On this episode of Dare to Lead
It’s a total geek-out, nerd-fest conversation with my friend Adam Grant about his new book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Adam weaves together research and storytelling to help us build the intellectual and emotional muscle we need to stay curious enough about the world to actually change it. This is such an important book for the world we live in today.
Listen to the episode
Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant examines the critical art of rethinking: learning to question your opinions and open other people’s minds, which can position you for excellence at work and wisdom in life. Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn. In our daily lives, too many of us favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. We listen to opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard. We see disagreement as a threat to our egos, rather than an opportunity to learn. We surround ourselves with people who agree with our conclusions, when we should be gravitating toward those who challenge our thought process. The result is that our beliefs get brittle long before our bones. Think Again reveals that we don’t have to believe everything we think or internalize everything we feel. It’s an invitation to let go of views that are no longer serving us well and prize mental flexibility, humility, and curiosity over foolish consistency. If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is the Dare to Lead podcast. What an incredible geek out, nerd fest conversation I have today with my friend Adam Grant, who has just come out with a new book called Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. We just talk about it all in this podcast. We talk about the courage it takes to leave the comfort of our convictions and enter the territory of doubt, uncertainty, challenge what we know, challenge our ideas, what it means to think like a scientist, to really bring in a lot of data that we need to form really solid opinions. We also talk about why it’s important to not oversimplify complex issues, and why there are not just two sides that are made out to be, both often dehumanized characterizations of groups of people, but complex problems require complex thinking and answers. This book? Huge game changer. All right. We’re going to talk to Adam Grant. We’re going to dig in and we’re going to talk about, I think, my favorite quote from the book, which is, “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”
BB: Dr. Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton, where he has been the top-rated professor for seven straight years. He’s a #1 New York Times best-selling author and one of TED’s most popular speakers. His books have sold millions of copies, his talks had been viewed over 25 million times, and his podcast WorkLife has topped the charts. His pioneering research has inspired people to rethink fundamental assumptions about motivation, generosity and creativity. He has been recognized as one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers, Fortune 40 under 40, and Oprah Super Soul 100, and he has received distinguished scientific achievement awards from the American Psychological Association and the National Science Foundation. He received his BA from Harvard and his PhD from the University of Michigan. He is a former magician and junior Olympic springboard diver. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and their three children. The new book is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.
BB: Adam Grant.
Adam Grant: Hey, Brené Brown.
BB: I’m excited to talk to you and I’m excited to talk to you about this book.
AG: I can’t wait. I know you’re going to have tons of questions that make me rethink much of what I wrote, which is sort of the goal, right?
BB: Yeah, have you found yourself rethinking everything since you wrote Think Again?
AG: I think I’ve rethought a lot, hopefully not everything. But yeah, I definitely have at least two chapters that I would write now that didn’t occur to me.
BB: Oh my God, I love that. Okay, so I want to back it up, and I want to start with a different question. I want to spend the first 10 or 15 minutes. I want you to tell me your story.
AG: Wow, that is a colossal question.
BB: Yeah, we’ve got nothing but time. Give us a colossal answer. Tell me your story.
AG: I was born in the Detroit suburbs in Michigan. I grew up surrounded by lakes and have never understood why people like the ocean. It’s cold, it’s salty, it’s sharky. [chuckle] My idea of a body of water is it’s supposed to be fresh water, and it’s supposed to be really warm in the summer with no dangerous animals.
BB: I’m with you 100%, lake girl, 100%.
AG: I just saw a picture of you actually with Steve on the lake.
AG: It looked gorgeous.
BB: Yeah, I’m a lake girl, and I don’t get the ocean, and you got sand, which we can talk about some other time, but yuck.
AG: Disgusting. Yeah, we don’t need that. Sand? Look, I love going to the beach with our kids, but [chuckle] when we’re not with kids, sand is right up there with glitter for me. It just didn’t need to be invented.
BB: That’s funny. Okay, so you were born in Detroit, raised in the suburbs. What were you like?
AG: I think I was a pretty dorky and annoying kid. I remember my friends calling me Mr. Facts because I loved to memorize baseball players, batting averages, and then I would quote them. And I guess it was really irritating. I think I was sort of obsessive as a kid. I would get interested in something and I would go all in. Early on it was sports, and then it evolved into more specific sports. I fell in love with springboard diving, which I did for a bunch of years, and then I got into doing magic tricks and was completely hooked on those. And I think once I get interested in something, I didn’t want to stop until I had mastered it.
BB: So, the pursuit of mastery.
AG: I don’t know that I would have talked about it that way at the time, but I was driven so much by intrinsic motivation. And I guess my earliest memories of that are playing with He-Man characters and then video games, and waking up at 5:00 in the morning just wanting to either try to master a game or play out some ridiculous story I had about the only character in any show or movie who was named Adam, which was He-Man. So, I was like, “My superhero.” Right?
BB: Yes, personalized.
AG: Totally. I guess I used to walk around when I was three saying, “I have the power.” [chuckle] I don’t know why that stands out in my memory. I think it’s hilarious now because any time anyone offers me an opportunity to do something where I think I would have power over someone else, it terrifies me.
BB: Yes, so you’re like, “You have the power.” That’s kind of your motto now, right? [chuckle]
AG: Yeah, I mean, almost to the point that I am a completely laissez-faire manager, [chuckle] but I don’t ever want to tell someone else what to do or hold them accountable. And I guess I got all of the “I have the power” out of my system really early.
BB: Tell me about high school. Were you a diver in high school?
AG: I was, yeah. Well, I had played soccer for 10 years, and I didn’t make the team when I went to try out freshman year, which was disappointing. But I started diving the summer before, and there was something just mesmerizing about trying to hurl myself into the air and do, — at that time —it was just a flip or a twist and land without a splash. I think I loved the challenge. I loved trying to get a sense of control and I showed up at diving practice and I was terrible, unbelievably bad. I’ll send you video evidence later.
BB: Oh, I’d love it.
AG: It’s embarrassing. I went to practice and my coach said, “Do you want the good news or the bad news.” “Obviously, the bad news.” He said, “Diving requires three things: Flexibility, grace, and explosive power.” “Okay, tell me more.” He said, “Well, you can’t touch your toes without bending your knees. You walk like Frankenstein and my grandmother can jump higher than you.”
BB: Oh, rough. That’s awful. What was the good news?
AG: That was my question. “Is there any good news? Really? What now?” And he said, “Well, basically, diving is a nerd sport. It attracted all the people who were too short for basketball, two weak for football, too slow for track, and so if you work really hard at this, you could be halfway decent.” And then my coach Eric Bass said two things that really changed the rest of my life. Number one, he said, “I will never cut someone who wants to be here. So, if you want to be on this team, you’re on the team, and I will work as hard as you do. Whatever energy and time you put into diving I will put in.” And then he did something crazy looking back. He said, “My goal for you is, senior year, you’re going to be a state finalist.”
BB: I have goosebumps.
AG: I don’t know what he was thinking because…
BB: Who says that?
AG: I know. And I watch these videos now. That kid is hopeless. There’s no way I would think that that version of me could turn into a halfway decent diver, but he did something that I think every great coach or mentor does, which is he saw way more potential in me than I saw in myself. And it just lit a fire under me. Diving became my life. It became not only an avenue for pursuing excellence, but also a way to, I guess, fit in and be liked. It became a way for me to be helpful to other people too, because you spend about, I think, probably 95% of your time at diving practice just standing in line waiting for somebody else to go. And so, I would be watching dives from different angles than my coaches. I would give my teammates pointers. Sometimes I’d be giving my competitors pointers, which didn’t always work out as planned, but it gave me a place to fit in and feel useful and matter in the world.
BB: A sense of belonging. Like the dive team, that’s belonging.
AG: That part of it was really weird because you show up on this team and they say, “Here, you have to wear a Speedo.” And then we only had three divers and it’s a whole swim team. And the swimmers generally don’t like the divers because the swimmers practice in the morning and the afternoon, and they have to wake up super early, and we only do afternoon practice because our bodies aren’t awake enough yet to do all the flipping and twisting. Or at least that was our excuse. [chuckle] And also swimming practice is just not that fun. You’re under water. You can’t talk to anyone. It’s kind of a slog. And in diving, we’re mostly just having fun conversations, and then every few minutes you get up, you do a two-second dive, and then you get to chat a bunch. So, swimmers were not fans of divers. And I think it was an early lesson for me in what it felt like to be an outsider, but then how I could sort of prove my value to the team.
AG: And as I started getting better and I had something to offer, I found that the swimmers actually seemed to enjoy interacting with the divers and then we traded places and we would do these meets where we had to swim, and they had to dive. And I could barely make it from one side of the pool to the other as a swimmer, and a couple of the swimmers were really good divers. And so, it started to equalize things a little bit, and some of the swimmers became among my best friends. So, it was a very cool experience.
BB: Did you go to the state finals?
AG: I did. I made it my junior year, which was exciting, and then my goal was to make the state finals and then to be all-state. And I made the state finals a year early, which was a total shock, and then my senior year, I missed my best dive. And I think as a junior, I finished eighth in the state. As a senior, I ended up ninth, instead of the top six that I’d been aiming for. And I was so disappointed, but I’ve always loved that Helen Keller line that, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens.” And that experience opened a very big door for me.
BB: Tell me about it.
AG: I went to college. I was a diver still, but I think working for four years toward sort of almost a single goal and then not hitting it, it helped me detach from diving a little bit and start to rethink that identity and say, “Maybe there’s more to me than what I can do on a springboard, and there’s more that I can contribute to the world than just coaching.” And it also did something pivotal because November of the freshman Fall, I was taking a writing seminar, which happened to be on the psychology of social influence, which was either great foreshadowing or great training. Probably both. And I remember we were assigned our final paper, and we could write about anything we wanted. And I remember the paper was called “Crash Dive,” and I did an analysis of how being afraid that I wasn’t going to hit my goal became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that diving experience was the first time I really systematically took social science and tried to apply it to a real-life experience, and I loved it. I actually decided to stay on campus for Thanksgiving because I was so absorbed in the paper that I didn’t really see any point in leaving. And I must have gone to Thanksgiving dinner, but I basically spent three days in my dorm room writing this paper. I was like, “This, I want this to be a part of my life.”
BB: I’ve got goosebumps.
BB: Because that’s a sliding-door moment, that’s a big moment, right? It’s really easy for successful athletes, I think, especially in high school, to never challenge their identity, never rethink of their potential for other things. And so that’s a big moment. So, you finish college, you do this paper on the crash dive, and is this where, “Oh, I think I know what I’m going to pursue?”
AG: It would have been a lot more fun if it happened that quickly.
AG: I took a bunch of psychology classes. I picked it as my major. I knew I wanted to understand what makes us tick. What motivates us? What inspires us? And how we can improve the quality of people’s lives. I didn’t know where to do that. I knew I didn’t want to be a clinical psychologist. I don’t think I have the patience for therapy. I also felt like I wanted to try to do more good than just helping one person at a time, and the psychology I loved the most was about everyday behavior as opposed to the pathology. And so, I just ruled out one career after another. “Don’t want to be a clinical psychologist, don’t want to be a psychiatrist, definitely don’t want to be a consultant because I want to have the freedom to pick the problems that I solve and make sure that they’re meaningful.” And it really took until the summer before senior year of college to crystallize when I’d taken a bunch of applied psychology classes, and I think one of the defining moments was I was taking this course with Richard Hackman, who was… You know Richard Hackman’s work?
AG: I didn’t know who he was at the time, and then I found out, “Wow, the world’s leading expert on what makes a great team is right here. I’ve got to take his course.” It was called affectionately “Psych 8:30 AM,” [chuckle] the earliest class I had in college, and I remember it was almost a competition with some of my friends to say, “Okay, how late can you wake up and still make it to class on time?”
BB: Can you roll out at 8:20? Yeah.
AG: Exactly. And then you had to calculate the distance from your dorm. Long story short, there were days when I was just exhausted walking in, and I was at the edge of my seat for the whole class. I forgot how tired I was because he was so riveting, and the thing that clicked then was… I took his course, I think the first class was the day after 9/11, and Richard had just finished a project studying the six major US intelligence agencies, trying to figure out how to make teams more than the sum of their parts. And came in and said, “I failed. And if I had done my job right, we might have been able to prevent this attack.”
BB: Oh God.
AG: And obviously, everybody was shocked and shattered in a lot of ways. But it was also a moment of saying, “Wait, if there’s something we could do to help people share this information that was known, but not spread effectively across a series of agencies, maybe this body of knowledge really matters.” And then Richard went on to do something that [chuckle] really opened my eyes, which was he told the story of his career through the lens of saying, “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So, I just studied all of the jobs that I thought were interesting, and I studied teams in every place I ever wanted to work.” He said, “So I wanted to be, for a while, an orchestra conductor, and I studied symphony orchestras and tried to figure out how they can make beautiful music. I wanted to be a pilot. I studied airline cockpit crews to try to figure out how to build teams that would fly safely and effectively.” And as he went through those examples, I thought, “Wait a minute, that’s what organizational psychology is. I can live vicariously through everyone else’s job. It could be my job to try to fix other people’s jobs, and that would be such an exciting career. And at its best, maybe we can prevent the next 9/11,” which is lofty thinking for a 21-year-old, right?
BB: No. I think when you go to school and you major in curiosity instead of law, engineering or pre-med, I think, it’s not lofty thinking. I think it’s what can happen for a lot of kids if they get off the moving escalator of fear.
AG: Did you just say major in curiosity?
AG: I love that idea.
BB: Well, it’s what I told my daughter, who’s a senior now, and I said, “If you know what you want to be, I’m not paying for college. I’m not going to do that. Because if you’re 18 and you know what you want to be, then something’s wrong. I think you need to take a gap year. You need to go volunteer, do something.” She goes, “No, I have no idea what I’m going to be.” And I said, “Then great, take every course that you can find that interests you.” She’s like, “It’s cringy. It’s awkward. Everybody already knows, and everyone’s either going to be a lawyer or an engineer or pre-med.” And I said, “No, we’re not doing that. And if you end up there, that’s great, but we’re not doing that when you’re 18.” And so that’s what she did, and now she’s starting a PhD program in the fall. But she found what she loved, and it didn’t come together until the beginning of her senior year, which was scary. It’s very much your story. It didn’t come together until then because she was like, “What does this class on Black Power movements have to do with this class on qualitative methodology?” And then she built a narrative, so I think it’s actually not lofty. I think it’s the best of higher ed.
AG: That’s amazing.
BB: But I could see you sitting there doing that, so where are you right now? At what school are you in? Are you at Michigan?
AG: This happened, I guess, junior Fall. So, I was at Harvard at the time, and then Richard said when I started thinking about grad school, “If you get into the University of Michigan, don’t go anywhere else. Don’t consider anywhere else.” I’m like, “That’s great. I grew up in Michigan. I get to go back home. My mom was always disappointed in me that I never became a Wolverine, and now I can go there after all. So here we are. Great, let’s go to Michigan.”
BB: So, Harvard undergrad, Michigan for graduate school, for your PhD.
AG: I’m tempted to saying, “Hail to the victors” right now, but I won’t.
BB: Thank god for small favors—no. I would join you in a song.
AG: I should have put that as one of my favorite songs.
BB: You should have. I love your favorite song list, actually. So, are you in love yet? Are you dating? What’s happening there?
AG: So, I go off to grad school at Michigan, and I think I spent most of my first year just focused on learning and wanting to teach as soon as possible.
BB: Oh yeah.
AG: I remember being… I don’t know what the emotion was, actually. There should be a word. It was a weird combination of frustration and disappointment when I found out that I wasn’t allowed to teach until my third year.
BB: Oh yeah.
AG: Why am I here? I just spent two years just reading and doing research. The whole thing that we supposed to make grad school different from college was that I get to share knowledge and try to pave forward what I loved from my extraordinary professors. And I think I spent most of the first year just going rogue, and [chuckle] I convinced one of my advisors to let me create a research lab and sign off on independent studies for a few students. And he said, “Okay, you can have four undergrads, and I’ll approve. As long as they work with you on research, you can give them credit for it.” And I went and interviewed 50 students who applied for the opening, and I was so in awe of their curiosity and their intellect that I ended up asking if I could take 10 of them instead of four.
BB: Did you get a yes?
AG: I got a yes, eventually, and what that allowed me to do was to build a research lab that turned into a seminar. And we would meet every week. We would read articles in the field and then discuss them. And what I was trying to do was create the kind of learning experience that I had had as an undergrad where I got to take all these small seminars.
AG: And you actually understood the process behind doing research and it was a complete joy. And one of the defining moments was, I wrote up my first paper and I sent it to my adviser, and I said, “I’m ready to submit this.” And it was me and two undergraduates. And he said, “I have a few suggestions.” He went through his comments on the paper, and he said, “I just have one other issue, which is, you can’t submit a paper with undergrads as your co-author. Every paper ever written has undergraduate research assistants, but they show up in the acknowledgements, they’re not…
AG: Full intellectual contributors to the ideas.
BB: That’s right. That’s right.
AG: I didn’t know that [chuckle] So it was news to me. I’d been lucky to have professors who put anyone on as a co-author if they contributed, and I didn’t know what to do. And he said, “Well, if I were you. I would rethink this,” and I said, “You’re right.” And I didn’t submit the paper with two undergraduate co-authors. I submitted it with five.
BB: I love it. Yes.
AG: And that became my first major paper, and it had so much more meaning for me because I was hoping that at least one or two of those students would consider academia. Sure enough, one of them is now an organizational behavior professor. And it was so much more enjoyable to share my first major contribution to the field with a group of new students and take pride in that together, and I promised myself after that, that whenever there’s an opportunity to share credit, I was going to try to seize it. And I don’t know that I’ve always succeeded, but it’s such a good reminder.
BB: Yeah, for those of y’all listening here, like this whole authorship thing in the world that Adam and I come from, people treat it like a life-or-death issue. Think of it is a really bad pyramid scheme in a lot of places. I mean, it’s true, but I think there’s a lot of us trying to do things different. And so, I love that.
AG: You asked about love there, right?
BB: Yeah, love. Where is love?
AG: Okay, so end of first year in grad school, I go to my grandma’s house for dinner, and she says, “So who are you dating?” And I said, “No one.” And she said, “Well, let me see if I can do something about that.” [laughter] Uh-oh. What are we getting ourselves into here? I end up getting an email from her. I had a very tech-savvy grandma. She was in her 80s writing emails, checking Facebook, and she said, “Your cousin actually has someone that he wants you to meet.” Okay, I can’t say no to Grandma.
AG: So, Mike makes the introduction, and I have a phone call with Alison. We have our first date that weekend and afterward, I come home and tell my roommates, “I’m going to marry her,” and I did.
BB: Okay, so how long have y’all been together now?
AG: I think it’ll be 17 years this year.
AG: We have three. They’re 10, 12 and 7.
BB: Wow. Grandma and the family pull through. Do you remember what Grandma made for dinner? I’m so curious, that night. What would have been a traditional thing she would have made if you were coming over?
AG: I think pineapple pie for dessert. Definitely. That was the tradition.
BB: The kind with the rings on the top.
AG: Yeah, of course.
BB: Yeah, okay.
AG: You have to. I honestly have no clue what we ate. It was probably some kind of soup, and I remember we watched Soap, old reruns of Soap if you’ve ever seen the show.
BB: Do you know that I was not allowed to watch Soap?
AG: Really. Because?
BB: I don’t know, too risqué or something. I wasn’t allowed to watch Eight is Enough, because they were disrespectful to their parents.
BB: Yeah, I had really strict TV things. We were like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and the Wide World of Disney. That was it. And anything political.
AG: Is this part of what led to your wild phase in college?
AG: Were you rebelling against not being able to watch Soap on TV?
BB: Let’s remember who’s in charge of this podcast now. No. It totally did. I had super, super strict parents, so I went ape shit when I left. Like, yeah, because I graduated at 17 and I hitchhiked through Europe for six months. So yeah, they should have let me watch TV. Trust me. Okay, so then you build this career. How do you end up at Wharton? Is that your first academic stop out of graduate school? Is that where you get hired?
AG: I actually did two stops first. Alison and I went and lived in the UK for a few months for a mini sabbatical in between grad school and first job, which was amazing. One of my biggest regrets, looking back in college, is that I didn’t study abroad. And I felt like this was an opportunity to do a little bit of that. So, we lived in Sheffield.
BB: Oh yeah.
AG: Do you know it well?
BB: I don’t know it well. I know of Sheffield, and I know where it is. And I know football.
AG: You smiled, which most people don’t, especially if you…
BB: Just football.
AG: Well, if you tell British people that you lived in Sheffield, they’re like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Why? Why did you live there? I can’t imagine why anyone would.”
BB: Why did you live there?
AG: They have an institute for work psychology where I had a colleague who was interested in collaborating, and she does brilliant work. And it was a whole community of people who were studying how we could make work better, and it seemed like a great place to learn. And we had a blast there, and then went off and joined the UNC faculty in Chapel Hill, which felt like the warmer sister of Michigan.
BB: And then UNC for how long?
AG: We were there two years.
BB: And then Wharton.
AG: And then Wharton and have been there now 12 years.
BB: Tell me a great moment from your time in Sheffield. Like what did you love doing there?
AG: One of the best choices we made was we said, “Look, we don’t want to end up missing out on exploring,” so we purposely didn’t get any TV channels. And that meant that the only thing we could watch ever was snooker. [laughter] It’s not really watchable.
BB: Yeah, no, it’s really not. It’s pool, right? Billiards?
AG: Yeah. But worse somehow. Somehow even more boring to watch.
BB: Yeah, it is.
AG: So, we did a lot of day trips and weekend trips, and I think one of the things that [chuckle] it was, actually in retrospect a big highlight was…it’s such a small thing, but it gave me a completely different appreciation of what it’s like to raise kids with a sense of the world, which I didn’t grow up with it all. We went over to our host’s house for dinner, and they had lived in Australia and then moved over to the UK. And their kids, they had at least one two-year-old, and they have this unusual mix of accents where they would say, “Mommy, I would like a hamburger.” And their accent would change, depending on what word they used, and it was so fascinating to listen to. And we just said, “Okay, we want to raise our kids with a little bit more appreciation of what goes on outside of their bubble than either of us grew up with.”
BB: I think the obsession with British and Australian and global TV and films makes that story very relatable, and I think that commitment is… Yeah, and there’s nothing cuter than I think for Americans, especially little kids with English or Australian accents is just kind of the best.
AG: It was adorable.
BB: Okay, so you set up at Wharton. Do you still teach?
AG: Yes, of course.
BB: How often are you in the classroom?
AG: I teach in the fall. I alternate. I’m in the classroom August through December, and the January through July is all the other things. Is that how you’re doing it now too?
BB: No, I haven’t been in the classroom, like carry my own course for five years. And I miss it all the time. So, I just did a lecture at LSE, at the London School of Economics. I just did a lecture at UT for the MBA program, and it sometimes not enough. I’d really love to do more. It’s so funny because my whole team is like, “Man, this is your happy place.” I’m like, “This is my happy place.” I love it.
AG: What do you miss about it? Because, obviously, you spend so much of your time teaching? Is it the relationships with students that’s missing?
BB: You know what is? So, this is the most elegant segue I’ve ever done on this podcast. It is the capacity for awe and the willingness to rethink.
AG: And you don’t feel like you get that to the same degree in all the other roles that you play?
BB: No, no, no. I don’t. I think for 20 years, I’ve only taught graduate and PhD students, and so it’s like they’re there to rethink. They’re there to unlearn, dismantle, rebuild, and so that’s really exciting to see that they come in ready to rethink. And so, my job is just to give them good questions and fuel the curiosity as opposed to sometimes if when I go into organizations, and this is not true of all of them, but a lot of it, its convincing people, what’s the business case, what’s the ROI? But we’ve always done it like this around here, then why am I here? I think just locked and loaded for rethink is so exciting.
AG: I can see you lighting up right now. I can hear it in your voice, and it makes so much sense because ever since I was first moved by your first TED talk and ever since we first met, it’s been so clear that although you are a remarkably talented persuader, what gives you the most joy is being an explorer.
BB: Oh, for sure. That’s the place where I don’t ever get tired. The persuading, that can wear me down sometimes, so I think that’s the right fit.
AG: Okay, so I have to ask you then, what does this mean in terms of rethinking your work life moving forward? Is there a plan in place to make room for…?
AG: Okay, so what does that look like? I want to hear more.
BB: I’m not quite sure yet, but there’s definitely a plan in place, and we have graduate interns who are clinical, are clinicians, and so they do the work that we do here in a sober high school, women transitioning out of homelessness and prison. So, I still see students, but I’m going to do some other more traditional stuff moving forward. So, I’m excited.
AG: I can’t wait to see what that looks like.
BB: I’m rethinking, Adam.
AG: Well, you should be.
BB: Okay, new book. God, bless America, I love this book. I love how you do data science stories, case examples, in the case of this book, illustrations that made me like “snort Diet Coke through my notes” funny. So, the title of the book is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I want to start by reading you a quote from your book. It is my favorite quote from the book. Yeah, there are several, but let me just start here. Adam writes, “We should all be able to make a long list of areas where we’re ignorant, mine include,” and this is Adam talking, “Art, financial markets, fashion, chemistry, food, why British accents turn American in songs and why it’s impossible to tickle yourself.” You go on and say, “Recognizing our shortcomings opens the door to doubt. As we question our current understanding, we become curious about what information we are missing. That search leads us to new discoveries, which in turn maintain our humility by reinforcing how much we still have to learn.” This is the line right here, but the set up was so beautiful, I had to include it. The line is… Do you know what line it is?
AG: Is it… “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”
AG: I read my own book. Yes!
BB: Yes, “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.” All right, how did you get to this book? Like what did you see that you’re like, “I need to write about this.”
AG: Well, let me back up and say thank you.
BB: Oh, you’re welcome.
AG: You’re just so exceedingly generous in reading the book and writing just an overly glowing endorsement of it and now saying such nice things about it. If I had known when I sat down to write this book that you were going to want to read it, let alone like it, it would have just made my day and I so appreciate that.
BB: Of course, I love it. I love it.
AG: Thank you.
BB: My whole team is like, “Dammit, this is good.”
AG: Well, I hope no one rethinks that any time soon.
AG: So, to your question, I always find myself reconstructing the story of why I wrote the book. I’m sure you’ve had this experience every time you’ve written a book. And so, I don’t know really why I wrote it. The story I’m making up to use one of my favorite phrases of yours, which I catch myself doing all the time now. I’m like, “Wait a minute, I just made up that story. I don’t know if it’s real or not, but it seems compelling in the moment, and I think it might have some truth to it.” The story I’m going to make up right now is it’s what you were talking about a few minutes ago, of how many times you’ve spent years pouring over a question and trying to make sense of a puzzle, and you think you finally gain some insight, and you go out into the world to share it, and people resist.
AG: One of the most elegant ones for me is early 2018. I think I’d put a study in my granted newsletter. It was an experiment on remote work and how people who are randomly assigned to work remotely in a call center were 13.5% more productive, and half as likely to quit over the next 6-9 months. And I thought, “Wow, this is really fascinating.” And I had a bunch of founders and CEOs respond and say, “Well, I wonder if we should be considering this in our company.” And I walked them through all the other evidence that I’d seen and some of the data that I was starting to gather, and what I ended up wanting to do is run a remote Friday experiment and say, “Let’s just give people one day a week to work from anywhere, and then let’s study what’s the impact not only on productivity, which is relatively straightforward, but also let’s try creativity. Let’s see what happens to collaboration and culture.” And they all turned me down, all of them.
BB: Why? I don’t understand.
AG: I didn’t get it either. What do you have to lose? Don’t you want to be a learning organization? You have to try new things in order to learn, and they all had obviously different specific reasons, but they all generally were afraid that once they opened Pandora’s box, people might never come back to the office. They invite in some cases — this is kind of hilarious in retrospect — but that they might just slack off all the time and no one would work anymore, that the culture was going to fall apart. And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry now, but I’ve watched at least three of those CEOs announce that they might be permanent, fully remote companies since the pandemic. And it’s so frustrating looking back because they could have had two years of practice, learning how to do this before they were forced to rethink.
AG: And Brené, I think I’ve had that experience so many times, of saying, “Look, I don’t know that the practice I want to recommend to you is going to work, but I want you to have the humility and curiosity to know what you don’t know and want to learn.” Well, how would that work? And try it out, and then we can gather data and teach not only your organization, but other workplaces about it too. And to just get that knee-jerk rejection of the idea, I think that happened to me one too many times. And I said, “Okay, I’ve got to try to figure out how we can get leaders to think again, but also just anybody to think again, and then how we can make that a norm in a team or an organization.
BB: I’m going to ask a big sweeping question because everything you just said makes so much sense and resonates. I’ve got Barrett from my team in the room with me, and we’re both like, “Oh my God, this sounds so painfully familiar.” What’s the big answer to this big question? Why do we refuse to challenge what we think we know? What is the greatest barrier? You have me in elevator for one minute. What is the greatest barrier to challenging what we know and rethinking our position on things, even in the face of new data?
AG: That’s such an important question. It’s one I should be able to answer, having written an entire book about this topic. I think I have a top three.
BB: That’s great.
AG: I think the top three might be ego, predictability and belonging. I should have asked you for your top three before I told you mine.
BB: I would have said self-worth, discomfort/ vulnerability, and belonging.
AG: We’re tracking pretty close though.
BB: I would have said the exact same three, but just in probably my language. So, I cannot think of a more vital time during this pandemic, during this kind of long overdue racial reckoning for us to rethink, right? To challenge and to question. Yeah, I just talked to Simon, and it’s interesting because I put my Simon talk on infinite games along with this, and I was talking to Steve about it, and he said, “You’d rather be wrong and be able to keep talking about things than be right and shut down a conversation.” I don’t mind being wrong if we get to keep debating and talking, but I think it’s the nature of maybe thinking like a scientist, and so tell me what thinking like a scientist means to you.
AG: Well, I think that also the way you describe that, it’s such a beautiful example of a gift of imperfection.
AG: I think being wrong, obviously, this is your language, not mine, but what I hear you’re saying is being wrong is accepting that you’re imperfect, but you’re excited to keep learning.
BB: Yes, I’m not here to be right, I’m here to get it right. Yeah, I love that. I love the learning part. You tell us to think like a scientist — what does that mean and what are we doing that is not thinking like a scientist? Let’s start there, let’s start with what is not thinking like a scientist.
AG: My colleague, Phil Tetlock, wrote one of my all-time favorite papers about how we make our decisions in daily life, and how we just form judgments and opinions. And what he observed that opened my eyes and has stuck with me for two decades, is we spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking like preachers, prosecutors and politicians. You can already tell why I love this as an organizational psychologist because I’ve never done any of those jobs. I’m definitely not a preacher. I don’t have a law degree. And I cannot imagine something I’m less interested in than politics.
AG: And yet, once I became aware that these occupations were taking over my brain from time to time, I couldn’t unsee it. So, when I’m thinking like a preacher, I believe that I found the truth, and my job is to proselytize it. When I’m thinking like a prosecutor, I think my job is to win my argument or prove my case and that means somebody else is wrong.
BB: Zero sum.
AG: Completely zero sum. And those two modes, I think, are huge barriers to rethinking. If I’m preaching or prosecuting, it means I’m right, you’re wrong, and I get to stand still. I get to freeze my beliefs and my knowledge, and I’ve got to force you to change. And anybody who doesn’t is a sinner or an idiot, right? Because you’re accepting being wrong or being in the wrong. How could you?
BB: I mean, literally with the preacher, it’s a sinner. With the prosecutor, it’s a loser.
AG: Yeah, a loser or somebody who’s guilty, a criminal.
BB: Guilty, yeah — bad, bad. What about the politician?
AG: The condemnation in either case is not good, right?
AG: The politician I think is interesting. The politician mindset is about trying to win an audience’s approval. So that means I’m lobbying and campaigning for your support. And I might look flexible when I do that because I have to tell you what you want to hear, but the danger of that is I’m not actually changing what I think I’m just changing what I say.
BB: Oh, Jesus, that’s terrible.
AG: Yeah, that to me is a complete violation of the authenticity that you stand for.
BB: Yeah, I’m not changing what I think. I’m just changing what I say.
AG: I’m just catering to whatever is going to get me ahead.
BB: Oh my God, I have to tell you that I feel a little called out.
AG: Wait, why?
BB: I got a preacher and…
AG: I’m so sorry.
BB: No, no…
AG: I don’t believe in call outs but tell me more.
BB: Oh, no, no, no, not call out in a bad way, because I got a little preacher in me, and I’ve definitely got a little prosecutor in me.
AG: I don’t see the prosecutor at all.
BB: Oh Jesus, you’re not married to me.
BB: Yeah, if we were married, I’d be like, “Did you or did you not unload the dishwasher? It’s a binary question. Are you lying then or are you lying now?” I was raised by a very legal person, like a lawyer, and so everything is like a deposition. When I wanted to get my ears pierced, I got a three-page letter on a legal pad, heretofore concerning the piercing of the ears. So, I have that… Yeah, I have that like, “Okay, well, we’re not speaking. My feelings are hurt. I’ve hurt your feelings, but I think I won.” So, I’ve got a little bit of that and the preacher in me can get in the way sometimes because I feel like I evangelize the work when I think people are doing something that’s hurting other people. And it’s the opposite of motivational interviewing, which you write about, which I love seeing in there, because I’m a huge fan of motivational interviewing. It’s the opposite of thinking like a scientist. It’s the opposite of empathy. It’s emotionally manipulative — preaching can be.
AG: I think you’re being too hard on yourself, Brené.
BB: Oh no, I can do it. Oh, no, no, no, no. I can…
AG: Listen, you’re the social work expert. [laughter] So it’s not my job to judge you judging you, but I will say one of the things that Phil said to me early on when I started working with him long after reading this paper and it kind of shaping my world view, he said, people gain a lot of currency in the world by thinking like scientists but talking like preachers.
BB: That’s interesting.
AG: And I have to say, I think that’s part of the genius of your work. But I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with preaching. It’s also what makes Simon Sinek such a master communicator. And we’ve had a bunch of conversations about how he’s a preacher and I’m a teacher and it’s sort of a nice complementarity where we’re both incomplete. But I think that preaching is highly effective when you’re trying to inspire an audience, when people are receptive to your message. The more that you’re conveying emotion, the more that you’re bringing gospel to the table, the more that people are moved. And I think it’s one of the things that you do so effectively. I think that what’s interesting to me is behind the scenes, how much you’re questioning the things that you say, and I think that’s what makes you such a good researcher.
BB: Oh yeah, I’m questioning everything all the time.
AG: That is such a remarkable tightrope walk to me, that you do so effectively. You’re always learning something new and telling us new stories. And so, it never feels like preaching, because the moment that you share something that’s a big aha moment, you now have a new question and a new insight, in some cases as a twist on the old. So, I don’t think you should be that hard on yourself for being a gifted storyteller. I think that requires mastering the skills of a preacher. I think where it would scare me is if you think like a preacher. And I have never seen you do that.
BB: Is it a preacher mindset, a prosecutor mindset?
BB: Yeah, a politician mindset. So, what is the scientist mindset?
AG: Well, this is something that I’ve started rethinking just in the past couple weeks. I’m especially excited to get your take on this because I think you’re one of the people who could and should challenge the way that I talked about this. But I’ll start with what I was trying to get at, which is I think that thinking like a scientist, it’s not about walking around in a lab coat or carrying a bunch of test tubes. It’s about saying if your mindset is to be a scientist, then your goal is not to be right or wrong in a given conversation. Your goal is not to sort of trump at the party line of your tribe. Your goal is to get closer to the truth, to discover knowledge…
AG: To find things out…
AG: To be a life-long learner and to be guided by curiosity as opposed to conviction. And I think that if that’s your mentality, when you start to form an opinion, it’s a hunch. It’s a hypothesis to test.
BB: A hypothesis, yep.
AG: And then you want to go out, and if you’re a qualitative researcher, you would go and observe, you would ask people questions. If you’re more of an experimentalist, right, you would say, all right, well, let me do the trial and error and test this out and see how it goes. And then you’re actually trying to falsify some of your beliefs…
AG: Not just verify them.
AG: Because it’s exciting to find out that you’re wrong, that means you’ve learned something. And so that’s what thinking like a scientist is for me, and as you know, there’s some amazing evidence that if startup founders are just randomly assigned to learn to think like scientists, to say, “You know what, your strategy is just a theory. Do customer interviews to generate hypotheses. Create a minimum viable product to test your hypothesis. They go from averaging about $300 a year in revenue to over $12,000 in revenue, which is staggering and…
AG: I mean, I was shocked when I read this evidence, and the main reason that it’s so effective is when they start to think like scientists, they are more than twice as likely to pivot to let go of failing visions and bad strategies and say, “You know what, my data told me that wasn’t the right direction, and so now I’m going to reconsider that.” And so, I got very excited about the idea that thinking like a scientist gives us mental flexibility. It makes it easier to question ourselves. First of all, let me get your reaction to that, and then I want to see if you can help me rethink that.
BB: I agree with every part of it. I agree that it’s mental flexibility. I will first say that it takes a ton of courage that I don’t see all the time. So, we go back to ego, predictability, and belonging. And so, you’re a young investor or you’ve got a young start-up, you’ve got investment money, and now you’re going to start asking hard questions that may require a pivot. And do you pivot, or do you protect? And really, protecting would be the pivot, but the question is, what are you protecting? I’m in a big research study right now, and I had this idea about how to do something and we just tested it and it didn’t work out. And I was so relieved because…
BB: Something felt wrong, and it’s almost like when I told my kids, we’re going to do a lot of internships, a lot of free work, a lot of volunteering. And Ellen said she was going to do a volunteer week somewhere and she said, “I don’t think I’m going to want be an engineer.” And I said, “Great, let’s find out for sure.” So, after the week, she was like, “Oh my God, no way, Mom.” I was like, “Great.” That’s as valuable as learning what you do want to be. I mean, that’s great. I will tell you that it’s very vulnerable. Thinking like a scientist in a world that’s driven by sales, even ideas are commodified and sold? It’s very hard. Do you agree?
AG: I do, I think it is hard. I think it requires something that you said a few minutes ago, which is you have to care more about getting it right than being right. And a lot of times, I think in a lot of cases, it means you have to be willing to sacrifice quarterly returns in order to invest in what’s going to teach you the most in the long run. And yeah, I think that takes a tremendous amount of courage. I think it requires extraordinary vulnerability, because you’re probably going to very publicly admit I made a mistake. And everybody’s going to see you fall on your face potentially, when you have to pivot and say, [chuckle] “You know what, this direction that I committed to is actually not effective and you should trust me now. I’m going in the right direction, even though I had no idea what I was doing yesterday.”
BB: Yeah, and again, just tying back another conversation that I recently had with Jim Collins. And I think to some degree, Simon’s work, which is very difficult when you’ve got a Wall Street call every quarter and you’ve got analysts and numbers where that pivot may take six months or a year in the long run to do the right thing. The thing I kept thinking when I was reading the book was above all else in my mind, and you’ll probably disagree, but rethinking in my mind is a function of courage.
AG: I don’t disagree at all.
BB: You don’t?
AG: Not at all. I think you’re absolutely right. Well, tell me more about why you think it requires courage. I have a hunch, but it’s only a hypothesis. I want to test it because you have spent a lot of years studying and writing about courage.
BB: It’s for every reason you say — you have to be brave to test what you’ve convinced yourself is true. And it can lead to disappointment and heartbreak, rethinking and regret, and the need to make amends and the need to reset and a whole shit ton of work. I don’t think rethinking is for the faint of heart.
AG: I think that’s really compelling. Yeah, I think if anybody who’s a serious student of your work, you could almost pick any of your books at random and say, okay, if I’ve really internalized the message of Daring Greatly, or of Rising Strong or of Braving the Wilderness, or of Dare to Lead, and if I could just apply one or two pages of any of those books to rethinking, it would get a little bit easier.
AG: Because I think the most powerful common threads across all your writing is something that I don’t think I saw as I was writing this book, but it’s really clear to me now. So, I was really struck by the fact that so many people prefer the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.
BB: Okay, you’ve got to say that again. That is too powerful. You got to say that again.
AG: How many of us, most people I know prefer the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. And what you write about, I think a huge part of your mission is giving people the courage, the bravery to overcome that discomfort or even to welcome that discomfort and say it’s part of how I grow and how I connect with people.
BB: I want to talk about belonging. You used kind of the flat Earthers are people who believe in the flat Earth theory, right? And you talk about their thinking cycle. And I was looking at that and I was thinking to myself, sometimes the comfort of conviction is really bolstered by intense belonging. I belong to a group that has a name. We have branding. We have symbols and artifacts. We have shared enemies. Tell me what role belonging plays in the refusal to rethink our position.
AG: The irony of this question is not lost on me because I should be asking you that question.
AG: You’re not going to let me.
BB: No, I’m not.
AG: I’ll take a crack at it, but I want to hear you elaborate because, again, [chuckle] you’re a belonging expert, I’m not. Let me try based on what I’ve gathered in a little bit of data and what I’ve read from a lot of others. But the first thing I think of is group polarization.
AG: We have half a century of social psychology showing that if…. Let’s take flat Earthers as our example to make this concrete. If a bunch of people who think maybe the Earth isn’t round and maybe scientists and the government aren’t telling us the truth, get together in a room and they interact for a couple of hours. On average, they will come out with a more extreme view in that direction than if they hadn’t interacted. And part of that, I think, is driven by belonging. People want to fit into the group. One of the best ways to fit into the group, which comes right out of social identity theory, is to become the prototype of the group, to become the exemplar of the group. What that motivates a lot of people to do is to say, “Okay, what is central to the identity and the value system of this group? If I can be that, then I’m going to belong. I’m going to be one of us. I’m going to be more of us than the rest of us.” And when people start to think that through, they often will arrive in a more extreme version of whatever the common ground of the group was going in. So, if you could be the person who not only thinks that the Earth might be flat but could actually prove that it’s shaped like a Frisbee, you would be the most valued flat Earther in the flat Earth tribe.
AG: And I think that that also probably satisfy as a motive for what Marilynn Brewer has long called optimal distinctiveness, the idea that we want to fit in and stand out at the same time. It was one of my favorite ways to think about belonging is… Well, normally those motives are intentioned. The very things that I would do to fit in prevent me from standing out and vice versa. But, at least in Brewer’s work, if you can form a group with a unique identity, to your point, then you can satisfy both motives simultaneously. If I’m a flat Earther, well, I fit in because I get to be part of that tribe. But also, we’re very different from all of those people out there who don’t know the truth like we do, and that means we get to stand out collectively. Okay, tell me what I missed.
BB: You didn’t miss anything. But I couldn’t live with myself if we’re not saying like, look at QAnon, look at the attack on the Capitol. Here was the opportunity for people who‑ we just know from some of the stories of some of the folks who’ve been arrested ‑ belonging, artifacts. But one guy had on a patch on his military jacket, one of the people who actually stormed in and was kind of holding the line through the crowd, that said, “I don’t believe in anything. I’m just here for the violence.” And it’s such a form of counterfeit intimacy, because the biggest threat when you belong based on those things is actually rethinking.
AG: Yes, I think you just put your finger right on the pulse of what might be the biggest challenge that America is facing right now, other than a pandemic.
BB: But even the pandemic has its own. So, the anti-maskers, it’s that stand out, fit in. In a world where people feel so disconnected and we’ve both seen the loneliness research — we feel lonely, we feel disconnected. And now all of a sudden, here’s a chance for me to belong to something, to have an identity that makes me a part of something, but also controversial with the masses. It makes me feel special. But I have to say that I don’t want to put this on a continuum and make any correlations. But let’s go into flat Earth, QAnon conspiracy, even anti-mask, anti-science kind of folks, which it just seems are definitely not thinking like scientists. But let’s go into an organization, where you and I have both been in organizations where the culture is built around some cult-like enthusiasm, right? I have found, anecdotally, I don’t study this, the most resistance to rethinking in cultures that describe themselves as rebellious or different than other people.
BB: Do you understand what I’m saying?
AG: It’s such an interesting paradox.
BB: Yes, yes, so like we are this, we’re not these main people. We are this and this is our culture. And we’re not rethinking anything.
AG: Wow, okay, so what’s behind that? The first thing that jumps to mind is when you have people who define themselves by what they’re not…
AG: Who dis-identify with whatever the mainstream bean counters or suits are doing…
BB: Yeah, yeah.
AG: That just screams non-conformity to me.
BB: Right, flag one: non-conformity.
AG: Yeah, and what’s interesting about that is if you define yourself as a non-conformist, you’re letting other people define your identity.
AG: You’re saying, whatever you are, I’m not that.
BB: Yeah, yeah, no, I mean, it’s more reactionary than conformity.
AG: It is, and as a result, you’re not really doing a lot of rethinking independently. The second thing though that comes to mind is when I think about strong culture, I always think of Jenny Chapman and Charles O’Reilly’s research on this, where they break cultures down into intensity and crystallization. And they say if you were going to walk into a new organization and you’re trying to gauge the strength of the culture, you could figure out crystallization just by asking people, what is this organization all about? What’s the identity? What’s the values? And the more different people tell you the same answers, the more people have crystallized. Oh, well, that’s who we are. And then intensity is about how passionate people are around that identity or those values. Will they fight for it even when the leader is not in the room? And I wonder if part of what’s going on here is that when an organization defines itself as rebellious, you have extremely high crystallization and intensity. And that means that you’ve started to blur the line. This goes to your point in asking the question between a culture, a strong culture, and a cult. And you’ve lost the freedom to question some of those comments and convictions.
BB: Yes, that’s it. Man, I am going to transcribe that right there. I will absolutely attribute it to you, but that is exactly what happens. That is really insightful is we have a “ding, ding, ding, ding ding” moment here. That is exactly what happens, and I’ve seen that inability to rethink because of that blurred line between culture and cult-ish. I’ve seen it bring down businesses.
AG: Yeah, same, I’m amazed by how much groupthink I see in organizations across industries. And at some point, it’s more efficient to just write the book than it is to have all these frustrating uphill battles. But I’ve just started asking leaders when they start to resist. Okay, Blackberry, Blockbuster…
AG: Kodak, Sears, should I keep going?
BB: Yeah, no, no, you shouldn’t.
AG: Is that who you want to be? Because you’re marching on the path right now. And they were very, very convinced that they had good strategies until the world around them changed and they weren’t really willing to rethink some of the strategies that made them great in the first place. And I think that one of the best antidotes that I can think of to this, it’s just to say, look — one of your core values has to be diversity of thought. And if you want to have crystallization and intensity around hearing dissenting views, creating psychological safety, giving people the freedom to be vulnerable and courageous, and not letting that be a threat to their belonging, then I don’t worry as much about you having a strong culture.
BB: No, I don’t either. Okay, I fell in love with someone in the book.
AG: Tell me — wait, can I guess?
BB: Yeah, yes, you can have… Yes, yes, I don’t think you do, but if you guess, I’ll freak out.
AG: Okay, I’m going to give you a list of finalists. Okay, originally, I was thinking it might be Daryl Davis or Arnaud Gagneur. I think, though, that it might be Ron Berger, the teacher.
BB: Nope, none of those three.
AG: None. Okay, wait, let me guess. Who else could it be?
BB: I’ll give you a hint.
AG: I don’t want a hint. Is it Harish Natarajan? Is it Aaron McCarthy?
AG: Is it Jean-Pierre Beugoms?
BB: Yes. [laughter]
AG: Okay, I went too far ahead in the book. I should have known that it was the super forecaster. What did you fall in love with about him?
BB: First of all, the name of this… This is just so good, “The Yoda Effect: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned.” So interestingly, I did a 40-page paper in my PhD program on environmental scanning in the NGO and non-profit sector. He’s a… we don’t call it environmental scanning anymore, right? What do we call it now? Forecasting.
AG: Yeah, I guess he’s a forecaster, but they call him a scenario planner, even.
BB: A scenario planner. Yeah. That’s what I mean.
AG: I don’t think he would like that, but that’s what he would do in an organization.
BB: I don’t think so. Yeah. I don’t think so. Okay, Jean-Pierre — he predicts things. He’s able to use science to predict things. And so, one of the things he did, you write, “On November 18th, 2015, Jean-Pierre registered a prediction that stunned his opponents.” So, first of all, let me back up. I had no idea that they were forecasting tournaments.
AG: Credit Phil Tetlock for that again. His organization, it’s a non-profit, Good Judgment, has done an outstanding job, first with the intelligence community. Instead of just saying, “Here’s what we think is going to happen in the world,” we ought to actually have people register their forecasts and then score them so we can find out who’s good at this, and then listen to those people and learn from how they predict. But then they went a step further and said, “Let’s have open tournaments and let people participate for free and even score themselves against expert forecasters.” And if anybody wants to try this, go to Good Judgment Open. It’s such a fun experience to say, “All right, let me guess? Is the Euro going to go up or down in the next six months?” And one of the best ones is, “Who’s going to win the next election in a given country?” And then you actually get to see how well you did. Not only were you right or wrong, but also, did you have the right level of confidence? Were you pretty certain when you were right, and were you full of doubt when you were wrong?
BB: So, this guy is incredible. So, these participants in this competition don’t just answer yes or no, they give their odds. You write, “It’s a systemic way of testing whether they know what they don’t know. They get scored months later on accuracy and calibration, earning points, not just for giving the right answer, but for having the right level of conviction. The best forecasters have confidence in their predictions that come true and doubt in their predictions that prove false.” So, Jean-Pierre, my new obsession, he was in a forecasting tournament in 2015, November of 2015, who was going to win the presidency? He picked Donald Trump with a 68% chance. At that time, his odds were only 6%, according to Nate Silver, who we all know from FiveThirtyEight, the statistician.
BB: So, here’s what you write, “Based on his performance, Jean-Pierre might be the world’s best election forecaster. His advantage is he thinks like a scientist. He’s passionately dispassionate. At various points in his life, Jean-Pierre has changed his political ideologies and religious beliefs. He doesn’t come from polling or statistics background. He’s a military historian, which means he has no stake in the way things have always been done in forecasting.” This is the paragraph that freaked me out. It sent me on a research rabbit trail that just derailed me for two days.
AG: Oh, I can’t wait to hear more. I’m sorry for derailing you, by the way. I feel like you do not need to be wasting two days of your life for that.
BB: Oh, no, no, it was great. Nothing wasted. This will come back and inform something, if nothing, just the way I think and rethink. “The single most important driver of forecasters’ success was how often they updated their beliefs. The best forecasters went through more rethinking cycles. They had the competent humility to doubt their judgments and the curiosity to discover new information that led them to revise their prediction.” What? Are you saying…? Can I just rephrase this? Are you saying the best forecasters are the people who challenge their embedded beliefs and change beliefs, based on new information and data?
AG: Yeah, that’s exactly right. They don’t just disagree with other people’s predictions. They dare to disagree with their own forecasts, and that means they get to keep learning. So, Jean-Pierre actually, I got to see this in real time. When I was writing the book, we had, I don’t know, some presidential election going on in the US.
AG: And I thought, “Okay, we already know that he anticipated the rise of Trump. He also was much more accurate on Brexit than most of his colleagues. He predicted a whole bunch of other elections.” And I actually think that he’s not just the world’s most accurate election forecaster, he may be the world’s most accurate forecaster across all topics. And there’s no way you can be an expert on all those topics. So, the data show it’s not what he knows. It’s how he thinks. And I thought, “Okay, I want see how he does this in real time. I haven’t told anyone this. It didn’t make the book because it was still a question mark, so I’m really curious to hear what you make of this, Brené. I asked him the first time I interviewed him, I think it was July 2019, “Who’s going to win the US presidential election?” And he said, “I can’t do that. That’s crazy. I don’t know who’s going win the primary, and I would never register a forecast this far in advance. I’ve just started to do my homework.” And I said, “Just humor me. I want to hear how you think this through.” He gave me a whole series of considerations that he would put on the table, and he said, “If I had to bet right now, I would bet on Joe Biden.”
BB: Are you serious?
AG: I actually, I have email and text prediction of it because I followed up with him afterward and said, “I have some questions for you. It’s fascinating to me that you thought it was going to be Biden. Can you elaborate a little bit on your rationale?” Now, if we pause there, I mean, this guy has a crystal ball, but when I asked him the follow-up questions, he came back and said, “I’m sorry. I was too rash on my judgment. I’ve rethought it. I’m now betting on just the Democratic primary being won by Elizabeth Warren.” And then a couple of months later, he was betting on Bernie Sanders. Only I think, in early 2020, did he shift back to Biden and that kind of revising, rethinking, updating is what makes him so good at what he does. Because most forecasters, once they made the Biden prediction, they would just lock in on it. And the problem is a forecast that early is likely to be wrong. And what Jean-Pierre does is he looks for reasons why he might be wrong, not just right, and then he also makes a list of conditions under which he would change his mind. So, he had a whole list of reasons or factors that would lead him to say, “Maybe, Biden is not the front runner here.” And then when a couple of those boxes got checked, he said, “Now, I have to keep myself honest, and I’m responsible for changing my opinion.” And then he kept updating. How cool is that?
BB: That’s somebody I trust.
AG: Me too. So, the crazy thing is he’s a military historian. This isn’t even his expertise, and the fact that he can do this, is just remarkable. So, tell me what your rabbit hole is. What were your questions? What did you go and explore then?
BB: Decision-making. I wanted to understand, because it brings up a question for me, personally, which is what’s the sweet spot for rethinking? Because let me tell you something, as much as ego and vulnerability and fear can stifle rethinking and belonging, it can also drive chronic unproductive rethinking, right?
AG: Yeah, this is such an interesting tension here because one of the things I’ve been telling people for years is when you face a threat to your ego or your identity or your career or your image, it’s going to sound simple. It’s obviously much more difficult to practice than it is to teach, but if you could just think about, instead of saying, “I’m here to prove myself.” I’m here to improve myself. It’s a lot easier to see that as a learning opportunity, and that’s exactly what Jean-Pierre does. He says, “You know what? I’m not here to prove to anyone that I already know the answers. I’m not here to prove to anyone that I got it right the first time I tried. I’m here to keep improving myself, and I want to know how good I can get.” I so admire that aspiration to achieve mastery. I also think it protects him. I cannot believe we’ve had this whole conversation and neither of us has said shame yet.
BB: Yeah. No, yeah, that’s right.
AG: It protects him from shame.
BB: It does.
AG: Because I think if you’re not thinking like a scientist, if John-Pierre goes around and let’s say nobody had asked him the Biden question he wasn’t ready to forecast yet, I think he would have started his real forecasting during his Warren or Sanders phase.
BB: Yeah, right.
AG: It’s almost like he was dating them, like he was saying, “Not right for me. Let me try out a different relationship.” If you didn’t think like a scientist, you would have gotten locked into preaching and prosecuting, and you would have been ashamed to find out that you were wrong and maybe you even twist that into accusing other people of being liars or of not having all the facts. And he has no ego investment in this, his whole goal is to get better and to try to get it right, not to be right.
BB: Oh, my God. I go right back to a conversation I had with Sarah Lewis at Harvard, who said, “The difference between success and mastery, the difference between short-term success and ego and mastery, which is so internally driven.” All right, I have one more thing I have to ask you about because I’m so excited about my quick-fire questions for you. I could talk to you about this book for like… This could be like the 12-hour podcast.
AG: I wouldn’t wish that on you, you’ve already spent a lot of time with this book.
BB: No, but I could. I could talk to you about everything. I just love talking to you about stuff. It’s so fun.
BB: Before we go to the next thing. Can you give me some insight on the sweet spot question? Is there a sweet spot between an unwillingness to rethink and compulsive rethinking?
AG: Yeah, I really wanted to write a chapter about that. I just couldn’t find good evidence on it. I’m still rethinking where that sweet spot is. I think it’s going to be different for every person and every decision or situation, of course, but I think the most useful data point I found was from the Tetlock et al studies of super forecasting, where the average forecaster revised about twice. The greatest forecasters rethought about four times. So, it’s not like you have to get trapped in analysis paralysis or become a constant flip-flopper. It’s just rethinking just two more times than you might by default, is enough to help you reconsider, and I think the key here is rethinking does not have to change your mind.
BB: That’s right. That’s right.
AG: It’s just reflecting.
BB: That’s right.
AG: And wondering if you should change your mind.
BB: It’s just being open.
AG: That’s what matters.
BB: Right. It’s being open to new information.
BB: Yes. I’ll be very curious when you do this study and write the follow-up chapter to see what role self-awareness plays in terms of what is the intrinsic motivator for the rethink? Is it fear or is it curiosity?
AG: Yes. And I wonder if some combination of both is actually what gets people there.
BB: I bet.
AG: I’m okay at this point. I’m with you. I would much rather have people to start from a place of curiosity, but if it takes fear to get people to say, “You know what, I don’t want to regret falling into this trap that people in my world often call escalation of commitment to a losing course of action where they invest time or energy or money into a decision and it doesn’t work out, and then they just double down. I don’t want to be that person. I’m afraid of being that person. I’m afraid of wishing I had done some rethinking.” If that’s what gets you there? All right.
BB: It’s great, yeah.
AG: Better than nothing, right?
BB: Yes. All right, the other thing I just want to say very quickly before we go to our rapid fire is, I have enough red flags to make a parade when people give me simple answers to complex issues. Like, this is an issue. You write about this. Just tell me what you found. Tell me what you learned.
AG: This was a complete re-thinking for me. I set out to write a chapter on having charged conversations and what I thought I was going to say was completely different from what I ended up writing. I think I came in assuming that with all of the difficult issues of our time — whether it’s climate change or systemic racism, or who actually won an election, or is it safe to get a vaccine ever — I assumed that what was missing was people didn’t see the other side of the issue. And we just needed to burst filter bubbles and break people free of echo chambers, and if they only could see the other side, they would be much more open-minded. And I came away thinking that not only is seeing the other side not the solution, but also, it’s part of the polarization problem. Because seeing the other side… I think it does two things. One is, it takes a very complex spectrum of beliefs and over-simplifies it into two categories.
AG: And so, if you’re told you only have two choices, you can either be for gun rights or gun safety, you’re going to pick your side and then you’re going to create a caricature of the other side. As opposed to saying, “You know what, actually this is a really complex issue with a lot of points of agreement and disagreement between people with all kinds of political stances.” Vast majority of Americans agree on universal background checks, for example, conservatives and liberals, and I think just seeing the other side prevents us from seeing all the gray in the middle, and that’s the vast majority of people. Almost everybody is somewhere in the gray, the media and social media both amplify the extremes, and then we just end up more polarized.
BB: I think it’s true, and I think I live in the middle in a lot of things. I wrote about a lot of that in Braving the Wilderness where I said, “I grew up hunting. I have a hunting family, teaching Charlie to shoot skeet, and I believe in gun reform.” I’m not going to be forced into, as you would say, a caricature of either one of these sides. And I probably belong to a majority.
AG: You do. You do. And that’s not all we see, even when… I love Sara Konrath and her colleagues work where they just show the Electoral College maps, and it turns out that when people look at the blue and red maps, they end up over-estimating polarization.
AG: And if you show purple maps and say, “Hey, actually, a lot of states are mixed and actually a lot of people are mixed,” that people are much more realistic about all the shades of…. Well, I guess of purple that exist in this country. But I think one of the things I love most about your work, Brené, is you give people clarity without shying away from the complexity. And I think this idea of complexify-ing is exactly what we need more of in difficult conversations. In a Katharina Kluger and Peter Coleman work, it’s very much just saying, “You know what, instead of presenting the gun issue as a debate between two sides, like they’re opposite sides of a coin, you show it through many lenses of a person and say, actually it’s a multi-faceted issue. There are five or six or nine different perspectives on each of these questions.” If you just introduce people to the gun rights issue this way…
AG: I love this experiment. Then people on opposite sides of an abortion debate are more likely to find common ground and sign a joint statement together on their shared views. And so, the idea of complexify-ing a completely different issue, gun control is enough to get people to think in more nuanced, more open, more curious ways on abortion, that to me is a sliver of hope.
BB: That’s a sliver of hope, and that’s the power, I think, of mindset, of teaching people how to think, not what to think. Yeah.
AG: Yes, please.
BB: Yeah, me too.
AG: Can I sign up for more of that?
BB: Sign us up. Adam and Brené, first on the list. All right. You ready for rapid fire?
AG: I’m ready.
BB: Vulnerability is… Fill in the blank.
AG: A source of strength, not a sign of weakness.
BB: What’s something people often get wrong about you…
AG: That I’m in prosecutor mode when I’m trying to get other people to think like scientists.
BB: What’s one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable you need to share it with us or so crappy you need to warn us?
AG: I like the two sides of that. We shouldn’t complexify that, that one needs the extremes. I think one of the crappiest pieces of leadership advice that I’ve ever gotten is, “Don’t ever admit what you don’t know.”
AG: Because then you’re going to look incompetent and insecure. And of course, it’s the opposite, it takes confidence to show humility. I think what we need in leadership right now is more confident humility.
AG: People having the courage to say, “I actually have no idea what I’m doing right now.” And let’s take the pandemic as an example. My favorite leaders during the pandemic said, “This is a very complex problem, honestly. Right now, I have no idea how to tackle it, but I’m confident that I have an extraordinary team around me and that we are going to figure this out to the best of our abilities.”
BB: Yeah, I mean, I have to say just very quickly, we had Jon Meacham on here and he was talking about his podcast series on great leaders, and I listened to all these speeches from Churchill and Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The one thing they all had in common was, “This is big. We don’t have all the answers, but I’ll keep shooting straight with you”.
AG: I would love to bring a little bit more of that into the world.
BB: Amen. Okay. What’s your best leadership quality?
AG: I don’t think it’s my place to judge. I think you’d have to ask the people who I’ve led what I’m good at.
BB: What feedback have you received that’s positive about your leadership?
AG: Oh, I tried to evade that one, unsuccessfully.
BB: Yeah. No chance in hell. Nice dodge, though.
AG: The feedback that’s jumping out for me right now, which I don’t know if this is the best or not. I’ve been told that when people really need me, whether it’s my support or me to challenge them, that they can count on me to be responsive and show up, and that’s definitely who I want to be as a leader.
BB: God, that’s big. And so underestimated. All right, what’s one thing you’re really excited about right now?
AG: There’s so much.
AG: Any area of excitement? My wife, Allison Sweet Grant is a brilliant writer. And when we first met, she had written a couple of novels and no one had ever read them. And I think once she let me read two sentences, and then she let me read a little bit of her poetry. And in the past few years, she’s really started to rethink that, and we ended up writing a couple of children’s books together, and now she’s writing more independently. And I cannot wait for more people to be moved by her writing now that I’ve finally gotten to read it.
BB: I love that. I’m looking forward to reading it too. I love that. Okay, what’s the hard leadership lesson that the universe just keeps putting in front of you because you have to keep re-learning it and re-learning it and re-learning it?
AG: This is sort of cheating because I gave you this in my answer to one of the lightning questions. Can I elaborate on that or do you want a different one?
BB: Yeah. No, go.
AG: I think I have to keep re-learning over and over again that I can’t bully people into changing their minds. And I hate the idea of thinking about myself as a bully. I need to modify the one my students gave, which was logically. Because when I think about a bully, I think of somebody who’s trying to hurt you or antagonize you in some way, and when I hammer people with logic and evidence…. When I go into, I guess, Mr. Facts mode, it’s because I’m trying to help them. I’m trying to help them see something that I think is a blind spot, or I want them to have access to a perspective that was helpful for me, and I just sometimes cannot see it, that I’m starting to badger them a little bit, as opposed to being curious and open and flexible myself. And so, I think if one of your notes for yourself earlier was, you want to make sure in all of the thinking that you do like a scientist, that you don’t sound too much like a preacher? I want to make sure that all the time I spend trying to get other people to think like scientists doesn’t drag me into prosecutor mode.
BB: God, I can relate. All right, one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.
AG: Right now, this is such a moment for gratitude. It’s hard to think of just one. Something I’m grateful for is people have known you, Brené, since you first took over the world of thought leadership for your ability to speak. And one thing I’m grateful for is that you have not one but two podcasts, and people get to see you in your zone as a listener, a professional listener, as an interviewer, as a qualitative researcher, as a story gatherer, right? Not just a storyteller. And it is such an interesting side of you. I feel like one of the things that’s happened to me when I’ve listened to your podcast, is I’ve said, “Oh, that’s what I need to be doing more in my life.” And it’s actually something that our mutual friend Scott Sonenshein probably first impressed upon me at Michigan back in 2003 or 2004 when he said, “Look, I understand that you want to know what causes what, and you want to test strategies for…. If you have an experiment to make somebody’s job more meaningful, you want to know does it work or not?” But he said the richest insights often come from being what Bob Sutton would often call a closet qualitative researcher, going out and observing and doing ethnographies and asking questions and hearing people’s stories. And he and Jane Dutton are the two people that convinced me that I needed to be at least a part-time qualitative scholar. And I love getting to hear you do that.
AG: It’s a master class in how to be a great listener and a great interviewer. And I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to not only learn from it, but also that I’ve gotten to be on the receiving end of it because it’s very powerful to experience and… Sorry, this is a much longer answer than the lightning rounds deserves, but it sparked two things really quickly for me. One is that… I told somebody a few months ago that we should listen less to people who think fast and shallow, and more to people who think slow and deep, sort of a riff on one of my favorite Dan Kahneman ideas. And I realized that so many of the conversations I have, there’s a premium on talking fast. And one of the things you do so remarkably, is you ask people questions that make them pause and reflect and think and sometimes re-think. And you also model that. I hear you in this show, I’ve heard you do it over and over again, just do the long awkward pause and I finally get like, Oh, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. When you tell people that it’s actually a good thing to be awkward, I’m like, wait, that wasn’t uncomfortable at all, I can feel you thinking, and I want to be more like that.
AG: And I think for too long, I was trained that being smart meant being quick on your feet and having an immediate answer. And I kind of invested in a view of expertise that let me know every single study that I can that speaks to a topic and I want to be able to quote them in response because I want to be evidence-based, I want to be a scientist. And that has stood in the way of a lot of my thinking and in the way of having really interesting curious conversations. Sometimes it shuts down conversations, so that wasn’t hot. The other thing you just sparked for me, and I will shut up after this, I promise, but you ask these questions that make people think and rethink.
BB: Yeah, no.
AG: You reminded me of this thing that’s been bugging me about thinking like a scientist, which is…. I wonder if scientist is too narrow. I wonder if it really should have been thinking like a scholar, because I worry that scientist tilts people too far in the direction of quantitative research of doing experiments as opposed to the messy world in which you live, which is where the eureka moments often happen, of stories and lived experiences. I wonder if that’s something you think I should rethink.
BB: The only thing about the word scientist and the word scholar too is I’ve mentored many women in our PhD program who said, “I never thought I could be even a researcher or a scientist or a scholar, because I thought that was a white guy with a lab coat.” And so, I think those words do come charged with images that…. what we used to say is pale, male, and Yale. But I think maybe we can reclaim that and change that. But I do think in this global assault on science right now, I do think thinking like a scientist has power. My vote right now is not to rethink it. My vote is to expand the periphery of it to include more people.
AG: I love that. I guess that’s where I went in the book, is just to redefine what it means to be a scientist and say this is about the disciplined pursuit of knowledge and maintaining curiosity and humility.
BB: And I love that, and we’ve had great public scientists like Fauci who people can say, Oh, I do want to be like that, so I think… No, mine is, No re-thinking.
AG: All right. I’m in this time.
BB: All right, last question, and thank you for your kind words. It really meant a lot to me. I respect your opinion. So, thank you. All right, you gave us five songs for your mini-mix tape. These are five songs you can’t live without, We Are the Champions by Queen, Halo by Beyonce, Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, Bad Things by Machine Gun Kelly and Hey Jude by The Beatles. In one sentence, what does this mini-mix tape say about Adam Grant?
AG: This might require two sentences, but I’ll try.
BB: Don’t even try to slip that semicolon bullshit academic stuff in there. One sentence.
AG: I love academic bullshit.
BB: I know, me too: the colon.
AG: It’s what I do. What it says about me, and something I’ve learned about myself during the pandemic is there aren’t any songs I can’t live without. I went at least four or five months in the pandemic without listening to any music and didn’t even notice. And looking back, it has been that way my whole life. I enjoy music, but I never needed it and so what that list says to me is I had to look up my playlist and see what was on it because I hadn’t looked in it in so long, and those are five of the most frequently played songs. Is that weird?
BB: No, it’s not weird. When you do listen, this is them, but there’s nothing you couldn’t live without.
AG: No, I think a soundtrack in my head is ideas, not tunes.
BB: That’s beautiful. Okay, we’ll end it there, Adam, thank you so much, the book is Think Again, and I’m sure everyone that’s listening… Producing this right now, it’s like they are the biggest nerds, and I would probably wear that moniker with you, so thank you for being with us.
AG: Wear with pride. Maybe that’s the alternative to scientists. Nerd.
BB: Nerd. Think like a nerd. That has some potential, I can see the t-shirts.
AG: I am all in for that.
BB: Me too. Thank you, Adam.
AG: Thank you Brené. This is such a joy.
BB: Okay, clearly, Adam and I could have talked about these topics for hours, and… It could have been like a marathon, a podcast marathon on rethinking, on complexity, on this whole future’s prediction stuff is mind-blowing to me. I couldn’t tell you with any degree of certainty what I’m having for dinner tonight, so I love the idea of re-thinking as a function of courage. If you want to learn more about Adam and his work, you can follow him on Instagram at @adamgrant, on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook he’s at Adam M. Grant.
BB: All right, church bulletins. All of our podcasts have episode pages where you can find great downloads, you can find notes, links to things that we mentioned in the podcast. It’s on brenebrown.com. While you’re there, you’re also invited to sign up for our newsletter, we literally send it one time a month, and it gives you an update on who we’re talking to, who we’re going to talk to, some of our key takeaways and some of the fun stuff that we’re doing at Brené Brown Education and Research Group. A reminder that Unlocking Us is available exclusively on Spotify, and there’s a whole Brené Brown hub there, including all the mini-mix tapes. Sometimes I get mini-mix tapes from the podcast, y’all, I don’t know a single song, but these…
BB: I knew all of these, all of Adam’s, so you can find this playlist right there on Spotify. Last week on the Unlocking Us podcast, talked to the incredible Debbie Millman and Roxane Gay. Roxane is a prolific writer, an English professor, a cultural critic. Debbie is an author, educator, a host of the award-winning Design Matters podcast. We talk about their love story. It’s just a beautiful conversation about putting love into the world and how they love each other, and how we’re better off for the fact that they do both — put love into the world and love each other. It’s a gift of a conversation.
BB: And thank you. Just a big-ass thank you for listening, for being a part of the community, for leaving great questions on the social media platforms. I get great questions on LinkedIn, on Twitter, on Instagram. A podcast is nothing without a community, and it’s not just listeners. It’s a community of folks who are trying to learn together and rethink together as Adam would say, so I’m grateful. The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy productions. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo and the music is by The Suffers.
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