Why Rethinking Is A Superpower

When was the last time you seriously rethought something? Not what to wear to your friend’s dinner party or how to arrange your vegetable drawer, but big things. Things like your religion, or lack of religion. Things like whether or not your career path lines up with your life goals. Things like whether your partner or close friends and family are supportive of your goals, or even if your own goals still line up with your current life. Things like your political preferences, opinions about same sex marriage, or if humans are seriously impacting climate change (we are).

Adam Grant is asking all of us to rethink the way we think. Grant has a Ph.D in organizational psychology, is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of 5 books, and has over 25 million views of his TED Talks. His newest book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know was an instant bestseller. Grant is the top rated professor at Wharton College of the University of Pennsylvania, which was ranked the #2 business school by U.S. News. Just go read the rest of his bio if you need more reasons to listen to what he has to say. My first exposure to Grant was his TED Talk What frogs in hot water can teach us about thinking again, which has 124,084 views on Youtube and 1,289,936 views on ted.com at the time I am writing this. I can truly say this TED talk is life changing; as long as we are all willing to think deeply about how we think and make decisions.

I hope Adam Grant’s introduction gave you time to think about my original question. When was the last time you seriously rethought something big in your life? Grant says “Just like you go to the doctor for an annual checkup when nothing seems to be wrong, you can do the same things in the important parts of your life. A career checkup to consider how your goals are shifting. A relationship checkup to re-examine your habits. An identity checkup to consider how your values are evolving.” There seems to be a conviction in America that leads us to believe that a strong drive, grit, and sticking to our beliefs are more important than shifting ideas. “We live in a culture that worships at the altar of hustle and prays to the high priest of grit,” says Grant. Politicians, businessmen, and celebrities are smeared by the media as flip-floppers if they change their minds. To move forward as a society, we need not only to think big, but rethink big. “There is a fine line between heroic persistence and stubborn stupidity. Sometimes the best kind of grit is gritting your teeth and packing your bags,” says Grant.

Rethinking isn’t that hard. Most of us do it all of the time. “We’re happy to refresh our wardrobes and renovate our kitchens. But when it comes to our goals, identities, and habits, we tend to stick to our guns. And in a rapidly changing world, that’s a huge problem,” says Grant. Do you think of yourself as open minded? Most of the people I know would likely describe themselves as open minded. But “practicing open-mindedness is easier said than done. Many of us seem to be stuck in hardened belief systems, making discourse around any subject feel arduous and stressful,” writes Clare Brennan for Detroit Today. What leads us to simultaneously view ourselves as both open minded while lacking the ability to seriously rethink important areas of our lives, societal structure, and deep-seated beliefs? Grant proposes some reasons that we fall into this trap and fail to reconsider our options.

Psychologists describe a behavior called escalation of commitment to a losing course of action. “It happens when you make an initial investment of time or money, and then you find out it might have been a bad choice. But instead of rethinking it, you double down and invest more. You want to prove to yourself and everyone else that you made a good decision,” says Grant. Certainly ego is a big part of this. Many of us are afraid to admit when we are wrong; whether for fear of looking stupid or having overconfidence that we are actually right. Or we believe that by sticking it out just a little bit longer we will succeed. And there is definitely something to that idea. Sometimes you do need to push just a little bit harder to get where you need to go. However, other times you need to pull back on the reins and check your map. But the important thing is just stopping to think. “Maybe your ‘answers’ will be the same. Maybe they will be different. Changing your approach isn’t as important as the willingness to consider whether you should change your approach,” writes Jeff Haden for inc.com. Haden says that when you are willing to consider your approach, “Then you’re more willing to analyze what works, dig deeper into what doesn’t work, and never stop looking for a better way — no matter how complex the task.” Adam Grant says “Rethinking does not have to change your mind, it just means taking time to reflect and staying open to reconsidering.”

Unlike escalation of commitment to a losing course of action, there are times where the path you are on is working. But just because there is nothing wrong doesn’t mean you shouldn’t rethink. “It’s called cognitive entrenchment, when you get stuck in the way you’ve always done things,” says Grant. In the lean manufacturing philosophy, we like to say that if we are doing something just because it’s the way we have always done it, that is probably a great reason to see if there is a better way.

In his book 1491, Charles Mann describes the impact of the Chinese invented moldboard plow on European agriculture in the seventeenth century. For hundreds of years, European farmers had been using an incredibly inferior plow that required teams of oxen to operate, due to the high amount of friction. The Chinese moldboard plow was designed differently, with “wings” curving down towards the ground. “Because the arms were curved, they turned the earth away from the blade, which both reduced friction and more effectively plowed the earth,” writes Mann. The Chinese plow could be used with a single ox and was much more effective. Mann writes that before the moldboard plow “Millions of Europeans spent centuries behind the (old) plow, staring at the blade as it ineffectively mired itself in the earth. How could none of them have thought of changing the design to make the plow more useful?” After the arrival of the moldboard plow, European agriculture exploded and the “prosperity this engendered was one of the cushions on which the enlightenment floated,” says Mann. This is an example where the old plow worked. It was the way Europeans had always done it. But there was a better way right in front of them that, when implemented, changed their entire society. What is the old European plow a metaphor for in your life? What about in society?

It is possible you don’t even recognize the things that are holding you back. That is where careful thought and insight come in. Marriage and Family Therapist Linda Graham writes that “learning how to unlearn and rethink in a rapidly changing and increasingly divisive world can be as necessary as learning to learn and think in the first place.” Cognitive entrenchment is so dangerous because when we fail to examine the ways we have always done things, we also fail to learn, fail to innovate, fail to create, and fail to improve the world around us. Ask yourself, what do you do just because you have always done it?

Another reason we fail to rethink is that our goals and personal identity give us tunnel vision. For some of us that is in the form of identity foreclosure. Identity foreclosure is “when you settle prematurely on a sense of who you are, and close your mind to alternative selves,” says Grant. Perhaps this is something like a religion your family got you involved in at a young age. Or it could be a sport you have played your whole life. Maybe your career? When you define yourself as a Christian, a football player, or a chef, that persona can cut you off from different ways of looking at the world. You might think “a Christian doesn’t think that way; I am a Christian, therefore I don’t think that way either.” Or you say to yourself “that is something swimmers do. I am a football player, therefore I don’t do that.” After a long day in the kitchen, you think “maybe I should invest some money? But I am a chef, not a stock broker.” As humans, we like to belong. But sometimes belonging puts you in a box that can be hard to see out of. The best way to beat identity foreclosure is to be curious! Expose yourself to different cultures, different genders, people with different sexual preferences, different religions, different jobs, different foods, and different philosophies. When you meet people who are different you don’t just expand your point of view, you also realize that we are all much more alike than we are different. Just because you define yourself as “x” doesn’t mean you can’t also be “y” or “z.” Whether your box was self imposed or placed on you by your parents, family, or culture, you have the ability to make choices every day to tear down the walls. Don’t just say you are open to new ideas, BE open to new ideas.

Change can be hard. Linda Graham writes that even Adam Grant admits “challenging our beliefs and assumptions can trigger the fear response of the amygdala – we respond instinctively to protect our sense of self, our identity.” One reaction is to dig in, get defensive, and defend your point of view no matter the consequences. We just can’t believe that we are wrong. Grant says that when this happens, we can fall into different roles. One is called the politician. The politician role is when we seek approval from others to back up our beliefs. It doesn’t matter whether these are co-workers, family, friends, or strangers. We simply want someone else to help us prove to ourselves that we are right. Grant writes in a Twitter post: “If you don’t want to be part of the solution, you can always find an online community that denies the existence of the problem.” Validating your own believes based on the opinions of others can be dangerous. Not only do you take away your own power of free choice, but you might find yourself walking down a hallway with many false doors, being influenced by people who have no idea what they are talking about. It is like ignoring climate scientists that have studied the environment for their entire lives and who are throwing up red flags about the impacts of humans on the climate, but instead you listen to your friend Bob from high school that is an insurance salesman and has never studied environmental science. As soon as some event happens, armchair experts come out of the woodwork.

In the 2021 Emmy nominated Netflix original documentary The Social Dilemma, they explain that Google doesn’t show the same results to the same questions to everyone. For example, depending on where you are geographically or based on your previous searches, Google will give you the results it thinks you want. And this could be different than the results of your friends. So if you have jumped down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole and searched Google for information, Google might later share conspiracy theory pages with you based on your browsing history. Therefore, you might look something up and be given some outlandish proposal about why it is happening. Because it is your top result on Google, you think “wow, everyone else must believe this too.” To escape the politician role, we need to listen to people who have the same opinions as us AND people who have opposite opinions. When we limit ourselves only conversations with people who are the same age, same skin color, same culture, and same socioeconomic background we only get a thin slice of the thoughts available. And because a “majority” of the people you talk to, who are similar to you, feel the same way you do, you assume everyone else does too. Seek out people who challenge your beliefs, not reinforce them.

Another role people fall into is that of the preacher. This is when you vehemently defend your deepest beliefs and ideals and feel the need to present them to the world. The preacher role is dangerous because you cut yourself off from incoming information by focusing your time and energy on outgoing information. Preachers become less willing to listen to others because they are too busy communicating their own beliefs. Rather than considering they might not have it all right, preachers think they already have all of the answers. Preachers are right, and people who oppose them are wrong. To continue learning, growing, and getting better every day, we must never think that we have all of the answers. You always learn more by listening than by talking.

The last role born of fear and defensiveness is the prosecutor. The prosecutor argues their case with the sole purpose of proving the other side wrong. The goal is not to find the truth, the goal is simply to win in order to validate your beliefs. Debate should not be a battle of emotions, but a discussion of facts with the purpose of learning. Grant has another Twitter post that says “The hallmark of a productive debate is not persuasion, but insight. In a good argument, you’re as motivated to learn as to convince. You can declare victory when everyone involved has deepened their understanding, broadened their knowledge, or evolved their thinking.” When everyone comes out of a debate having learned something new, challenged their own beliefs, and rethought what they have previously held as certainty, each person wins and society wins.

In an interview for Greater Good Magazine by Jill Suttie, Adam Grant says that “when we’re in preacher mode, we’re convinced we’re right; when we’re in prosecutor mode, we’re trying to prove someone else wrong; and when we’re in politician mode, we’re trying to win the approval of our audience. Each of these mental modes can stand in the way of ‘thinking again,’ because in preacher and prosecutor mode, I’m right and you’re wrong, and I don’t need to change my mind. In politician mode, I might tell you what you want to hear, but I’m probably not changing what I really think; I’m posturing as opposed to rethinking.” Instead of the preacher, prosecutor, and politician roles, we need to assume the role of the scientist.

The scientist role, Grant says in the interview with Suttie, “…means that you favor humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. You know what you don’t know, and you’re eager to discover new things. You don’t let your ideas become your identity. You look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right. You listen to ideas that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good. And you surround yourself with people who can challenge your process, not just the ones who agree with your conclusion.” Basically, to learn and grow we need to look outside of ourselves, our own beliefs, and even those of the people closest to us. We need to be curious, look for differing opinions, and thoroughly consider them. Assume the role of the scientist.

Were you ever told by a teacher to stick to your gut when taking a test? That the first answer you think of is probably right? I distinctly remember teachers telling me this when we were preparing for the SAT. It turns out, that might be totally wrong. Jeff Haden writes “A comprehensive review of 33 studies Grant cites found that when people change their answers, the majority of time they switch to the right answer. Another counted eraser marks on the exams of more than 1,500 students and found that while approximately 25 percent of the changes went from right to wrong, half went from wrong to right.” Haden goes on to show that “A 2005 Journal of General Internal Medicine study found that doctors given challenging clinical scenarios were only able to come up with a correct diagnosis two-thirds of the time. But when doctors were willing to analyze their initial diagnosis and consider alternative possibilities, their diagnostic accuracy improved by as much as 40 percent.” Rethinking is powerful. We can all get a little bit better at careful consideration of our course of action.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines smart as “having or showing a high degree of mental ability” while intelligence is “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations.” How often do we congratulate the smartest kids? We tell our nieces and nephews how smart they are when they spout off a few facts or solve a complicated math problem they were taught to solve. And I am not saying that is bad. What we should consider, though, is whether or not we should put intelligence above being smart. If we teach children “to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations” they will be prepared to move forward when encountering new obstacles for which they have no prior training.

Tomorrows problems may not be solved by yesterdays thinking. Being able to think from multiple perspectives about complex issues and consider factors beyond our personal perspective will be critical to finding common ground, problem solving, and continuing to grow as a global civilization. The world is no longer confined to the distance someone can walk in a single day, and we shouldn’t locally confine our thinking either. To move forward we need to put rethinking at the top of our to-do lists. We will all be much happier, productive, and motivated if we do.

Tyson Simmons

Sources and Inspiration

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