I’m a big fan of Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast. I even blogged about one of his episodes last year.
Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know is his latest book and the first one I’ve read. It’s written in the same exuberant yet conversational style as his podcast.
For anyone who’s not familiar with him, Adam Grant is a professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School and the author of five books. He studies “how to make work not suck.”
By Adam Grant
Viking, New York, 2021
Think Again is about how to become a more flexible thinker.
Too often, Grant says, when we have strong opinions or beliefs we behave like preachers, prosecutors or politicians. In preacher mode, we try to convince others of the rightness, and sometime the righteousness, of our ideas. As prosecutors we gather up arguments to prove other people’s ideas are wrong. And as politicians we try to sell our ideas and win the approval of others.
The main idea in Think Again is that it’s better to think like a scientist. As scientists we constantly search for the truth. We form hypotheses based on the best information we have right now, but we recognize the limits of our knowledge. We embrace doubt, ask questions, refuse to blindly accept received wisdom. We know that new information might force us to revise our beliefs but we take satisfaction from knowing this makes us less wrong in future. Grant says this scientific mindset is not just applicable to people in lab coats peeing into microscopes. It can help us in our personal lives, our relationships, and our organizations.
Rethinking requires us to question our beliefs and opinions, something we’re not usually comfortable doing. To strike a balance between arrogant over-confidence, also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and debilitating self-doubt, Grant recommends we strive for “confident humility” which he defines as,
“… having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem.” [p. 47]
Most of us don’t like realizing we’re wrong, much less being proven wrong by someone else. Often that’s because we’ve wrapped up our identities in our beliefs. Grant says that if instead we tie our identities to our values, put “truth above tribe”, then being wrong won’t be so painful and we might even come to experienced it as a chance to learn and grow. He quotes Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman who says,
“Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.” [p. 62]
Think Again is also about how we can lead others in our personal and work lives to think again. Grant has some suggestions, particularly fitting in these divided and contentious times. For example, he says challenging people’s prejudices and stereotypes directly doesn’t usually work and might even be counterproductive. But if we can lead people to see the arbitrariness of their beliefs then perhaps they will be more open to rethinking them. It’s not a panacea but,
“I do think it’s a step, though, toward something more fundamental than merely rethinking our stereotypes. We might question the underlying belief that it makes sense to hold opinions about groups at all.” [p. 139]
Think Again has some useful ideas for how to develop learning cultures within organizations. For one thing, focusing more on process accountability – how we do things and how we make decisions – in addition to the more typical outcome accountability.
Finally, Grant suggests ways to periodically rethink our lives to ensure we’re not committing to goals such as a career path due to family pressure or social expectations, but that instead we’re pursuing lifelong fulfillment.
There’s an essential humility running through Think Again that I really like. It includes recognizing that our own dearly held beliefs and opinions could be wrong. It implies that, like scientists, we should be open to new ideas, that we should continually learn and grow. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens (review), it’s only when we admit our ignorance that we make progress.
But Grant goes way beyond that to warn against preaching, prosecuting, and politicking. I loved his idea that debating with others isn’t a war but a dance. You have to bring the other person or the other groups along with you, sometimes just a few steps at a time. That means trying to find some sort of connection, some sort of rhythm with them. Hotly debated issues are rarely binary. Most things lie in the messy middle. To have productive conversations we need to seek out complexity and nuance. I like how Grant echoes the late Hans Rosling whose book Factfulness (review) advises us to “mind the gap” between extremes because the majority, and the truth, usually occupy the ground between them.
There are a couple of area where I thought the book fell short.
There’s an inherent tension between humility and perseverance. Entrepreneurs and so-called “great” leaders are often celebrated for their determination and grit. But sometimes they can lead their companies or nations into disaster. How do we know when to stick to our ideas and press on versus recognizing that a change is needed? What are some useful signals to help us make a decision like that? I think Grant’s notions of confident humility and process accountability are helpful, but they don’t fully resolve this paradox.
I think the book’s biggest omission is that Grant does not address the extraordinary burdens that women and people of color face when trying to get their ideas accepted, especially within organizations. For example, this Harvard Business Review article suggests that “imposter syndrome” experienced by many women is often the result of sexism, racism and microaggression in the workplace. Think Again doesn’t provide any suggestions or advice to help remedy this problem. It’s a gap that I hope he’ll address in future.
Still in a time of poisonous division and hardened opinions, Think Again is packed with research, case studies, interviews plus some amusing graphs and flowcharts that make it an interesting, worthwhile and even entertaining antidote.
Thanks for reading.
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