An academic superstar urges us to get better at abandoning old beliefs

Steve Kelman recommends a new book -- and broader life lessons -- from Adam Grant.

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At age 39, Adam Grant may well be America’s most-distinguished organizational psychologist writing about work life.

Grant started his career with a slew of articles in scholarly journals, many about the impact of an individual’s desire to help others on individual performance. (One of his studies showed that contact with the beneficiaries of one’s efforts, such as with students who had been aided by a scholarship program, improved how successful people were as fundraisers for the program.) More recently, he has migrated to writing best-selling books on organizational and personal life, including a book co-authored with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on Sandberg's grief after her husband's sudden and insights from the psychology on finding strength in the face of hardship. 

(As an aside, I count as a huge personal failure in my own academic career to have sat on a junior faculty search committee when Adam was on the job market as a new PhD. I argued at the time that this guy was absolutely brilliant and we absolutely had to hire him, only to be defeated by the committee chair in favor of another candidate whose academic career never got off the ground and who left academia within a few years. I will name no names to protect the guilty.)

In addition to his other virtues, Adam has a lively interest in government and public management.

I have now just read his latest book, Think Again. He wants to persuade us of the value of rethinking our beliefs and being willing to change them. He wants us more regularly to think like scientists: “If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data.”

In one experiment, half a group of would-be entrepreneurs were trained to view their startups like a scientist would, while the others got conventional training in business strategy and prototype development. For those trained to think like scientists, “their strategy was a theory, customer interviews help to develop hypotheses, and their minimum viable product and prototype are experiments to test their hypotheses.” It was found that “the entrepreneurs in the control group tended to stay wedded to their original strategy and products. It was too easy to preach the virtues of their past decisions, prosecute the vices of alternative options, and politick by catering to advisors who favored the existing direction.” Those taught to think like scientists pivoted more than twice as often. When their hypotheses weren’t supported, they knew it was time to rethink their business model.” A year later, startups in the control group had on average $300 in revenues, those trained to think like scientists averaged $12,000.

Grant identifies a “confidence sweet spot,” where a person is high “having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem.” This mix, he argues, “gives us enough doubt to reexamine our old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights.” He contrasts that with the person whose confidence is greater than their competence, a trait more prevalent among the privileged.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is called “The Joy of Being Wrong.” “Being wrong isn’t always a bad thing,” Grant writes. “It can be a sign that we’ve learned something new – and that discovery itself can be a delight.”

He notes, “Growing up, I was determined to be right. In second grade I corrected my teacher for misspelling the word lightning as lightening. My friends found this annoying and started calling me Mr. Facts. It got so bad that one day my best friend announced he wouldn’t talk to me until I admitted I was wrong. It was the beginning of my journey to become more accepting of my own fallibility.” Grant notes that “although scientists believe it will damage their reputation to admit that their studies failed to replicate, the reverse is true: they’re judged more favorably if they acknowledge the new data.” I think for most of us, admitting we are wrong is really hard. I have actually consciously tried to be willing to do this (before I read this book), and I can report it becomes easier, and more rewarding, with time.

Another chapter is called “The Good Fight Club.” It draws a distinction between interpersonal conflict, which is often destructive, and task conflict, which often promotes learning and is constructive. “The absence of conflict is not harmony,” he writes. “It is apathy.”

“Agreeableness is about seeking social harmony, not cognitive consensus,” he writes. “Although I’m terrified of hurting other people’s feelings, when it comes to challenging their thoughts, I have no fear. In fact, when I argue with someone, it’s not a display of disrespect – it’s a sign of respect. It means I value their views enough to contest them. If their opinions didn’t matter to me, I wouldn’t bother.”

In this blog, I have only been able to scratch the surface on one of the topics of the book. There are more topics, and a lot more in here. Read this!

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