Adam Grant’s latest book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know needs to be read by anyone who is interested in why humans refuse to change their minds even if they are fully capable doing so.
The book is a call for action: a call for rethinking our opinions, blowing them up if necessary, and finding ways to move forward through exercising confident humility.
I was going to buy this book but Adam was actually very kind in reaching out to me with an offer to send me a copy given I raved about Originals in a previous post. (Obviously I took up his offer and walked on clouds for weeks out of pure appreciation and gratitude).
I’ve collated here just tiny bits of the key insights that stuck me as especially relevant both in why we refuse to change our minds and how we can learn to do so.
Why getting off Mount Stupid is good for you
One of the most dangerous zones when it comes to holding strong opinions is the amount of knowledge we have, or rather perceive to have.
When we move from being a novice with very little knowledge to an amateur who knows a lot more, we become overconfident in our opinions.
Just adding even tiny bit more to our knowledge puts us on the path of “climbing the Mount Stupid” where we trade our humility to overconfidence.
This happens because “If we are certain that we know something, we have no reason to look for gaps or flaws in our knowledge” (p. 42).
We get comfortable in holding particular opinions and are happy with the good-enough knowledge we have on the topic rather than imagining contrasting positions or views on the topic.
Partly it’s because our brains are happy with shorter faster answers when we seek information: when we seem to have pieced together a coherent story, we buy that story and move on.
One way to negate this kind of thinking is to practice confident humility:
“Confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present” (p. 46).
Being humble does not mean that you are a pushover and change your opinions. Having confident humility means you are confident in your abilities to question your own knowledge and are more accepting to change the way you think if that is warranted.
In many settings, learners/students who readily acknowledge what they don’t know score much higher in being effective learners and have better skills in contributing to team work. Turns out keeping an open mind is a skill worth exercising.
What are opinions anyway?
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you hold a particular opinion? We all have opinions on everything but rarely spend time thinking how we got them.
Adam notes that opinions and beliefs are part of who we are but:
“we weren’t born with our opinions. Unlike our height or raw intelligence, we have full control over what we believe is true. We choose our views, and we can choose to re-think them any time we want” (p. 60).
Yet, when our core beliefs are questioned, we go into full blown defensive mode without treating debates and conversations as ways to learn about life and expand our thinking.
So we shy away from debates because hearing conflicting views is often uncomfortable as it forces us to really question our own beliefs in the process and it might lead to the discovery even that our opinions and beliefs are wrong.
Expert forecasters who have higher rates of success in predicting outcomes are not excellent because they have strong opinions. They are excellent because they constantly update their beliefs in the process as they learn new information.
Turns out that holding on strongly held beliefs can actually hold us back from having a better and more balanced opinion.
That is why Adam notes the importance of practicing debates and being open to having challenging conversations. This is like Fight Club for Rethinking: gathering around you trusted people with whom you can explore different perspectives rather than living comfortably in groups where everyone agrees:
“Rethinking depends on a different kind of network: a challenge network, a group of people we trust to point out our blind spots and help us overcome our weaknesses. Their role is to activate rethinking cycles by pushing us to be humble about our expertise, doubt our knowledge, and be curious about new perspectives” (p. 83).
This enables us to keep sharp and curious about different perspectives while also knowing that our opinions are broader than just the automatic short-fast stories that we’d rather buy into if our brain got to choose.
Be the whisperer, not a defender
Another really intriguing method in this book is about motivational interviewing and how it has the power to open up people’s minds to other possibilities.
“starts with an attitude of humility and curiosity. We don’t know what might motivate someone else to change, but we’re genuinely eager to find out. The goal isn’t to tell people what to do; it’s to help them break out of overconfidence cycles and see new possibilities. Our role is to hold up a mirror so they can see themselves more clearly, and then empower them to examine their beliefs and behaviours” (p. 147).
Motivational interviewing focuses on not trying to persuade someone to do something differently but to really understand how someone formed their opinions on an issue and why they think as they do.
It is a two-way conversation where we should also be eager to learn more about other people and the way they see their world rather than trying to manipulate them to making a decision we’d want them to make.
This form of conversation has had amazing results across a range of fields, ranging from increasing vaccination rates to improved mental health and wellbeing (You can even get certified in the method).
When people feel listened to, they stop defending themselves. Motivational interviewing opens up that space where we are appreciated for who we are and can choose to rethink… if we feel it is safe to do so.
People can pretty quickly detect whether you are being sincere and genuine or whether you are on a secret mission to manipulate them. And to be frank, if we are not ready to even consider changing our own minds, there’s less of a chance we genuinely want to learn from others on any issue.
And how does this apply to adaptation?
Reading this book has of course made me think how we can apply these lessons to climate change adaptation and how we communicate the science behind preparing to the impacts of climate change.
One thing that has stood out for me has been the motivational interviewing and the need to challenge our core beliefs in the field as well as to what adaptation is, what it can be, and how others might not agree what that looks like (and what we can learn from that).
I am super blessed to have a pretty adequate Rethinking Fight Club around me although I definitely fully acknowledge I don’t often remain as humble in my expertise as I could.
But if we learn to listen better to what others are thinking, what adaptation means for them, and then build strategies from there, I think we are in a far better position to actually create more long-lasting shifts in people’s mindsets than through short term projects.
Robust climate change adaptation for me is really about shifting perspectives and mindsets in how we can adapt in a complex and at times chaotic world.
Adam’s book has definitely made me to rethink why I have particular opinions, the ways that I learn and accumulate knowledge, and the extent I am willing to put myself and my opinions out there to be questioned.
Here’s to an uncomfortable but exhilarating journey into more curiosity and confident humility.