overall strength of the argument is weakened by weaker points.
Instead of arguments adding to one another, they average each other. Because of this, focusing only on the strongest of the arguments for change gives you a better chance of success.
Persuading the Unpersuadable
Humans have a natural aversion to being persuaded. The moment I detect that you’re trying to persuade me, I’ll start the process of digging in my heals. That’s another reason why multiple arguments may be challenging. It triggers awareness of an attempt at persuasion and thus a reluctance to proceed.
Once this switch, has been tripped it may be that the person becomes unpersuadable. It can be that people are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they won’t change their mind no matter what evidence is provided. An important question to ask is “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer to this is nothing, then there is no point in continuing.
The Greatest Hostility
One of the paradoxical things that happens in any sort of persuasion resistance is that we most violently defend those things which we know deep down aren’t true. We’ve got a natural tendency to defend our positions, but the ones that make us angry are those that we know are the most true. This creates a challenge.
Those people who are defending their beliefs the most vigorously are the same ones who deep-down know the truth. Somewhere along the line, they may have had someone try to convince them that they were wrong, but those people failed – and now the belief became stronger.
So, the internal conflict exists between a deep-seated knowledge that they are wrong and the need to protect themselves from further attempts at persuasion. This is one of the reasons why getting change initiative success is so hard once the organization has failed a few times.
As humans, we’re prediction machines, and we want certainty. We want to know that our predictions will come to pass. We don’t like the possibility of error or the chance of catastrophe. There’s always an internal pull that drags us from the understanding that the world is probabilistic rather than certain. (See The Halo Effect.) We know instinctively that nothing in life is certain – except “death and taxes,” as the saying goes. Despite this, we delude ourselves into believing that there are certainties. The certainties make us feel better about our world and reduce our fears. (See Change or Die for more on this phenomenon.)
It’s one of the reasons why when people appear to exude confidence, we’ll follow them more readily. We’d rather listen to “the sage on the stage” than someone who is aware of the limitations of their knowledge. We don’t often reward curiosity. We look at it as a reason to not be certain – and we don’t want that.
When to Commit and When to Think Again
The greatest challenges in life is the Stockdale Paradox. It’s learning when to commit to a course of action and learning when it’s time to Think Again.