“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
“I’m beginning to think decisiveness is overrated…but I reserve the right to change my mind.”

These two quotes from the first chapter of Adam Grant’s book Think Again really caught my attention.  Don’t we typically admire people who are decisive andRethink hold consistently to their views and opinions?  Don’t we aspire to be like the person who sticks doggedly to a point of view, who doesn’t often change their mind?  Most of us hold on to what we believe pretty tightly, and are usually reluctant to change our minds.  We see it as a sign of strength to hold consistently and unswervingly to what we think and know.

But there’s a problem with that, says Grant.  The problem is that we live in a rapidly changing world, and “rethinking” what we believe is often more important than holding on to what we believe.  Rethinking our position is not easy.  Typically, the longer we sit with our beliefs, the more tightly we hold them and the more extreme and entrenched they tend to become.  But in today’s world, according to Grant, our success will ultimately depend on our ability to change our minds, and to do it frequently.

Grant tells a story about four European researchers who conducted an experiment with a group of start-up companies.  The leaders of these companies were divided into two groups, one group specifically trained to constantly rethink their beliefs and theories, and the other a control group that tended to stay attached to their original beliefs and theories.  The group of leaders that were constantly testing and rethinking their theories averaged forty times more revenue than the control group!  Grant points out that we typically celebrate great leaders for being strong minded and clear sighted.  For being decisive and certain.  The only problem is that the evidence doesn’t show that these types of leaders are the most effective.  In fact, it shows that executives who are slow, and sometimes unsure, when it comes to developing their strategies actually have the most success.  Counterintuitive, I know.  Developing the habit, the mindset, of constantly questioning our knowledge and beliefs, and being willing to change them, most often results in the most effective leadership. 

Grant had a couple other interesting ideas related to “rethinking”. The first is particularly relevant in our increasingly polarized world. According to Grant, it’s a basic human tendency to seek mental clarity and closure by over simplifying things.  We take things that in reality are on a complex continuum of possibilities, and simplify them into just two choices.  We shy away from the complex and move toward the simple, toward a place where there are only two opposing points of view rather than five or six possibilities.  Grant encourages us to be willing to embrace complexity, even if it’s not as satisfying, even if it’s harder.  He encourages us to recognize complexity as a signal of credibility.  When evaluating information or data, he encourages us to favor content and sources that present many sides of an issue rather than just one or two.  “A dose of complexity can disrupt overconfidence cycles and spur rethinking cycles,”  he writes.  A quote I read recently from Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, echoes this tendency of ours to shy away from complexity.  He writes, “An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.” It’s harder to embrace complexity, but doing so usually gets us closer to the truth.

In a related vein, Grant also introduces the findings of some psychologists that one of the hallmarks of a truly open mind is responding to confusion with curiosity and interest.  Sometimes confusion can cause us to shut down.  It often tempts us to turn away.  But the sign of a mind that’s truly open to rethinking is showing curiosity and interest in the face of that confusion.  Hard to do, but try to get comfortable pressing forward when confusion reigns!  Being curious and showing interest in the face of confusion will help you become a person who’s open to rethinking.

Grant finishes by making the following statement: “It’s easy to see the appeal of a confident leader who offers a clear vision, strong plan, and definitive forecast for the future.  But in times of crises as well as times of prosperity, what we need more is a leader who accepts uncertainty, acknowledges mistakes, learns from others, and rethinks plans.”  Think about how these thoughts should influence the kind of leader you want to be.

Jeff Meyer
Baillie Lumber