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The Life-Changing Benefits of Learning to Think Again

Even the most-seasoned professionals stand to gain a great deal by daring to step outside their comfort zones.

As a seasoned professional, you’ve likely learned a lot over the years, and your confidence in this knowledge and experience leads you to have a bold vision for both your future and that of your firm—which is a good thing, right?

Until just a few weeks ago, I would’ve answered this question with an enthusiastic “Yes!" But now, after reading Prof. Adam Grant’s fascinating and profound new book, Think Again, I’m not so sure. 

Prof. Grant’s premise is simple: Because human nature leads us to seek “the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt,” we tend to curate the information to which we expose ourselves, as well as the resulting perspectives that we tend to develop. Further, in the spirit of enhancing our learning, we seek information that reinforces it and conduct discourses with others whose perspectives align with our own. Not surprisingly, then, over time we become ever more convinced of the correctness of our perceptions, which, history has proved, is a suboptimal strategy as well as, potentially, a recipe for disaster.

So what does the good professor suggest that we do? As he exhorts in the title of his book, we need to think again. Specifically, we need to adopt a more scientific approach to our thinking so that we can evolve beyond the biases that tend to limit our perspective at any given time. 

As Grant describes scientific thinking, it has three hallmarks:

  1. Doubting what you know;
  2. Being curious about what you don’t know; and
  3. Updating your views based on new data.

It behooves us to consider the purpose of learning: Though most of us seek new knowledge to affirm our present beliefs, our actual goal should be to evolve them. In other words, the more we try to reinforce our expertise, the greater the risk that we limit our exposure to important information and thereby begin to narrow our perspectives in potentially damaging ways.

Grant's point is as simple as it is well-taken: Most of the world is outside of our experience, so it behooves us to explore this space as a matter of practice.

And then what do we do when our exploration beyond our comfort zone leads us to new information that may modify or even contradict what we thought we knew? In brief, we need to prepare ourselves to evolve our thinking based on this new data.

As the professor notes, we need to be mindful of pioneering psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s insight that our beliefs do not have to equate to our identity, which means that were free to change them, especially when warranted by our exposure to new and compelling data. In fact, in this effort, it may help us to be a bit Buddhist in approach, leading ourselves to practice detachment purposefully: as we master the ability to decouple our present (perspective) from our past (knowledge and experience), we free ourselves to be open to new learning and, thus, to personal and professional growth and evolution.

Even better, as we open ourselves to new avenues of inquiry and exploration, we also create opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with others whom we may not have met had we stayed in our comfort zone but who can help us expand our horizons by sharing their own learnings and perspectives.

I suspect that, like me a mere month ago, you, too, are cool with the way your life and career are going right now. I’m not suggesting that you’re wrong, but, as Prof. Grant points out, it may behoove you to think again.

Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.

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