Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant discusses the value of rethinking in our personal lives, our interpersonal interactions, and our collective actions. Through engaging stories and deep analysis, he shows us the value of thinking like a scientist and re-examining what we know as a pathway to leading a more fulfilling life.
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Fallacies & Biases
- First-instinct fallacy: Tendency to believe your first thought, idea, or answer is closer to the truth than revised thoughts, ideas, and answers.
- Desirability bias: Our tendency to see what we want to see.
- Confirmation bias: Our tendency to seek out information that confirms our preexisting beliefs.
- Overview effect: The ability of experiences like seeing earth from space or traveling the world to open or minds to how connected everyone and everything our planet is.
- Binary bias: Our tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying complex ideas and situations into two categories.
When we think, talk, and interact with others, we often fall into one of four mindsets.
- Preacher: When our values or beliefs are at stake. We give sermons to defend and promote our ideas.
- Prosecutor: When seeing flaws in other people’s thinking. We use arguments to prove them wrong & win.
- Politician: When we want to win people over. We focus on winning approval at the expense of all else.
- Scientist: When we accept how little we know. We form hypotheses, run experiments, and consistently rethink our understanding of the world and others based on new knowledge.
What’s the purpose of learning?
“The purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.”
Instead of holding on deeply to the feeling of being right, we’re better served in thinking like scientists and recognizing how little we know. When we do this, we favor doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure, and humility over pride. In dong so, we stay open to the world of possibility and a lifelong journey of evolving our beliefs as new experiences, data, and modalities of thinking shape our minds.
We’re most likely to be overconfident about our abilities in the domains in which we lack competence.
Why ideas survive
“When ideas survive, it’s not because they’re true – it’s because they’re interesting. What makes an idea interesting is that it challenges our weakly held opinions.”
When we’re introduced to a new idea about something that we don’t tie our identities to, we’re often open to the new information. But when a new idea challenges one of our core beliefs or values, we have the tendency to shut down. This leads us to be less open-minded for the things we hold onto strongly, preventing us from reassessing ideas that may detract from our quality of thinking or lives.
Two types of attachment
Being attached to ideas or beliefs prevents us from rethinking them. We can change this by learning how to detach in two ways:
- Detaching your present from your past: This involves a willingness to let go of beliefs that you’ve held previously, including beliefs about who you and what that means for your present life. In letting go, you can begin to reshape your identity, without losing the narrative that ties your life together.
- Detaching your opinions from your identity: This involves letting go of the tendency to define yourself by your beliefs, ideas, and ideologies. If these things are linked too closely with your identity, you’ll be less open to new information and evidence that may challenge your deeply held beliefs.
Failures in persuasion
“When we’re trying to persuade people, we frequently take an adversarial approach. Instead of opening their minds, we effectively shut them down or rile them up.”
When we’re emotional messes or logic bullies that try to convince other people of our side of things in a forceful way, we often shut people down and reduce the chances of changing their minds.
Qualities of expert negotiators
Good negotiators aren’t hard-nosed people who get the most out of every situation with force. In fact, good negotiation often involves humility, understanding, and patience. Good negotiators use a few common tactics that we can all adopt to be more persuasive.
- Looking for common ground. The person on the other side of the negotiation is not an enemy. It’s another person who wants to thrive and connect. Looking for common ground can help.
- Presenting fewer reasons. When we share a long list of reasons defending our argument to someone else, it’s easier for them to find flaws with our weakest points and to use that as grounds for dismissing our entire case. Instead, we should pick fewer reasons to support our case that are the strongest.
- Expressing curiosity. Instead of constantly going on offense or defense, good negotiators are curious. Even when things may be difficult, they ask questions like, “So you don’t see any merit in this proposal?”
- Asking more questions. Questions can help find points of common ground and allow you to learn more about the person on the other side. It can also help you appear less adversarial.
Start with the steel man, not the straw man
The majority of people begin rebuttals with a straw man in order to point out flaws in the weakest version of the other person’s case. But a more effective approach for building rapport is to begin with the steel man, the strongest version of the other person’s case. In considering the steel man, you’re more likely to find the compelling parts of what the other person has to say and to better relate to his or her perspective.
Hierarchy of disagreement
Created by Paul Graham, this pyramid shows the different levels of disagreement. If you consistently find yourself using the tactics near the bottom of the hierarchy, it may be time to rethink your approach.
Handling heated arguments
Instead of entering fight or flight mode if an argument gets heated, you can always pause and ask, “What evidence would change your mind?” If the person responds with “nothing,” then you can comfortably end the discussion knowing that there is nothing you can do. In other cases, you may learn something about what the person may be amenable to and find a way to move forward more productively.
Prejudice and stereotypes
“As stereotypes stick and prejudice deepens, we don’t just identify with our own group; we disidentify with our adversaries, coming to define who we are by what we’re not. We don’t just preach the virtues of our side; we find self-worth is prosecuting the vices of our rivals.”
When we allow ourselves to develop prejudices and stereotypes, we harden. In identifying with our group and thinking of the other side as the enemy, we often fall into the trap of doing “whatever it takes to elevate our own group and undermine our rivals – even if it means doing harm or doing wrong.”
Using counterfactual questions.To help people explore the origins of their prejudice or stereotypes, you can ask them counterfactual questions. Things like:
- How would your beliefs be different if you were born Black, Hispanic, or a woman?
- How do you think you’d feel about this if you were born in Eastern Europe?
- How would you feel about this topic if you were born in the 1600s?
Counterfactual questions have the power to help people break free from their existing beliefs and to reconsider how they formed their positions in the first place.
“When we choose not to engage with people because of their stereotypes or prejudice, we give up on opening their minds.”
If you shut the door to other people, you may never bring about the change you’re seeking.
A type of conversation in which we lead people to think about their ideas and problems through a series of questions. It’s based on the premise that we can rarely convince people to change, but we can help them find their own motivation to change through questions. Motivational interviewing involves 3 techniques:
- Asking open-ended questions
- Engaging in reflective listening
- Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change
Motivational interviews helps us avoid putting too much pressure on people to change. Sometimes people shut down to change because they feel that someone else is pressuring them or controlling their decision.
Sustain vs. change talk
- Sustain talk: commentary about maintaining the status quo
- Change talk: referencing the desire, ability, need, or commitment to making changes
Good motivational interviewers look for sustain and change talk. When they identify change talk, they may ask questions that help the person go further down that line of thinking.
To be a good motivational interviewer, you must cultivate a genuine desire to help people reach their goals.
Talking about complex issues
When it comes to discussing complex issues, we often fall victim binary bias, our tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying complex ideas and situations into two categories. By framing an issue as only having two sides, we force people to talk one side or the other, despite a continuum of complexity.
While this type of framing can help rile up people on your side, it does very little for helping other rethink an issue. We can do better by “complexifying,” which involves highlighting the range of perspectives on a given topic.
Seeing your adversaries clearly
“The greater the distance between us and an adversary, the more likely we are to oversimplify their actual motives and invent explanations that stray from their reality.”
Instead of learning about the nuances of the other side’s view, we often oversimplify and make assumptions about their views. These assumptions are often wrong and shut the other person down to conversation.
School vs. the real world
“Achieving excellence in school often requires mastering old ways of thinking. Building an influential career demands new ways of thinking.”
In school, it’s the people who study hard, memorize information, and get the right answers in the world. But the real world is more complex. There often aren’t any right answers. We’re faced with new problems with ambiguous solutions, and if we’re stuck in the cycle of looking for the right answer, we may not have the mental flexibility to solve hard, ambiguous problems.
In today’s world, the most valuable skill is not learning WHAT to think, but rather HOW to think.
Creating a culture of learning
An organization with a culture of learning requires at least two things – psychological safety and accountability.
- Psychological safety is about creating an environment of trust, respect, and openness where people can raise concerns and ideas without the fear of being reprimanded.
- Accountability is about process accountability – ensuring that in the process of designing experiments or creating something, people have gone through a process that allows for a good chance of making the best decision. This cannot be based solely on outcomes or results, because outcomes are difficult to determine and sometimes the result of luck.
The perils of identity foreclosure
Identity foreclosure is when we settle prematurely on a sense of self without doing enough homework on the many options available. It leads us to close our minds to alternative selves and is commonly seen when people are choosing fields of study or careers.
We often base our choices based on past versions of ourselves, the expectations of others, and so on. When we get new data, if we’ve foreclosed on our identity, we may not be willing to rethink the assumptions that led us to pursue a particular path. This is how we stay in unfulfilling jobs for 20 years, instead of 2 years.
Identity foreclosure is one of the leading forces that stops us from evolving in our personal lives, careers, and romantic relationships.
“Passions are often developed, not discovered.”
You don’t think your way into your passions. Passions are often born in trying things, in action. The more you do, the more you learn about what fills your bucket. And this can lead you to new passions you may have never discovered otherwise if you close your mind and stop exploring.
It’s important to remember that there are multiple ways to get to some outcome, and there are also multiple starting places from which you can get to an outcome. Don’t close your mind to “one path.”
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