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Think Again

This will be the last individual book review that I will write for the weekly blog because I am planning a couple of suggested reading overviews in the next two weeks and the final blog at the end of term will, as usual, be the transcript of my prizegiving speech.  It therefore seems appropriate to end with a reflection on a book about thinking and reflecting, which I would probably have raved about if it had been the first book I had ever read on the subject, but which felt reassuringly reinforcing when I read it over the half-term break.

Dr Adam Grant is an American psychologist and author who has written several books about the way we think and the reasons why, for the most part, we do not do something of such importance anywhere near as effectively as we could, and should, do it.  ‘Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know’ was an interesting read and would certainly make a good starting point if you are looking to reflect on the way you reach your judgements and what else you could usefully do to help you make better decisions, particularly regarding the beliefs that form such a part of who we are.  For example, Grant makes a very good point when he says that the purpose of learning is not to affirm our beliefs: it is to evolve them.

Socrates is credited with the idea of being wise by realising that you know nothing, which has always felt a bit over the top to me.  All of us know many things, but we are wise if we can keep an open mind to learning new things and being prepared to consider new ideas.  Grant puts this well when he highlights that if knowledge is power then knowing what we do not know is wisdom, because the curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we do not know.  Good judgement, he argues, depends on having the skill, and the will, to open our minds.  As he nicely puts it: ‘I am pretty confident that, in life, rethinking is an increasingly important habit. Of course, I might be wrong. If I am, I will be quick to think again.’

The author illustrates the point well with the story about the frog in a pot of water.  At some point, he says, you have probably heard that if you drop a frog in a pot of scalding hot water, it will immediately leap out.  But if you drop the frog in lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog will die because it lacks the ability to rethink the situation and does not realise the threat until it is too late.  However, when Grant looked into the origins of this popular story in more detail, he found that is not true.  Tossed into the scalding pot, the frog will get badly burned and may or may not escape.  The frog is actually better off in the slow-boiling pot because it will leap out as soon as the water starts to get uncomfortably warm.  He concludes that it is not the frogs who fail to re-evaluate: it is us.  Once we hear the story and accept it as true, we rarely bother to question it.

I enjoyed the section about the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect, which asserts that it is when we lack competence that we are most likely to be brimming with overconfidence.  The less intelligent we are in a particular domain, the more we seem to overestimate our actual intelligence in that domain.  For example, in a group of football fans, the one who knows the least about the game is the most likely to be the armchair manager.  As Grant neatly summed up, the first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is that you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.

People often think they know far more than they actually do.  For example, do you know:

  • Why English became the official language of the United States? (It didn’t: there isn’t an official language.)
  • Why women were burned at the stake in Salem?  (They weren’t: they were hanged.)
  • What job Walt Disney had before he drew Mickey Mouse?  (Walt Disney didn’t draw Mickey Mouse: it was the work of an animator called Ub Iwerks.)
  • On which spaceflight humans first laid eyes on the Great Wall of China?  (You can’t see the Great Wall of China from space.)
  • Why eating sweets affects how children behave?  (It doesn’t: the average effect of sweets on children’s behaviour is zero.)

Elsewhere, Grant says that if we are insecure, we tend to make fun of others, but if we are comfortable being wrong, we are not afraid to poke fun at ourselves.  Laughing at ourselves reminds us that although we might take our decisions seriously, we do not have to take ourselves too seriously.  Research suggests that the more frequently we make fun of ourselves, the happier we tend to be.  Instead of beating ourselves up about our mistakes, we can turn some of our past misconceptions into sources of present amusement.  Being wrong will not always be joyful.  The path to embracing mistakes is full of painful moments, and we handle those moments better when we remember that they are essential for progress.  But if we cannot learn to find occasional glee in discovering we were wrong, it will be awfully hard to get anything right.  

There was a long section on effective coaching conversations, which made me hopeful for the future because I think I have the skills to make a good coach in the next few years.  But there was also a long section on teaching that made me reflect that I really should have tried harder during my career to be more innovative, reflective and responsive to feedback.  Grant believes that good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking.  Collecting a teacher's knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, he says, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime.  Ultimately, education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.  It is the habits we develop as we keep revising our drafts and the skills we build to keep learning.

He is also perceptive on the concept of happiness, making the point that there is evidence to suggest that placing a great deal of importance on happiness is a risk factor for depression.  Why?  One possibility is that when we are searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it.  Instead of savouring our moments of joy, we ruminate about why our lives are not more joyful.  A second likely culprit is that we spend too much time striving for peak happiness, overlooking the fact that happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity.  A third potential factor is that when we hunt for happiness, we overemphasise pleasure at the expense of purpose.  This theory is consistent with data suggesting that meaning is healthier than happiness, and that people who look for purpose in their work are more successful in pursuing their passions – and less likely to quit their jobs – than those who look for joy.  While enjoyment waxes and wanes, meaning tends to last.

He quotes John Stuart Mill: ‘Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.  Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.’

And finally, I thought his take on values was particularly good, and I wish I had found this earlier because it sits very well with the ethos of the school.  Who you are, he argues, should be a question of what you value, not what you believe.  Values are your core principles in life – they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity.  Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them.  You want to see a doctor whose identity is protecting health, experience a teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and deal with a police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice.  When we define ourselves by values rather than opinions, we buy ourselves the flexibility to update our practices in light of new evidence.


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