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With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
We’ve written quite a bit about the marvelous British naturalist Charles Darwin, who with his Origin of Species created perhaps the most intense intellectual debate in human history, one which continues up to this day.
Darwin’s Origin was a courageous and detailed thought piece on the nature and development of biological species. It’s the starting point for nearly all of modern biology.
Charlie Munger thinks Darwin would have placed somewhere in the middle of a good private high school class. He was also in notoriously bad health for most of his adult life and, by his son’s estimation, a terrible sleeper. He really only worked a few hours a day in the many years leading up to the Origin of Species.
Yet his “thinking work” outclassed almost everyone. An incredible story.
In his autobiography, Darwin reflected on this peculiar state of affairs. What was he good at that led to the result? What was he so weak at? Why did he achieve better thinking outcomes? As he put it, his goal was to:
“Try to analyse the mental qualities and the conditions on which my success has depended; though I am aware that no man can do this correctly.”
In studying Darwin ourselves, we hope to better appreciate our own strengths and weaknesses and, not to mention understand the working methods of a “mental overachiever.”
Let’s explore what Darwin saw in himself.
1. He did not have a quick intellect or an ability to follow long, complex, or mathematical reasoning. He may have been a bit hard on himself, but Darwin realized that he wasn’t a “5 second insight” type of guy (and let’s face it, most of us aren’t). His life also proves how little that trait matters if you’re aware of it and counter-weight it with other methods.
I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic: a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy: it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am drawing, or on the other hand in favour of it; and after a time I can generally recollect where to search for my authority. So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.
2. He did not feel easily able to write clearly and concisely. He compensated by getting things down quickly and then coming back to them later, thinking them through again and again. Slow, methodical….and ridiculously effective: For those who haven’t read it, the Origin of Species is extremely readable and clear, even now, 150 years later.
I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.
There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.
3. He forced himself to be an incredibly effective and organized collector of information. Darwin’s system of reading and indexing facts in large portfolios is worth emulating, as is the habit of taking down conflicting ideas immediately.
As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.
4. He had possibly the most valuable trait in any sort of thinker: A passionate interest in understanding reality and putting it in useful order in his head. This “Reality Orientation” is hard to measure and certainly does not show up on IQ tests, but probably determines, to some extent, success in life.
On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.
This pure love has, however, been much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists. From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,–that is, to group all facts under some general laws. These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.
Indeed, I have had no choice but to act in this manner, for with the exception of the Coral Reefs, I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified. This has naturally led me to distrust greatly deductive reasoning in the mixed sciences. On the other hand, I am not very sceptical—a frame of mind which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science. A good deal of scepticism in a scientific man is advisable to avoid much loss of time, but I have met with not a few men, who, I feel sure, have often thus been deterred from experiment or observations, which would have proved directly or indirectly serviceable.
Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.
5. Most inspirational to us of average intellect, he outperformed his own mental aptitude with these good habits, surprising even himself with the results.
With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.
Still Interested? Read his autobiography, his The Origin of Species, or check out David Quammen’s wonderful short biography of the most important period of Darwin’s life. Also, if you missed it, check out our prior post on Darwin’s Golden Rule.
It’s a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We’re strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.
So, read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.
Now, with that out of the way.
The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there’s a simple reason why: They won’t actually do it.
Think about it. Isn’t that the most common result? That you don’t do it?
For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.
What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.
Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. Predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as some forces keep us from changing organizations. (Or any self-regulating system.)
The failure to follow new systems and habits (mental or physical) follows this basic formula:
Now, with regards to the 25-pages a day “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form, and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading. You have to do the thing. That’s the part where everyone falls away.You still have to *do* the hard thing. That's the part where everyone falls away. Click To Tweet
We suspect that some people thought it would be easy to read 25 pages per day. That the pages would essentially “read themselves”, or that the time to do so would spontaneously free up, just because they starting wanting it.
This is never, ever the case. At some point, to be healthy, you do need to suck it up and eat some broccoli! And for many days in a row. Or, more to the point: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.
Even a really well-designed system can only cut up the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese. A popular examples would be a fitness system whereby you do one pushup a day, then two pushups the second day, then three the third day, and so on. It makes the habit digestible at first, as you get used to it. This is plenty smart.
But eventually, if you’re going to hang on to that habit, you’ll have to do a whole lot of pushups every day! You can’t just go back to plain mac-and-cheese, no broccoli. When the newness of the “one day at a time” system wears off, you’ll be left with a heaping portion of broccoli. Will you continue eating it?
The point is this: When you’re evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it’s just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it’s probably a sham.
Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don’t currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it.
Let’s take the example of learning how to give better feedback. What could be a more useful skill? But actually doing so, actually following through with the idea, is not at all easy. You have to overcome your natural impulse to criticize. You have to get over your natural ego. You have to be very careful to watch your words, trying to decipher what will be heard when you deliver feedback. All of these are hard things to do, all of them unnatural. All will require some re-doubling to accomplish.
Thus, most people won’t actually do it. This an Iron Rule of life: Biological systems tend towards what is comfortable. (Yes, human beings are “biological systems”.)
But this Iron Rule is a problem and an opportunity wrapped together. As the saying goes, “If you do what everyone else does, you’ll get what everyone else gets.” If you can recognize that all things worth doing are hard at first, and that there is always some broccoli to be eaten, you are part of the way toward true advantageous differentiation. The rest is self-discipline.
And the real and comforting truth is that you might really start liking, and even get used to eating, broccoli. Eating potato chips and candy will eventually feel like the uncomfortable and unnatural thing.
And that’s when you know you’ve really got a great new discipline: Going back would feel like cutting off your hands.
We’ve written before about the legendary businessman Ken Iverson, the former CEO of Nucor Steel, who took it from a tiny steel operation to a true steel powerhouse in his own lifetime.
To recap, in Iverson’s tenure, Nucor:
And so on. He was incredible.
His short business memoir, Plain Talk, describes a much different kind of company than most; one where a culture of teamwork and group winning trumped personal fiefdom. He also got the incentives right. Boy did it ever work.
Turns out Iverson had some thoughts on business education as well.
What are we really missing?
In his recommended curriculum, Iverson highlights just how different his thoughts are: No classes on grand strategy (Henry Singleton would agree), or sales, or marketing, or financial structuring. (Not that those can’t be useful. Just not enough.)
His idea? Teach aspiring managers how to truly interact with, understand, and lead the people who work for them by forcing young MBAs to take on an “internship” as a leader similar to the way doctors take up residence before being given the full leash.
In the epilogue to Plain Talk, Iverson calls this the Cure for the Common MBA.
Here are some of the subjects that might form the core of first-year MBA curricula:
Earning Employees’ Trust and Loyalty
Far too many managers have no clue how their employees feel or even what their people’s work lives are like, day to day. Employees pick up on this lack of insight in a heartbeat, and that realization taints everything their managers say to them from that point forward. Conversely, employees clearly give the benefit of the doubt to managers whom they see as understanding “what’s really going on” and “what we’re really up against.” That’s only natural.
I’d suggest, then, that every MBA candidate be required to spend at least a few weeks engaged in manual, clerical, and/or other forms of non-management labor.
Further, they should be required to keep a journal of their experiences—the kinds of problems they encounter, their frustrations, their successes, and so forth. They will find that what seems a small thing to them as managers often takes on great significance to them as employees.
Developing managers should also contemplate the implicit and explicit commitments they will make to the people who work for them. They should understand their obligations under those commitments as well as the limitations of those obligations. And they should grasp the consequences of failing to be consistently trustworthy.
Listening is among the scarcest of all human skills, in and out of management. Listening requires concentration, skill, patience, and a lot of practice. But such practice is a very sound investment of the developing manager’s time.
Real listening enables managers not only to hear what people say to them, but to sense what may be behind what is said (i.e., employees’ emotions, assumptions, biases).
Better still, their reputation for competent listening will encourage others to bring them information. Listening proficiency is an immense advantage to any manager. No MBA should be sent forth into the business world without it.
The Hazards of Hierarchical Power
Inexperienced managers tend to lean heavily on formal, hierarchical sources of authority. This is understandable. They have not yet had the opportunity to develop other forms of authority such as experience, expertise, and seniority.
The problem is, young managers don’t often comprehend the hazards of hierarchical power. They do not understand that, by setting themselves above and apart from their employees, they may actually be digging themselves into a hole. I think it is only fair, then, that we warn inexperienced managers of the hazards of hierarchical power.
Principles of Equitable Treatment
Few managers receive much in the way of explicit instruction in the principles of equitable treatment of employees, either in business school or in the course of management development. All too often, managers fill that vacuum with their own self serving precepts of what is equitable. A few common- sense principles, clearly stated and strongly advocated in the business schools, could make the business world a better, more equitable place for employees and managers alike.
The notion of an internship for managers has a precedent in medical education, of course. Doctors intern for a number of years before they are turned loose on the world. There ought to be a comparable transitional step in completing the requirements for an MBA. Further, that transition should focus on providing the management candidate hands-on experience. Any MBA who ventures into business with the intent of managing people should first develop his or her skills under the watchful guidance of an experienced manager.
The fact is, few business school professors have ever managed anything, and their lack of hands-on experience shows in their students. Medical school faculties, in contrast, are comprised of the best and most respected practicing physicians.
MBA candidates should preferably complete their internships within relatively small, self-contained operations, so they can perceive the operation in its entirety and grasp the overall dynamics of a business.
People throughout the corporate world lament that other parts of their company don’t understand them or what they do. They’re usually right. It takes an extraordinary individual to understand aspects of a business to which he or she has never been exposed. We are expecting far too many managers to be extraordinary.
“Often we imagine that we will work hard until we arrive at some distant goal, and then we will be happy. This is a delusion. Happiness is the result of a life lived with purpose. Happiness is not an objective. It is the movement of life itself, a process, and an activity. It arises from curiosity and discovery. Seek pleasure and you will quickly discover the shortest path to suffering.”
The quest to become a knight has occupied many over the years.
In 1483, Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke of Cornwall was among 323 killed at the Battle of Slaughter Bridge. Foreseeing this outcome, Sir Thomas wrote a letter to his children in Cornish outlining the Rules for a Knight — the life lessons Sir Thomas wished to pass along to his four children.
The severely damaged letter was adapted and reconstructed by Ethan Hawke, after the family discovered it in the early 1970s in the basement of the family farm near Waynesville, Ohio after his great grandmother passed away.
Or, so the story goes.
“I’ve just always loved the idea of knighthood,” he said. “It makes being a good person cool. Or, aspiring to be a good person cool.”
And so Hawke started applying the chivalry to his own household:
My wife was reading a book about step-parenting, and this book was talking about the value of rules, so we started saying, well, what are the rules of our house? And you start with the really mundane, like eight-o’clock bedtime, all that kind of stuff. And then, invariably, you start asking yourself, well, what do we really believe in? So I started riffing on this idea of ‘rules for a knight.’ Like, what does the king decree, you know? I wrote it out—the idea was we were going to put it on the wall, in calligraphy. Like, these are the rules.
The work stands alone as a blueprint of civilized growth and self-improvement, the path to becoming a humble, strong, and reliable gentleman (or lady). The ideas mostly come from “other knights,” including Muhammad Ali, Emily Dickinson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Mother Teresa, as Hawke credits them on the acknowledgment page.“Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one.” Click To Tweet
“Tonight,” Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawkes of Cornwall begins, “I will share with you some of the more valuable stories, events, and moments of my life so that somewhere deep in the recesses of your imagination these lessons might continue on and my experiences will live to serve a purpose for you.”
Create time alone with yourself. When seeking the wisdom and clarity of your own mind, silence is a helpful tool. The voice of our spirit is gentle and cannot be heard when it has to compete with others. Just as it is impossible to see your reflection in troubled water, so too is it with the soul. In silence, we can sense eternity sleeping inside us.
Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one. You are better than no one, and no one is better than you.
The only intelligent response to the ongoing gift of life is gratitude. For all that has been, a knight says, “Thank you.” For all that is to come, a knight says, “Yes!”
Never pretend you are not a knight or attempt to diminish yourself because you deem it will make others more comfortable. We show others the most respect by offering the best of ourselves.
Each one of us is walking our own road. We are born at specific times, in specific places, and our challenges are unique. As knights, understanding and respecting our distinctiveness is vital to our ability to harness our collective strength. The use of force may be necessary to protect in an emergency, but only justice, fairness, and cooperation can truly succeed in leading men. We must live and work together as brothers or perish together as fools.
The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.
Those who cannot easily forgive will not collect many friends. Look for the best in others.
A dishonest tongue and a dishonest mind waste time, and therefore waste our lives. We are here to grow and the truth is the water, the light, and the soil from which we rise. The armor of falsehood is subtly wrought out of the darkness and hides us not only from others but from our own soul.
Anything that gives light must endure burning.
Grace is the ability to accept change. Be open and supple; the brittle break.
There is no such thing as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A hurried mind is an addled mind; it cannot see clearly or hear precisely; it sees what it wants to see, or hears what it is afraid to hear, and misses much. A knight makes time his ally. There is a moment for action, and with a clear mind that moment is obvious.
There is only one thing for which a knight has no patience: injustice. Every true knight fights for human dignity at all times.
You were born owning nothing and with nothing you will pass out of this life. Be frugal and you can be generous.
In the field of battle, as in all things, you will perform as you practice. With practice, you build the road to accomplish your goals. Excellence lives in attention to detail. Give your all, all the time. Don’t save anything for the walk home.The better a knight prepares, the less willing he will be to surrender.
Ordinary effort, ordinary result. Take steps each day to better follow these rules. Luck is the residue of design. Be steadfast. The anvil outlasts the hammer.
Do not speak ill of others. A knight does not spread news that he does not know to be certain, or condemn things that he does not understand.
Sometimes to understand more, you need to know less.
Every knight holds human equality as an unwavering truth. A knight is never present when men or women are being degraded or compromised in any way, because if a knight were present, those committing the hurtful acts or words would be made to stop.
Love is the end goal. It is the music of our lives. There is no obstacle that enough love cannot move.
Life is a long series of farewells; only the circumstances should surprise us. A knight concerns himself with gratitude for the life he has been given. He does not fear death, for the work one knight begins, others may finish.
The rest of Rules For a Knight goes on to explore these ideas in greater detail. Despite its fiction status, the book is a timeless meditation on self-improvement and what it means to be a parent.20 Rules for a Knight: a Timeless Guide from 1483 Click To Tweet
I’m a huge fan of Laurence Endersen’s book: Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference. I think it deserves to be on the shelf of every knowledge seeker in the world.
There is a chapter in the book on lifelong learning.
When we are captain of our own ship, life can be a wonderful continuous voyage of discovery. Yet we frequently pigeonhole our learning and discovery into limiting discrete blocks. There are the childhood years, filled with exploration and getting to know the world around us at a sensory level. The early school years follow, during which we are introduced to reading and writing. Middle school years bring a range of core subjects and some people will finish up the formal part of their education with university-level learning.
Then we add some work experience and attain a certain level of competence. From this perch we coast pretty well. It’s like driving. How many of us are getting better at driving? All of those hours behind the wheel are not deliberate practice. If you consider the product of the modern knowledge worker to be decisions, all of this coasting without getting better should concern you.
The incentives to follow a path of lifelong learning are not easily apparent.
When assessing our competence in any particular discipline, we can place our level of ability somewhere along a continuum moving from ignorance, to conversational competence, to operational competence, then towards proficiency, and finally all the way to mastery. For most of us, if we get to operational competence in our main career area we are happy enough. We can get by and we don’t have to expend too much energy continuously learning. We become what I call flat-line learners. For the flat-line learner the learning curve might look something like this:
And yet, Endersen argues that if we pursue a path of lifelong learning our path more closely resembles this:
You could even make an argument that lifelong learning puts you on a non-linear path but I’ll leave that for you to think about.
The question as to why everyone doesn’t want to become a lifelong learner remains.
It may boil down to choices and priorities. It is easy to be drawn towards passive entertainment, which requires less from us, over more energetic, active understanding. Inconvenience might be an alibi: “I don’t have time for continuous learning as I am too busy with real life”. But that excuse doesn’t withstand close scrutiny, as experiences (coupled with reflection) can be the richest of all sources of investigation and discovery.
Why not make a conscious decision to learn something new every day? No matter how small the daily learning, it is significant when aggregated over a lifetime. Resolving early in life to have a continuous learning mindset is not only more interesting than the passive alternative, it is also remarkably powerful. Choosing lifelong learning is one of the few good choices that can make a big difference in our lives, giving us an enormous advantage when practised over a long period of time.
The ignorant man can’t learn from his own mistake and the fool can’t learn from the mistakes of others. These are the primary ways we learn: Through our own experiences and through the experiences of others.
While both avenues have their place, there is no substitute for direct learning through experience – which we enhance through reflection. The process of thoughtful reflection makes our experiences more concrete, and helps with future recall and understanding. Reflecting about what we learned, how we felt, how we and others behaved, and what interests were at play, hardwires the learning in our brain and gives us a depth of context and relevance that would otherwise be absent.
Even if it were desirable, which it’s not, there simply is not enough time to learn everything we need to know through direct experience.
“Reading,” writes Endersen, “is the foundation of indirect learning.” Learning how to read and finding time to read are two of the easiest and best changes you can make if you want to pursue lifelong learning.
Many read for entertainment. Some read for information. Too few read for understanding. Adler’s book (How To Read a Book) is concerned with reading to understand. Being widely read is not the same as being well read. The more effort and skill we put into reading, the greater our understanding.
As for testing whether we really understand something after we’ve read it, there is a powerful and elegant technique called the Feynman Technique.
Step 1. Choose the topic or concept that you are trying to understand. Take a blank piece of paper and write the name of the topic at the top.
Step 2. Assume you’re teaching the topic to someone else. Write out a clear explanation of the topic, as if you were trying to teach it. A great way to learn is to teach. You identify gaps in your knowledge very quickly when trying to explain something to someone else in simple terms.
Step 3. If you get bogged down, go back to the source materials. Keep going back until you can explain the concept in its most basic form.
Step 4. Go back and simplify your language. The goal is to use your own words, not the words of the source material. Overly elaborate language is often a sure sign that you don’t fully understand the concept. Use simple language and build on that with a clear analogy. An example that springs to mind is Warren Buffet’s explanation of compound interest (i.e., interest earned on interest), when he likened it to a snowball that gathers snow as it rolls down a hill.
Lifelong learning is a better path than flat-line learning.
Savour experiences as opportunities to learn. Reflect on your experiences. Read regularly. Learn how to read for understanding. Know how to test whether you really understand something by demonstrating that you could teach it in simple terms with a clear analogy.
The best way to do that? Follow Einstein’s advice.
We spend a lot of our lives trying to persuade others.
This is one of the reasons that Daniel Pink says that we’re all in sales.
Some of you, no doubt, are selling in the literal sense— convincing existing customers and fresh prospects to buy casualty insurance or consulting services or homemade pies at a farmers’ market. But all of you are likely spending more time than you realize selling in a broader sense—pitching colleagues, persuading funders, cajoling kids. Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.
There are many ways to change minds. We often try to convince people.
In the difference between persuading and convincing, Seth Godin writes:
Marketers don’t convince. Engineers convince. Marketers persuade. Persuasion appeals to the emotions and to fear and to the imagination. Convincing requires a spreadsheet or some other rational device.
It’s much easier to persuade someone if they’re already convinced, if they already know the facts. But it’s impossible to change someone’s mind merely by convincing them of your point.
But what do we do when this doesn’t work?
Kathryn Schulz, in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, explains:
… The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is that we just assume they are ignorant. You know, they don’t have access to the same information we do and when we generously share that information with them, they are going to see the light and come on over to our team.
When that doesn’t work. When it turns out those people have all the same information and they still don’t agree with us we move onto a second assumption. They’re idiots …
This is what we normally do. We try to convince them that we’re right and they are wrong. (Most people, however, are not idiots.)
In many cases this is just us being overconfident about what we think — the illusion of explanatory depth. We really believe that we understand how something works when we don’t.
In a study about a decade ago, Yale professors Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, asked students to explain how simple things work, like a flushing toilet, a sewing machine, piano keys, a zipper, and a cylinder lock. It turns out, we’re not nearly as smart as we think.
When our knowledge was put to the test, their familiarity with these things led to an (unwarranted) overconfidence about how they worked.
Most of the time people don’t put us to the test. When they do, the results don’t match our confidence. (Interestingly, one of the best ways to really learn how something works is to flip this around. It’s called the Feynman Technique.)
The Era of Fake Knowledge
It’s never been easier to fake what you know: to yourself and others.
It’s about energy conservation. Why put in the effort to learn something if we can get by most of the time without learning it? Why read the entire document when you can just skim the executive summary?
Unable to discern between what we know and what we pretend to know, we ultimately become victims of our own laziness and intellectual dishonesty.
However, we end up fooling ourselves.
In a lecture at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964, future Nobel laureate Richard Feynman said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
How to Win an Argument
Research published last year and brought to my attention by Mind Hacks shows how this effect might help you convince people they are wrong.
Mind Hacks summarizes the work:
One group was asked to give their opinion and then provide reasons for why they held that view. This group got the opportunity to put their side of the issue, in the same way anyone in an argument or debate has a chance to argue their case.
Those in the second group did something subtly different. Rather than provide reasons, they were asked to explain how the policy they were advocating would work. They were asked to trace, step by step, from start to finish, the causal path from the policy to the effects it was supposed to have.
The results were clear. People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues.
This simple technique is one to add to our tool belt.
If you want to win an argument, ask the person trying to convince you of something to explain how it would work.
Odds are they have not done the work required to hold an opinion. If they can explain why they are correct and how things would work, you’ll learn something. If they can’t you’ll soften their views, perhaps nudging them ever so softly toward your views.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that someone might do the same to you.