Are you comfortable with what you don’t know? Think again…!

One of the reasons I’m drawn to reading books and learning new ideas is that every so often you come across something that really resonates with you. It just makes sense, but it’s also not something you inherently knew before. And the best version of these ‘a-ha’ moments have a big enough impact on you that they change how you start thinking and doing things.

That’s how I felt when I was reading Adam Grant’s latest book ‘Think Again – The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know‘. A big part of the impact is based on the world that we currently live in – politics, Covid, conspiracy theories, fear, fake news… there’s a lot of information and misinformation out in the world these days and it’s not healthy to think that you have all the answers.. and yet so many people do feel that way.

As you might guess from the title, the gist of the book is that we collectively would benefit from not only keeping an open mind, but also actively finding ways to challenge ideas and beliefs as a way to be ‘more’ right.

Smoke Jumping and Thinking Again…

Grant starts the book with the heart wrenching story of smoke jumper Wagner Dodge and his team and the tragic Mann Gulch fire in Montana they fought back in 1949. After they landed, the fire jumped out of control and Dodge and his team of 14 firefighters had to make a run for safety. After a few minutes of running (uphill), Dodge suddenly stopped and started lighting matches and burning the grass around him, urging his team to do the same.

Unfortunately Dodge’s actions weren’t normal – they weren’t part of any training and the team mostly assumed that he had lost it and with the fire closing fast on their position, the rest of the team opted to keep running for it. 2 of the 15 survived by outrunning the fire… Dodge survived by rethinking the situation and trying something new. He burned a clearing and was able to avoid the flames and smoke by laying down and waiting it out.

Wagner Dodge was able to rethink his training and conventional wisdom and come up with a new strategy that worked. That’s pretty amazing, but the hardest part isn’t the creativity of the new idea, the hardest part is letting go of how things are supposed to work, how things have always been done.

It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so…

Why is this whole rethinking thing important? There’s a famous quote that you’ve likely heard:

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Often attributed to Mark Twain, but probably coined by others...

If you don’t know something, it’s likely that you’ll be willing to do some investigation (if it’s important) and try to figure it out. You’re willing to learn what you don’t know. But when you already know the answer… then why would you even consider spending the time and effort to look into something?

And that’s where the risk comes in. Blockbuster knew that their business model worked and that they were really good at retail sales. They knew that they had it all figured out. Kodak ‘knew’ that digital cameras would never replace film. Dig into the history books and you can find all sorts of things that people believed 100 years ago that clearly aren’t true (based on what we know now…) – Columbus didn’t ‘discover’ the Americas, Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb (he improved it), and the witches in Salem weren’t burned at the stake.

The point is that when we think we KNOW something, we don’t challenge it and if we’re wrong, or if the world changes and we don’t, it leads to bad outcomes.

Ideas on how to Rethink…

If you’re familiar with Adam Grant, then you already know he’s a great storyteller and uses a lot of stories to illustrate his points (generally also backed up with scientific studies). In this book, he also includes a list of 30 actions that could help you develop skills for rethinking. Here are a few that really resonated with me.

Think like a scientist. As you learn things, or as you’re challenged on ideas or opinions you already have, try treating the new information as a hypothesis and look for ways to test it. This is a great way to approach new business ideas or products – it’s almost impossible to tell what people will buy (actually pay money for) until you have their cash in hand, so find a way to test those new ideas and get real data before you make a big launch (or latch onto a new idea).

Learn something new from each person you meet. Specifically open yourself up to the idea that others not only have different opinions, but they are also likely to know something that you don’t know. Build a habit of challenging yourself to be curious and learn from those around you.

Ask more questions and ask ‘how’ rather than ‘why’. The best way to persuade others and influence beliefs isn’t to tell them what you believe. It’s far more effective to ask questions and actively listen. And by asking how they would make their extreme views a reality (rather than why they believe what they do), it opens them up to recognize that they may not have a full grasp on a situation. Grant shares a great story about a Doctor who’s considered to be a ‘vaccine whisperer’… who uses Motivational Interviewing techniques (asking questions) to convince anti-vaxxers to get their children vaccinated.

Complexity contentious issues. Rather than simplifying an issue to black and white where there are only 2 clear sides, you’re much better off acknowledging the complexity of an issue and talking about the shades of gray. Acknowledging that someone is right about one aspect of an issue doesn’t mean you’re giving in, but it does make it a lot more likely that they will listen to you. Pick your favorite highly debated topic and stay open and you’ll recognize that both sides of the debate have at least some valid arguments and reasons for believing what they believe.

Have weekly myth-busting discussions at dinner. Challenge your kids to recognize that not everything they see or hear is true by having them investigate and attempt to debunk common myths. Rotate the responsibility of bringing a new topic to the table and help your kids learn the value of rethinking (and challenging commonly held beliefs).

Bottom line – Think Again is a book that I think you’ll enjoy and more importantly, I also think it’s critically important right now when there are so many strongly held opinions and beliefs that are impacting lots of people. We all need to be more open to new ideas and to recognizing when we might be wrong. It’s not an easy thing to do, but in today’s world it’s really important.

What do you think? Have you read Think Again? We’d love to hear your thoughts – share them below.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach

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