“What do you know now that you didn’t a year ago?” That’s a go-to question that my friend and former boss David Bradley, a serial business and media entrepreneur, often asks people he’s meeting and making conversation with.
I’ve taken to asking people that question too. The answers are often interesting—giving you expert insight into what’s dynamic and changing in an area you might not know—and other times telling in ways that people don’t realize. Because the question presupposes that they now know something that they didn’t know a year ago, and that they’re willing to implicitly acknowledge their prior deficiency of knowledge.
We sometimes struggle to deeply answer such a question. It’s hard to acknowledge that things have changed or reassess our opinions, argues Adam Grant in his new book Think Again, which will be released on February 2. We prefer to hold on to old views rather than make the shift to new ones. And Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton and remarkably prolific writer, says it’s a weakness that can be literally fatal.
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He makes that point by beginning the book telling stories of wilderness firefighters who perish after failing to rethink their assumptions—and of one who survives by breaking with convention. Later on, he recounts the stories of the Space Shuttle tragedies, which might have been avoided if people truly questioned their own assumptions—about “O ring” performance and damage from falling foam.
Even if we’re not dealing with life or death situations, Grant’s book is a humbling reminder that we probably should question a lot of things we and others believe to be true. It discusses how to rethink your own views, as well as how to get others to reevaluate their opinions. Among the most useful and interesting takeaways:
- Imposter syndrome can be healthy. Research supports the idea that self-doubt is common among high achievers, and can make us work harder and smarter, and have the humility to learn better. Confident humility is the ideal, allowing us to see our weaknesses but not be crippled by them.
- We’re excited to question assumptions that don’t matter deeply to us. As examples, Grant cites the feeling we get when we’re surprised by trivia, such as “did you know that a narwhal’s tusk is actually a tooth?” But we often shut down when more core beliefs are called into doubt.
- You should form your identity around what you value, rather than what you believe. Basing your identity around principles such as integrity and generosity “enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them,” Grant writes.
- We should think like scientists do. They have hypotheses that they test, and revise or abandon when facts suggest otherwise. To reach the correct answer in the long run entails admitting you’re wrong along the way. Scientists “know that means they have to be open to stumbling, backtracking, and rerouting in the short run,” writes Grant. One trick is to list conditions that support your view on something, and list conditions that would undermine it—so you don’t get too attached to it.
- Ask questions and acknowledge where other people might be right. Grant discusses the techniques of an expert debater, which include stating points of common ground. The debater also countered the strongest version of an opponent’s argument—”the steel man”—rather than attacking weaker “straw men.” It’s also especially effective to ask questions that can lead people to the points you’re trying to make.
- Embrace nuance and complexity. Research suggests that people are more open to arguments when any caveats and contingencies are acknowledged. People dig in with their views when issues are presented as having opposing binary camps—such as climate activists and deniers, even though levels of concern generally fall on more of a spectrum.
- Counterfactual thinking is powerful. People are more willing to update their views when reminded of how things could have been different. For example, how would their stereotypes vary if they were born a different race?
- Practice motivational interviewing. It’s a tactic used to convince skeptical parents to vaccinate their kids. “The goal isn’t to tell people what to do; it’s to help them break out of overconfidence cycles and see new possibilities,” Grant explains. The steps he suggests are:
- Asking open-ended questions
- Engaging in reflective listening
- Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change.
- Ask the question “How do you know?” more often. As Grant explains, “the power lies in its frankness. It’s nonjudgmental—a straightforward question of doubt and curiosity that doesn’t put people on the defensive.” (p. 211)
- Admit where you’re falling short and are working on improving. Grant found that work teams had more psychological safety—a key to high performance—when members, especially leaders, acknowledged imperfections.
- Focus on accountability for process. When people are praised or rewarded only on results, they sometimes stick to ill-fated courses of action—like the NASA Shuttle teams that pushed forward with launches that should have been scrubbed. Grant cites the famous six-page memos that Amazon uses to frame proposed decisions as an example of process, where the memos can be evaluated even before any outcomes.
- Question what you’re doing professionally and what your goals are twice a year. It forces you to consider doubts and be curious about new possibilities.
To be sure…
- Grant’s argument is winningly earnest. And we surely can use his advice to make inroads in parts of our lives. But it remains unclear how much it is possible to change other people’s minds today, especially in the face of misinformation, partisanship amplified by tech platforms and extremist media—and distrust of facts, institutions, and experts like Grant. How much are people really open to the modesty and rationality that Grant champions? Discussing one approach, he acknowledges “I don’t believe for a minute that it will solve the Israel-Palestine conflict or stop racism.” (p. 139) One section discusses how Daryl Davis, a Black man, has successfully gotten Ku Klux Klan members to abandon the group—but Grant doesn’t offer a satisfying vision for how to broadly deescalate the polarization of political view in the US.
- The book covers a lot of ground. It winds up skipping around, and can feel at times like it’s pulling together only tangentially connected ideas under the broad conceptual tent of rethinking things.
Memorable anecdotes and trivia:
- Researchers found that the majority of the time that students change their answers on tests, they go from wrong to right. (p. 3)
- The inventor of the BlackBerry was too unwilling to revisit his assumptions to challenge the iPhone before it was too late. “I don’t get this,” he said about phones with touchscreens instead of keyboards.
- Ted Kaczynski—who went on to become the Unabomber—felt scarred by a psychology experiment he was involved in as a Harvard undergraduate where someone challenged his opinions. “If he had learned to question his opinions, would he still have been able to justify resorting to violence?” writes Grant.
- Brad Bird, a Pixar director, was told it was impossible to make what would become the “The Incredibles.” He assembled a team of disgruntled colleagues and had legendary fights with his producer John Walker—and by challenging each other they were able to pull off the highly technically ambitious film.
- “When asked how much money it would take to get them to taunt their own team, Red Sox fans requested an average of $503. To root for the Yankees, they wanted even more: $560.” (p. 123)
- Researchers found that just interacting with members of another group reduced prejudices 94% of the time. (p. 140)
- A few years ago Grant recommended an exercise to the Gates Foundation in order to reinforce psychological safety, encourage risk-taking, and reduce any fear of public failure. As part of the exercise, Melinda Gates volunteered to be videotaped reading criticism from staff surveys. “She read one employee’s complaint that she was like Mary F***ing Poppins—the first time anyone could remember hearing Melinda curse—and explained how she was working on making her imperfections more visible,” Grant writes. (p. 214)
- “Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.” (p. 2)
- “Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing part of ourselves.” (p. 4)
- “What set great presidents apart was their intellectual curiosity and openness. They read widely and were as eager to learn about developments in biology, philosophy, architecture, and music as in domestic and foreign affairs. They were interested in hearing new views and revising their old ones. They saw many of their policies as experiments to run, not points to score.” (p. 27)
- “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.” (p. 28)
- “Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe.” (p. 64)
- “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. 47)
- “Great thinkers don’t harbor doubts because they’re imposters. They maintain doubts because they know we’re all partially blind and they’re committed to improving their sight.” (p. 54)
- “In a heated argument, you can always stop and ask, ‘What evidence would change your mind?’ If the answer is ‘nothing,’ then there’s no point in continuing the debate.” (p. 116)
- “People gain humility when they reflect on how different circumstances could have led them to different beliefs.” (p. 137)
- “When we’re reading, listening, or watching, we can learn to recognize complexity as a signal of credibility.” (p. 171)
- “Rethinking liberates us to do more than update our knowledge and opinions—it’s a tool for leading a more fulfilling life.” (p. 243)
The bottom line is that Think Again is a helpful reminder that we all get stuck in our views, and it’s a useful guide for trying to unglue other people from opinions that aren’t supported by the facts. The American people might benefit if every member of Congress read this book and came away believing in nuance over polarization. It’s a pleasurable read and worth others at least skimming for tips on how to avoid professional dead ends, and have a chance at swaying others from strongly held views.
You can pre-order Think Again at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.) All page numbers referenced above are for the hardcover edition.
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