Pop quiz time.
Take a look at the list below. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you know about the following topics?
- Why women were burned at the stake in Salem
- The job Walt Disney had before he drew Mickey Mouse
- On which spaceflight humans first laid eyes on the Great Wall of China
- How English became the official language of the United States
- Why we use only 10% of our brains
The list is partially based on my friend Adam Grant’s terrific new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, which came out this week. I received an advance copy of the book, and like every other book Adam has written, this one is a must read.
We’ll go back to the list in just a minute.
Anosognosic is an unpronounceable word used to describe someone with a medical condition that makes them unaware they’re suffering from it. For example, if you put a pencil in front of a paralyzed anosognosic individual and ask them to pick it up, they won’t do it. If you ask them why, they’ll respond, “‘Well, I’m tired,’ or, ‘I don’t need a pencil.’” As psychologist David Dunning explains, “They literally aren’t alerted to their own paralysis.”
When it comes to what we think we know, we’re also often not alerted to our own paralysis.
If you think you know anything at all about the items on the above list, you’re suffering from a knowledge version of anosognosia.
Suspected witches were hung, not burned, in Salem. An animator named Ub Iwerks, not Walt Disney, drew Mickey Mouse. You can’t see the Great Wall of China from space. The United States does not have an official language. And the 10% figure about the brain “is so wrong it is almost laughable,” explains neurologist Barry Gordon. Over the course of a day, we use 100% of our brains.
Here’s the thing: You can’t learn what you think you already know.
When we think we know the answers, we stop listening.
When we declare ourselves to be an expert on anything, we begin asserting confident conclusions without gathering all the facts.
When certainty blinds us to our own paralysis, our egos swell to the size of skyscrapers, hiding our shortcomings.
If you’re a zebra hell-bent on confirming your belief that there are no lions around, you’ll end up as lunch for those lions. If you don’t recognize the flaws in your own thinking, others will do it for you.
So regularly ask yourself: What might I be wrong about? Poke holes in your most cherished arguments, and look for disconfirming facts. Follow the “golden rule” of Charles Darwin who, upon finding a fact that contradicted one of his beliefs, would write it down right away so he wouldn’t forget.
In a rapidly changing world, the ability to rethink what you know is a superpower. As Alvin Toffler is credited with saying, “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
P.P.S. I recently gave a talk at X (formerly called Google X), also known as the moonshot factory. I wrote about the experience in a previous blog post. The entire talk is now available for public viewing at this link.