Do you really know what you think you know?
Recalling unique events and people from American History Photo: K Mitch Hodge
Or sometimes are your ideas as tangled as these branches?
What do you know about these topics?
- What job did Walt Disney have before he drew Mickey Mouse?
- On which spaceflight humans first laid eyes on the Great Wall of China?
- Why women were burned at the stake in Salem?
- Why eating candy affects how kids behave?
Easy enough, right? I got them all wrong. I’ll keep you thinking until the end. Adam Grant set us up. He points out we don’t always KNOW what we think we do. Sometimes it can be dangerous. Or at least put us off our game by leading us to make the wrong decisions or not allowing others to help us make better ones, which he explains in Think Again. He’s an organizational psychologist at Wharton. He’s got some unstuffy ideas about how we make decisions.
Grant points out that if we’re certain we know something, we think there’s no reason to look for gaps in our knowledge. But we all have moments when we overestimate what we know. You can call it overconfidence, which comes easily when we judge our driving or our trivia knowledge.
If there’s something we truly don’t know anything about, say driving a race car, we tend not to exaggerate what we know. But when we’re moving on to amateur status that’s where we can easily cross the line. These are the areas where we might not consider that others could know more than we do. As Grant says, we can easily climb to the top of Mount Stupid. As we gain experience—move from novice to amateur—humility slips, too. Moving us into the “beginner’s bubble” of flawed assumptions. Here we could be ignorant of what we don’t know.
Humility has gotten a bad rap in modern society, being tangled with low self-confidence. Actually. Grant points out it should be linked with its Latin root “from the earth”—being grounded, knowing our fallibility. With a little dash of humility, it’s easier to admit what we don’t know or to draw upon curiosity to learn a bit about what could enlighten our decision-making.
Confident Humility is a sweet spot for us because we don’t tip over into overconfidence , have faith in our ability, but we have just enough doubt that we are willing to re-examine our existing knowledge. Finally, we have enough confidence that we are willing to investigate further. By the way, the most effective leaders score high in both confidence and humility, according to Grant. They know their strengths, but are aware of their weaknesses.
Life comes complete with biases. Whether we investigate our differences or fall upon a philosophy of “agreeableness” makes all the difference. Doesn’t matter if we are inside a family, a hospital addressing critical care, a team building an airplane, or creative types trying to create a movie.
On the surface it would seem harmony should rein at the dinner table. Civility might be a better take on the family meal. But “productive disagreement,” where each person voices his or her take on a particular idea, could provide life-lessons about how to address questions not just within the family but in the outside world.
Hospital doctors and staff have been faced with overwhelming challenges that have required each member to call upon their muscle memory to match wits with overwhelming odds. Sometimes medical questions seem impossible to solve or staff are too exhausted to summon critical thinking. If the Pandemic has taught medical centers anything, it is that new ideas can come from any part of the team paying attention to the critical issues and thinking again to develop workarounds with the potential to save lives.
Grant points out that the Wright Brothers were able to be successful not because they agreed with each other about how to get an airplane off the ground. They didn’t. Instead they wrangled for years, grappling with each other’s ideas, which helped bring them forward solutions. But there’s another important aspect that might be forgotten in modern teams. The Wrights respected each other (even flipping a coin to determine that Wilbur would pilot the first flight) and based their work on a collegial foundation, even while they could disagree on the scientific details.
A modern example: Brad Bird, fired from Disney because they thought his ideas were too expensive and unworkable. He went over to Pixar, where his reputation as a pirate, even a black sheep, won him support. He worked to create a team that developed comradery and respect for each other’s talents. This helped because team members were not agreeables—they could be skeptical and critical when their ideas clashed. But they developed productive disagreements that led to creative solutions to complex digital movements. Four years later their Incredibles yielded an Oscar for animation and $631 million worldwide.
I’m not promising you health, wealth and happiness if you check out Adam Grant’s Think Again, but it might start a discussion with your family, colleagues or your fellow creatives that could instigate solutions. Maybe new thinking might stimulate a whole new idea!
Response to the opening questions:
- Walt Disney didn’t draw the characters; he hired someone else to draw Mickey
- The Great Wall of China is not visible from space.
- The women were hung, not burned in Salem, as we think we know.
- According to Grant, sugar does not impact the behavior of children. Here I will be the devil’s advocate. Don’t know if he has children, but when the kids return from a birthday party in the late afternoon, bedtime can be challenging! Just saying.
Adam Grant, Think Again, New York: Penguin House, 2021.