Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know – Adam Grant

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“Think Again” by American psychologist, bestselling author and professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton Business School, Adam Grant, is known wisdom repackaged efficiently and repurposed expertly. The nub of Grant’s latest book is rethinking the art of thinking. Received wisdom, stale conventions and entrenched dogmas have, according to Grant not just permeated our thoughts but have also succeeded admirably well in influencing our very approach to both personal and professional lives. A stereotypical obsession with standing circumstances, makes us, in the words of Grant, ‘mental misers.’ The technical term for such a rigid attitude is cognitive laziness. The handmaiden of status quo, cognitive laziness couches us in illusory relief and imagined comfort. This is also known as the seizing and freezing phenomenon.

Grant encapsulates the phenomenon of justifying accepted norms, by taking recourse to a theory propounded by Canadian-American political Science writer Philip Tetlock. Tetlock opines that as we think and speak, we tend to lapse into three different ‘professional’ modes. As we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of three different professions: preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. When our sacrosanct beliefs are under attack, we don the garb of a preacher, delivering sermons to preserve and protect our views. When we perceive another individual’s, belief sets to be false, we seamlessly go into the mode of a prosecutor pointing out flaws and poking holes in opposing arguments. Finally, when the need of the hour is to effect defection from the opposing camp to our own, we become politicians garnering for support and consensus. While this in itself is not an undesirable trait, unflinching adherence to it may turn out to be costly.

Grant sets out the example of the maverick genius Mike Lazaridis to illustrate the pitfalls of the ‘3P’ Approach. An innate genius, Lazaridis upended the world of technology and telecommunications with the Blackberry. Yet when the company was valued at a whopping $70 billion, and Apple was just an irritating but formidable pretender to the throne, the brilliant Lazaridis failed to see reason. Firmly entrenched in his opinion that what people did not want on their mobile phones was a computer, he sacrificed both market share and possibilities at the altar of obstinacy. Even when one of his premier engineers exhorted Lazaridis as 1997, to add an internet browser, Lazaridis instructed him to focus only on email. A chance for redemption materialized in the year 2010, when Lazaridis was goaded on by his team to feature encrypted text messages. But Lazaridis nursing an apprehension that allowing messages to be exchanged on competitors’ devices would render the BlackBerry obsolete, put paid to the hopes of his engineers. The rest, as we all know is history. First Apple, and then Samsung raced paced Blackberry, first reducing it to be a mere blip before finally finishing it off.

Lazaridis, although blessed with immense intelligence was in the throes of two types of biases that drove his decision making strategy. Confirmation bias: seeing what we expect to see, and desirability bias: seeing what we want to see. As Grant writes, “These biases don’t just prevent us from applying our intelligence. They can actually contort our intelligence into a weapon against the truth. We find reasons to preach our faith more deeply, prosecute our case more passionately, and ride the tidal wave of our political party. The tragedy is that we’re usually unaware.” John Maynard Keynes is famously attributed with this telling quote, “when the facts change, I change my mind.” It is this propensity to adapt oneself to changing circumstances and fact patterns, that serves as a weapon against these two biases.

Grant appeals to all of us to inculcate within us the bent of a scientist. A scientist is at once curious and humble, While she possesses an insatiable thirst for knowledge, she also derives immense pleasure in knowing that she is wrong. For erring, during the course of a research, in itself is a smart experiment that yields some knowledge. For example, during the course of a lecture by Grant, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, found out that a sphere relating to his research was wrong. Kahneman’s reaction was one of pure joy – he was now less wrong than before! However, the world seems to be far removed from such acts of self-introspection. On the contrary, there is a massive overdose of the “Dunning-Kruger’ Syndrome. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias hypothesis that people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. 

Grant also highlights the fact that people are usually informed by an innate bias called ‘binary bias.’ “It’s a basic human tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying a complex continuum into two categories. To paraphrase the humorist Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” The legendary debate between Daniel Goleman and Jordan Peterson over the preponderance of Emotional Quotient (“EQ”) and Intelligence Quotient (“IQ”) being a classic case in point. While Goleman remains steadfast in his stance that EQ matters more for performance than IQ, thereby accounting for “nearly 90 percent” of success in leadership jobs, Jordan Peterson, argues that “There is NO SUCH THING AS EQ”. According to Peterson, EQ is “a fraudulent concept, a fad, a convenient band-wagon, a corporate marketing scheme.” Grant points out that both men of great reputation and stature have failed to recognise that the concepts of EQ and IQ have relevance, but in different settings and circumstances.

Grant offers thirty key takeaways at the conclusion of the book to nurture and foster a sustained and consistent practice of rethinking. This thinking about thinking that has some innovative and pleasing shades includes:

  • Learning something new from each person that we meet;
  • Embracing and not moving away from constructive conflicts;
  • Practicing the art of conscious and persuasive listening;
  • Asking what drove people to originally form an opinion;
  • Acknowledging common ground during the course of engaging in debates;
  • Refraining from asking kids what they want to be when they grow up

“Think Again”, inspires the reader to reevaluate and rethink accepted conventions, taken-for-granted beliefs and deep-rooted tropes. And as Grant illustrates this can be done by having fun too!