Book Lessons

11 Lessons from Think Again by Adam Grant

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I recently read Adam Grant’s new book Think Again and found it to be very powerful. I also discovered that lots of others also shared the same view. Adam’s first book Give and Take has been one of the most influential books in my life. I have a feeling that Think Again will surpass it.

Lots of people are reading this book and will benefit from it. But I know that many people don’t read books and will miss out on all the amazing lessons from this book. So I am writing this post for them. This is not a book summary.

This is just a list of the 11 most important lessons from this book. One from each chapter. So it’s not comprehensive and there’s good stuff which won’t get covered here. That’s how good the book is. I hope you find this post useful and end up reading the book.

The book is about unlearning and relearning. It’s much harder than regular learning. But doing so can have a dramatic impact on our lives. Let’s find out how.

Lesson 1 — The most important lesson. Think like a scientist.

We generally tend to operate with the mindset of a politician, preacher or prosecutor when it comes to our beliefs. Instead, Grant says, we should operate like a scientist.

A scientist never lets her ideas become her ideologies. Her mindset is that — there is a good chance that my ideas and arguments are all wrong and let me seek better information which will prove me wrong. Being proven wrong is a sign of progress for them. It means they now know better. They are always asking questions. They aren’t looking for ways or selective evidence to prove themselves right.

A scientist is always in a rethinking loop which enables discovery of new knowledge. It takes great humility and insatiable curiosity to live a rethinking life. A scientist is motivated to seek the truth eventually. They are happy to be proven wrong multiple times in the short term so that they can be right in the end.

There’s a great line which I loved.

If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom

Lesson 2 — Develop Confident Humility

In this chapter Grant shares an example of his own rethinking. He thought people are always trying to get the right balance of confidence and humility. Then he found out that confidence and humility are not the opposite sides of a see-saw. They can go hand in hand. The sweet spot where we can have both confidence and humility is called Confident Humility.

Humility isn’t about lack of self-confidence. It’s about being grounded. Knowing that we are both flawed and fallible. Never losing sight of this reality. Confidence is about self belief.

When we have Confident Humility, we have the faith and belief that we will overcome everything and achieve our goals while still realizing that our current knowledge and solutions might be insufficient. As a result, we keep re-assessing ourselves and keep striving for new information and tools, without our confidence being shaken in the process.

Another line which I really liked.

The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning Kruger club.

As per the Dunning- Kruger effect, we are more likely to show overconfidence when we are actually lacking in confidence. Or as the ancients used to say — little knowledge is dangerous.

Lesson 3 — Detaching Opinion from Identity

This chapter is about how we become attached to certain ideas and how we deal with finding out that they are wrong.

The key takeaway is that we should avoid becoming too attached to our ideas and our beliefs. We shouldn’t let it become part of our identity. Stay a little detached. That way, when we find out that they are wrong, it’s easy for us to rethink and let go of old ideas.

When we let our ideas become part of our identity, we become hostile to the thought of being wrong. Our ego steps in and tries to counter all the evidence that points to a rethink.

Our identity shouldn’t be based on our ideas and our beliefs. Instead, it should be based on what we value. That calibration ensures we handle being wrong in a positive way.

Lesson 4 — Argue about HOW and not WHY

This chapter is about rethinking in the context of arguments and disagreements. How the principles of rethinking can be applied to ensure more constructive conversations.

Disagreeableness and conflict are not bad , per se. But it’s damaging when emotions get involved.

Adam Grant recommends looking at the conversation from a HOW lens and not a WHY one. WHY conversations often get emotional and ego led, and people become dismissive of the others . Logic and evidence are completely ignored. But getting into HOW changes the frame.

Once you start discussing HOW, people start noticing the gaps in their knowledge and the flaw in their conclusions and become less argumentative. They become more amenable to explore other choices and the disagreement turns into constructive conversation. This holds for all parties involved. Including yourself.

Honorable mention — Building a challenge network of Givers

Lesson 5 — How to win debates and negotiate well

The next set of chapters are about influencing others to rethink. This first one is about debates and negotiations.

Borrowing from the toolkit of a world champion debater and great negotiator, Grant distills the best practises. In case of a debate, they help the audience rethink and judge fairly. In negotiations, they led to better, more collaborative outcomes.

  • Usually, we try to attack the weakest argument of our opponent. Instead, it’s a better idea to acknowledge their best argument. This helps in 2 ways. One, it shows that you are a scientist who’s willing to look at new information.Which signals that your motives are right and your aren’t biased and closed minded. Secondly, by opening up your mind, you encourage them to do the same.
  • Focus on fewer but stronger points. Too many arguments, including some not so strong ones, dilute the merit of your strongest points . The opponent can easily refute your weakest point and make your overall argument look bad.
  • Ask questions. Instead of going on the offensive and attacking the opponent's’ arguments, skilled negotiators operate in a more nuanced manner. They express curiosity by asking questions like “What evidence will change your mind ?. Such questions help in opening up the minds of both teams and they are more likely to seek new information and discover a solution which works for both teams. Questions also allow in considering new scenarios which could open new win-win possibilities.

Lesson 6 — Breaking Stereotypes and Prejudices

Human beings seek belonging and status. Belonging to a group helps them achieve both. But it also means they start identifying with the stereotypes associated with the group. These stereotypes and prejudices are very hard to break down. Even for those people, who deep down, believe that the beliefs are false. They don’t have strong conviction but they will still defend those beliefs rabidly in public as they form part of the group’s identity. This gets reinforced as you spend more time with the group.

Adam Grant tried 3 hypotheses and one of them was somewhat effective. But even for that one, he wasn’t sure it would work outside the experimental lab in the real world.

The meta-analysis of over 500 studies on the subject show that the only thing which works is close face-to-face contact with people of opposing groups.

That’s the only way to see that the stereotypes often have very weak foundations. They have continued for so long because no one questioned them. The close contact shows you that often you might have more similarities with people of other groups and more differences with people of your group. You realise that your prejudice was baseless. This isn’t going to solve racism or religious conflicts or help in making large groups rethink their stereotypes. But can work with a small set of individuals.

Lesson 7 — Changing mindsets through Motivational Interviewing

The example in the book is of a mother who refuses to vaccinate her newborn. Such mindsets are hard to break. Logical arguments are definitely not the solution here, even if they are scientifically right.

The underlying principle here is a human being’s primal need for autonomy. We don’t like to be told what to do, even when what’s being told is clearly the better choice. Based on this understanding, a couple of psychologists developed the practise of Motivational Interviewing. The concept is simple.

We can’t motivate people to change. We have a better chance helping them find their own motivation to change. Motivational Interviewing helps in doing that.

It involves the 3 key techniques.

· Asking open ended questions

· Engage in reflective listening

· Affirming the person’s ability and desire to change

There are some examples in the book and many on the internet to illustrate the techniques. Essentially, instead of giving recommendations , the interviewer says things like — “ Here are a few things that have worked for me. Do you think they might work for you?

There is robust data that shows Motivational Interviewing is highly effective. But you can’t just start practising it after reading a book. It requires proper training.

The best part is that it comes with an in-built mechanism which ensures it can only be used for good. It works only when you are genuinely interested in the person’s well being. Not when you want to manipulate. People can sense that and then it doesn’t work.

Lesson 8 — Dealing with Polarised Mindsets

The next 3 lessons are about collective rethinking in groups. Starting with polarisation.

We live in a divided world. Across a range of complicated issues. Presenting the opinion of the other side makes matters worse. You dig your heels in and become more entrenched in your beliefs. There is no scope of rethinking.

The root of the problem is that people operate with binary mindsets. Everything is black or white. Presenting the two extreme views increases polarisation. The solution lies in breaking this oversimplified extreme view by introducing complexity and nuance.

Polarization experiments have shown that exposing people to a study which presents the debate as a complex matter with a number of viewpoints and multiple shades of grey made them rethink their views on other equally polarizing topics. Essentially, it broke their binary mindset and made them question their own simplified understanding of such complex issues. This humble realization kicks off a rethinking loop in which they started doubting their current knowledge of the matter and became serious scientists who wanted to understand the issues in more detail.

This understanding also provides a good filter to weed out media outlets which are intent on increasing polarization. Any argument which is over simplified and presents a binary view is not to be trusted.

Lesson 9 — Rethinking for Kids

There are lots of stories of great educators who have made education fun by instilling a curious and scientific mindset. I am going with something which I found very simple and yet extremely powerful.

The practise of doing multiple drafts instead of just one. Especially in creative projects. The general view is that making students re-do something is discouraging. It implies a poor effort. But that’s just poor communication.

Great educators like Ron Gardner have instilled a rethinking mindset by getting their students, including those in kindergarten, to do multiple drafts and different versions of the same creative task. Like making the drawing of a house.

They have taught them to celebrate going back to the drawing board. More drafts mean more rethinking, reworking, polishing and fine-tuning. Leading eventually to a higher quality output.

Lesson 10 — Learning Organizations

Combining Psychological Safety and Process Accountability to create a learning zone.

There’s enough written about psychological safety so I am skipping it.

Process Accountability is the evaluation of the process that was followed for a project. How decisions were made and whether all options were considered. Whether people debated and rethought their choices. Strong process accountability (alongwith outcome accountability) leads to consistent long term success. Just focussing on outcome accountability is like a hit or miss. You will have little control on delivering the desired outcome.

Psychological safety without process accountability creates a comfort zone.

Process Accountability with psychological safety creates anxiety.

The overlap of the two creates the ideal learning zone.

Honourable mention — Developing a culture of questioning by encouraging people to always ask — “ how do we know “. It has curiosity and doubt but it is not judgmental and does not make people defensive.

Lesson 11 — Career Planning and Identity Foreclosure

This is especially important for parents in India. I have selected this because I am guilty of doing as a parent myself.

We need to stop asking kids what they want to do when they grow up.

By asking this and forcing kids to choose something, we can cause what is called Identity Foreclosure. The kids settle on something prematurely without exploring enough choices and missing out on some great alternatives.

The choice becomes part of their identity. We need to encourage them that careers are actions to take and not identities to claim.

Many other books ( like Range by David Epstein ) have shown that the more options we try, the more likely we are to discover something that will make us happy, fulfilled and successful at the same time. Usually, this means delaying our decisions on career choice. Identity Foreclosure on the other hand forces us to prepone it.

If you reached this far, then I am guessing you found these concepts interesting. You should definitely read the book. And thank Adam Grant for writing another life changing book.

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