[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a billion downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries. In this episode we discuss the relationship between bad ideas and creative genius. We look at the three biggest lessons from studying the most successful hedge fund on earth. We talk about why a complete stranger may often be up better judge of your abilities than you are. We examine the key things that stand in the way of developing more self-awareness and how you can fix them. Look at why it's so important to invest in the ability to make better decisions and much more with our guest, Dr. Adam Grant.
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In our previous episode we approach the concept of the self from a concrete and scientific perspective, not in an abstract or philosophical way. What are the hard sciences, like biology and physics, say about the existence of the self? Does the self exist from a psychological perspective? What is the science say and what does it mean for ourselves, our future and how we think about change and self-improvement? We explore the scientific search for the self with our guest, Dr. Robert Levine. If you want to discover who you truly are, listen to that episode.
Now for the show today.
[0:02:54.3] MB: Today, we have another amazing guest on the show, Dr. Adam Grant. Adam has been Wharton's top rated professor for six straight years and has been named to Fortune's 40 under 40, as well as one of the world's 10 most influential management speakers. He's the multi best-selling author of Give & Take, Originals and Option B which have been translated in over 35 languages. His work has been featured on Oprah, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and he’s the host of the new TED podcast called Worklife.
Adam, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:24.2] AG: Thanks, Matt. Delighted to be here.
[0:03:25.8] MB: Well, we’re very excited to have you on the show today. Huge fans of your work and your ideas, me and Austin. So we’re really thrilled to have you on here. I’d love to start out with a topic we talk a lot about on the show and something you wrote recently about the in the Atlantic, which is self-awareness and how people often don't really understand self-awareness or think that they’re a lot more self-aware than they are. Could you kind of share the thesis of that article and what it was about?
[0:03:53.9] AG: I love getting to talk to an audience that’s as fascinated by psychology and the evidence behind it as I am. This is a real treat. I think that what’s striking to me is that pretty much as long as I've been a psychologist, I've gotten the reaction from people, “Well, wait a minute, what could you possibly know about me that I don’t? I own my own mind.”
I started thinking about that and kind of pushing back and saying, “Well, you know? You own a car, and you might even be the only one who drive it, but that doesn’t mean when the engine stops working, that you know what to do going under the hood to fix it.”
I think that there are two things that stand in the way of self-awareness as I’ve read more and more the research on it. One is just basic blind spots. We have blind spots because there are things that other people can see that we can't, because we’re stuck inside our own head. So we have all these backstage access to what's going on internally, but we can't see independently from an outside view what our behavior looks like. What that means is that psychologically we’re better judges than our friends, and then definitely than strangers of our internal state. How anxious am I, for example. We’re much worse that judging our external behaviors, the parts of our personality that other people can see clearly, like how assertive am I?, for example.
Then the other sort of big self-awareness challenge is not just blind spots, which are the things we can't see, but also biases, the things that we don't want to see. So we’re motivated to have a positive image of ourselves. There’s this really cool research by [inaudible 0:05:32.9], a psychologist who was trying to break down when are we better judges of our own personality versus when are other people more accurate than we are?
So what she did was she had people rate themselves on a whole bunch of personality descriptions and then also some traits, like intelligence and creativity, and then she had their friends rate them. She got four of their friends to do it, and she also had some complete strangers interacted with him for about 8 minutes over a pizza, and then they made judgments too.
Then she went and actually tested them in all these straight. So she measured their assertiveness, for example, by putting them in a leaderless group discussion and then coding the videotape to see who dominated the conversation and who was a little bit more hesitant. She gave them an IQ test to gauge their intelligence. She gave them a creativity challenge where you can actually measure how many ideas people generate and how novel they are within the group.
So she does all of these, and then what she’s able to show is that the blind spots are pretty clearly in these external domains. So people were worse than their friends at judging their own assertiveness, but in the internal domains, they were better. When they rated their own anxiety versus their friends rated it, they did a better job than their friend did at predicting how nervous they would be giving a public speech when there was an evaluator watching and not smiling and they were being recorded.
But then there is another dimension beyond just the internal sort of external blind spot issue, and that’s the bias issue. So people turned out to be terrible at judging their own intelligence and their own creativity, because we all want to think of ourselves as smart and creative, and so people tended to be overconfident. That was especially true among men in the study. I guess you could call it male pattern blindness or something like that.
I think the big lesson here is that any time a trait is hard to be for us and easy to see for others — Sorry, I’ll say that again. I think the big lesson here is that any time a trait is easy for other people to see or hard for us to admit, we can't trust our own judgment of it.
[0:07:39.6] MB: You had a great phrase in that article that I think kind of underscored this point, which is you said that human blind spots are predictable. Can you elaborate on that and kind of explain how that ties into this?
[0:07:51.5] AG: I guess, I looked a lot of my life thinking that I had different blind spots from everyone else I knew, and that how clearly you could see yourself depended on whether you were surrounded by people who were willing to tell you the truth, basically.
I think what psychologists had discovered, which I find so interesting, is that, actually, most people have the same kinds of blind spot. It tends to be those things that you can’t see because you're stuck inside your own head, and I guess I first figured this out when I was teaching negotiations. I would have some MBA students and executives who negotiated like sharks and they lost trust, and then others who are just major people pleasers and they were too accommodating and they failed to stand up for themselves. I would have them negotiate and then I’d give them feedback. I’d have their counterparts give them feedback and they'd always under correct.
Finally, I just decided, “You know what? I’m going to videotape them.” I’d sit down and watch the tapes with them and they were just horrified. They’d say, “Is that what people have been seeing for years? Is that really how I come across?” It’s kind of like hearing your own voice on tape for the first time. I really didn't even need to say anything after that, because once they could observe the behavior from an outside view, they were often much more — They were much more prepared to correct it and they were motivated to correct it, because they got it.
I think that's something we should all be in the habit of doing, is If you're an athlete, you'd review the game tape after every single competition. I know, I used to a springboard diver, and in my diving days in high school and college I would watch videos of every practice in slow motion, because there’s one thing to have my coach tell me what he was seeing. There’s a whole another thing for me to see it myself. Then very frequently, I wouldn't argue back as much. I just go and do it.
I think that's one way that we can spot the pattern blind spots, or I should say that differently. So if you want to recognize your blind spot, the patterns are there are things that you can't see from inside, and you often a videotape or a audiotape helps make those visible.
[0:10:02.0] MB: I love that idea, and I think feedback is — If you look at something like deliberate practice or just improving and growing in general, feedback is such a vital component of that. How do we — I think it's really clear in a field like sports or may be a competitive activity, like chess or gambling or something like, or poker specifically, but in a field like business that there's a much kind of murkier connection between action and output, how do we tighten those feedback loops or kind of get the “game tape” so that we can get that feedback and help spot our blind spots?
[0:10:36.3] AG: That was one of the things that I wanted to understand when I lunched this podcast with TED. So the vision behind the Work Life was I would invite myself in to organizations, they’d go to the extreme and something that we all either struggle with or curious to — Excuse me. Something that we all struggle with are curious to learn more about and try to master.
For feedback, I went to Bridgewater, the hedge fund that’s been named the most successful in the world, where they do videotape and audiotape every meeting and in conversations with a few exceptions. First I thought it was going to Big Brother, and very quickly I walked in and I’m being videotaped and audiotaped and after a few minutes I forgot it. Sort of the real me came out.
Ray Dalio, the founder, pointed out that he thinks it's a lot like what it must feel like to be on reality TV, where anytime you're sitting at home watching you’re like, “How do these people not realize that their behavior is being broadcast? They would never act that way.” The answer is you can't be on self-monitoring or evaluating all the time.
So Bridgewater was a really cool place to understand these dynamic, because they believe so much in radical transparency. One of their principles is, is that no one has the right hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.
So the insight I walked away with is I was thinking about networks wrong, or at least I had my view of — My view of networks was incomplete. I've read a ton of research on the value of support networks. We know that if you have mentors and sponsors, your career is more likely to advance. We also know that pure your support in the workplace is about as important as support from above, and yet when we get criticized, we make the mistake of going to our cheerleaders and we lean on the people who encourage us, which is great for motivation, but we need another group of people, and that's what Bridgewater is so good at trying to build. I’ve come to call that a challenge network. The support network is the people who build you up when you're down. The challenge network is the group of people who tell you you're not there yet, right? Who push you because they really care about helping you get better.
As I watch this happen in Bridgewater, I was thinking about some research that Jim Westphalen is calling [inaudible 0:12:51.5] on what happens to CEOs when their firms underperform? So they surveyed hundreds of CEO and they want to know basically when your company’s performance is objectively bad, what do you do? Td they found that on average what most CEOs do is they then lean on their support network, which are their friends who are in very similar jobs, in very similar industries, in very similar companies and they ignore their naysayers and their dissenters who usually have a fresher point of view, who might be in a not sort of drink in the same Kool-Aid or stuck inside the same bubble as them. The more that they do that, the worse their company's performance gets.
So they end up sort of thinking inside the inner circle when they need to be going outside that circle. Of course, that's more pronounced that their subsequent research showing that if you’re a narcissist, you’re at greater risk for doing that. So narcissist are especially likely to ignore objectives, sort of failure signals from the market. They’re more drawn to social praise and they’re re more likely to fall victim to flattery from the yes-men or the brown-nosers who surround them. I think we've all been in that situation.
Francesca Gino did some studies on this where she asked people to just identity the colleagues that they went to for feedback, and then rate how much are they encouraging and praising you versus criticizing and challenging you. Then she followed up a few minutes later to find out what — Excuse me. She followed up a few months later to find out what would happen to these relationships, and she found that just like those underperforming CEOs, that what most people would do is they went out of their way to avoid their critics.
So if in the last six months somebody has given you really harsh feedback, you've done everything in your power to drop them from your life. In the short run, that might feel good, it might help with your motivation, but it destroys your opportunity to learn. I think we all need to embrace that challenge network if we want to reach our potential.
[0:14:51.9] MB: How do we open ourselves up to that challenging feedback and kind of fight back against the natural tendency to shoot the messenger, for lack of better term?
[0:15:02.7] AG: My favorite research on this, hands down, comes from I guess the literature on self-affirmation. So Claude Steele at Stanford kicked it off several decades ago. Sherman & Cohen have done a nice review in the last decade or so, and the idea is that it’s way easier to take criticism in one domain when we’ve praised in another. As long as we have this tendency to sort of gravitate toward the people who give us positive reinforcement, we might as well use that to our advantage and say, “Okay. Anytime I’m going to seek out criticisms or somebody reaches out to let me know that they're about to give me some negative feedback, what I can do is I can buffer myself against the blow of that by looking for some positive feedback in a completely separate domain.”
So if I'm about to get feedback on a creative project I have just worked on. What I want to do is I want to first go and figure out, “Okay. What are completely unrelated things that I've done well lately?” So I might review a good decision I made in the past few week. I might go and check my calendar and see that I've actually been extra productive and I’ve cleared some things off my to-do list. Once I've affirmed a skill or a value or an achievement in a different domain, now when I come into this creative project I’m much less likely to see that as the heart of my identity. So it’s less crushing then when somebody tells me that my creativity was really, really, really poor in this particular project and it seemed totally unoriginal.
I think that obviously we can do this as feedback givers, not just receivers. So many people love to dish out a feedback sandwich and say, “Let me praise you, and then I’ll criticize you and then I’ll praise you again. So we get to start and end on a high note,” which the feedback sandwich does not tastes as good as it looks, if you look at the research. Because, one, you people don't trust the praise when it comes first. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and they think you're just trying to butter them up.
Then two, even if they do, primacy and recency effects are much stronger than whatever we might process in between. So you're more likely to remember the first and last things that happened than the middle, and that means the praise on both ends might drain out criticism. What I always recommend to people instead is to say either just put the criticism on the table, and then you can end with some praise or at least some encouragement about your confidence in the person, or flip it and say, “All right. I’m going to praise first, but I’ve got to make sure that’s a separate realm. Then when I give the criticism, my hope is that you've heard it a little bit more, because you had something else, some other talent to fall back on to stake your ego or your self-esteem on.” That tends to work much better than the alternative.
[0:17:46.6] MB: Kind of a corollary of that and something that I think you touched on in the interview with Ray Dalio was this kind of idea of believability weighted feedback, and that feedback varies based on how credible the person giving it to you is and sort of the idea that not all feedback is equal. How can we implement that when we’re about feedback from colleagues, friends, etc., and looking at ways to improve ourselves?
[0:18:11.5] AG: It’s such an interesting question. One of the things that I love at Bridgewater is that they think that democracy is a dumb idea for running a company, because the whole idea of democracy is that every person's opinion or vote has equal weight, and their point is that in the workplace, it doesn't and it shouldn't.
There's a reason that we promote people, because we trust their decision-making skills or they've demonstrated a particular level of expertise in a certain domain. But Bridgewater also doesn't allow the people who have risen the power to drive every decision and every piece of feedback. What they want to do is they want to know — And they 77 different domains where they have people rate each other regularly and they want to know, “Okay. How credible are you in this domain?” Because you might be really great at, let's say, analyzing markets, but really terrible at analyzing human relationships, or vice versa. So instead of having an overall believability score, you get a domain-specific believability score, which is your track record of performance in that domain, which is probably at some level relevant to whether your — Let me say that different. Sorry.
You get a domain specific believability score, which is more or less a probability of being right in this domain based on your track record in the past. So I think if we wanted to — Anybody who wanted to try to simulate that in your own life. I think what you do is you go around and you look your feedback sources and you ask yourself a few questions. The first one is what is their track record in that domain? If they demonstrated real expertise or confidence in the very skill you're asking for feedback on, the more they have, the more credible they tend to be. The ones who don’t I think are at serious risk for the Dunning Kruger effect, the unskilled and unaware of it, where people who are novices often are the most overconfident and the most likely to overestimate their skillset. So those are the people whose opinions usually want to discount.
Then the other question is; how well do they know you? I will never forget when I was in grad school, my first semester, I was encouraged to seek out one professor who was supposed to really good at big picture career advice. So I emailed him — I cold email him and he wrote back and he said, “I’m happy to meet for coffee. Send me your resume and we’ll talk it over.”
I sat down with him and he said, “You are insane. You're doing four times more projects than you should be, and you get a cut 90% of this stuff or else you’re never even going to graduate, let alone get a job.” At first I was a little devastated, because I thought, “All right. This is a guy who has really excelled in this field, and so he has a lot of expertise.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, he didn’t know a thing about me. It was the first time we'd met. He'd never seen any of my work. He didn't have a sense of my motivation or my abilities. So how credible could he really be? I decided that I was going to make sort of my motivation in grad school day by day to prove Jim wrong.
I actually would wake up about once a week and think, “Okay. How do I prove to Jim that in fact I could do all these projects?” That became a little bit of extra source of fuel when I got papers rejected or when I got negative feedback in the classroom to say, “All right. Yeah. This is not fun, but I still have to show Jim that I wasn't crazy.” I think that that how well do they know you, how credible are they not just on the field, but also on your work to me as it is a critical set of questions.
[0:21:53.6] MB: In your time with Ray and the work you did with Bridgewater, I'm curious, they’ve obviously build a kind of a radically different organization, which in many ways is created radically different results for what they've done and led them be so successful. What were kind of some of the simplest or most practical takeaways that you found that are kind of the, say, sort of from an 80/20 perspective, the easiest things to implement without completely upending the culture of an organization or the structure of your relationships?
[0:22:26.4] AG: Yeah. I'll give you — There were three things that I've actually taken away and applied in another organization that anybody could adopt pretty easily. The first one is that they really turn the idea of devil’s — Excuse me. They really turn the idea of devil’s advocates upside down. So the research on this by [inaudible 0:22:43.6] has been fascinating to me for a long time. What [inaudible 0:22:47.4] has shown is that what most people do when they're trying to get a different opinion is they assign somebody in the room to play the role of devil’s advocate, and when she gets grouped together to make decisions and she randomly assigns one person to advocate for a minority view, not only does it not help. On average, it makes the group more convinced of the majority opinion that they already liked. So it backfires.
When you break down why, there’s sort of two mechanisms at play. One is that the person is just playing a role. So they don't take it seriously enough and they don’t argue forcefully enough. Two; everybody else knows they're playing a role. The rest of people and in that room sit there and say, “All right! Now we’ve heard the person playing devil’s advocate. Check! We can go right back to what we already believed,” and they just all shoot down the argument pretty quickly.
Of course, you do need dissenting opinions, and what [inaudible 0:23:41.1] shows is that instead of assigning a devil’s advocate, you want to unearth a devil’s advocate. Find the genuine dissenter who authentically disagrees and invite that person to the conversation. If you do that, the group’s probability of making a good decision goes up. The person argues more passionately. The group gives more weight to it, because they know it's a real viewpoint.
What I work with leaders on, what I often hear for pushback is what, “I get it. I want to hear that person's voice. But what if they’re wrong? What if I invite them into the conversation and they steer us in an unproductive direction?” I say good, because it gives me more research to do. No. I say good, because I am just so struck by the evidence that minority opinions improve decision-making creativity even when they’re incorrect. When you hear an authentic dissenter speak up, even if it's not the right view, it stimulates divergent thinking instead of convergent thinking, and that means that the group is more likely to reevaluate the decision process, go back and gather new information, update their sense of what the criteria are, and that’s good for decision quality and for original thinking even if it's not the right opinion to begin with.
So going back to Bridgewater, one of the things they do is when they have a big decision to make, they actually will run a poll. It's an anonymous poll at first and they’ll ask, “Okay. How many people think we should do A, and how many people think we should do reverse A?” Then they get a sense of the distribution in the room and then they will invite three of the authentic dissenters to argue against three of the people who are supporting the decision. I think that’s such an effective way to surface the real dissent in the room and make sure it's valued and heard and considered seriously.” So that would be one. Do you want me to go through two others or you want to move forward?
[0:25:33.3] MB: I’d love to hear the other two strategies, yeah.
[0:25:35.7] AG: Sure. I’ll try to talk shorter. I think I've been overly empowered by your statement that I should feel free to go very deep.
[0:25:42.4] MB: No. Go deep. We want you to go deep. That’s why you’re here.
[0:25:46.5] AG: I feel like I’m rambling for a long time, but I’ll try to be a little more succinct here. So a second thing that I think is exciting at Bridgewater is — I mentioned they have this principle that no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking about it. That's the opposite of what I've seen in most workplaces, where if you have a critical opinion, you have no right to speak up about it. But the challenge is to make that real, and the way that Bridgewater has done is they've actually extended their performance evaluations to include — You get rated on whether you are challenging your boss and sort of asserting your viewpoint, raising critical perspective even if they might — They have a term for this actually, which is it’s something like rubbing salt on the wound. I think that — Actually, I can say that more clearly. I will say they basically evaluate you on whether you're fighting for right, even when other people disagree. Are you willing to poke the bear a little bit if there’s a good reason to do it?
I think we could all do that, right? When we give people feedback, why not sit down with them and say, “You know what? I'm going to give you this feedback. I just wanted to let you know, one things I really value is people being willing to disagree with me.” Or when we start working with new colleagues to say right off the bat, “Hey, you know what? One of my favorite features of a collaboration is when somebody challenges my assumptions and my beliefs respectfully and thoughtfully,” and let's actually make that part of the way we evaluate the quality of our relationship, is are we having good healthy debate.
Then the last thing that I think is pretty actionable for anybody from Bridgewater is they ask you to opt in you want a feedback. They say, “Look. We don’t want to work with somebody who says, “This process is not for me,” and we think you’re going to take it a lot better if you decided you want it.”
I think so often we have feedback conversations, we don't do that. We’re so nervous about the discussion or we’re feeling guilty about hurting somebody's feelings, that we just whip off the Band-Aid and get it over with, as supposed to sort of opening the conversation by saying, “I noticed a few things and I was wondering if you wanted a few thoughts, or I'm trying to give more feedback to the people whose work I really value. I’ve been told I don't give enough critical feedback. I’ve been trying hard to come up with some. If you're interested, I’m happy to have that discussion and I’d love to hear your feedback too.” I think just initiating that opt-in process is something we can do every time we give feedback, and for that matter every time we receive it too.
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[0:29:41.5] MB: How to someplace like Bridgewater avoid almost a sort of paralysis by spending so much time arguing and debating and figuring out who's right, who's wrong, all these kind of pieces of the puzzle?
[0:29:55.2] AG: Well, I think that they believe that — It's funny. Bridgewater is a place where I think a lot of people arrive there and they're really frustrated by what they perceive is inefficiency. I remember watching one meeting where Ray did about — I don’t know. It must've been over an hour of a diagnosis of why a whiteboard was a few inches higher than that it was supposed to be. It had been in the wrong spot. He had requested it be moved, and then it wasn't in the right spot. They spent a huge amount of time diagnosing why that decision went wrong. I’ve looked at that thinking, “Are you people insane? Why would you spend all that time in that when you're managing $160 billion?” It’s not like the placement of a whiteboard has any real consequences for your work.”
I have to say as I was debating this back-and-forth with Ray, he did change my mind on it, and he changed my mind in part, because one of the arguments he made reminded me of one of my favorite ideas in psychology. The idea — This is Walter Mischel. Mischel back in the 60s, this sort of devastating attack of personality psychology where he said, “Look. Personality traits don't predict behavior. We have the whole science trying to assess how extroverted you are and how anxious or emotionally stable or neurotic you are.” When you actually measure these traits, they do a terrible job predicting really anything that matters in your life choices or your success at work.
Why do we have these? We have a rich social psychology that says, “The situation influences a lot of behavior and we’re all kind of — We manage to be different people in different situations, and personalities are not as important as we thought they were.”
I have ever mentor, Brian Little, who’s referred to the aftermath as Mischel shock, because so many personality, psychologists all of a sudden felt like their life's work was under threat. There were all sorts of updates to that. First, we found out that personality is really bad at predicting one specific moment of behavior, but it’s actually pretty good at predicting aggregated behaviors.
If I wanted to know, Matt, how you’re organized you’re going to be at 3 PM today, your personality is probably not going to tell me much about that. But if I wanted to know on average how organize you’re going to be for the next month every day at 3 PM, well, personality lot more useful then, right? Because we have a global trait, and that’s going to predict a pattern of behavior and not a specific instance of behavior, which is more like a blip.
We got a bunch of updates to the idea that, actually, how much people fluctuate their behavior, that's a personality trait too. Mark Snyder called it self-monitoring. High self-monitors are the people who are constantly adapting to meet the expectations of the environment. Low self-monitors say, “This is who I am and I’m going to try to be the same person regardless of the circumstances,” and they’re driven more by their sort of internal compass than external accused. So you start to break that down and personality does a better job predicting the behaviors of low self- monitors than high self-monitors.
What’s funny is after decades of this debate, Walter Mischel back around and said, “Actually, I got this wrong.” It’s not surprising that he came back with that, because he's a psychologist who did pioneering experiments on the marshmallow test where he found that the kids who were able to delay the gratification of eating one marshmallow at toddlers, in order to get two marshmallows about 15 minutes later did better in school and had more stable relationships as much as a dozen or so years later.
He was a believer in individual differences, right? That ability to delay gratification and the exercise of control. That is a personality trait. So he comes back around and he says, “Actually, we’ve been thinking about personality all wrong. We should really think about personality as a set of if/then statement where we all have a bunch of them, which are our tendencies to be organized and disciplined, to be friendly, to be outgoing, to be open-minded, and so on. But those don't come out equally in every moment. They're different if that activate different thens, and we all have signatures. He said, if we really want to predict your behavior and understand what you're going to do in a given situation, we have to know what part of your personality that situation activates.
So long detour away from Bridgewater, but this is where I landed with Ray. He said, “Look. The reason that I'm going to go and analyze a whiteboard placement is because situations repeat over and over again.” This tiny little decision of adjusting the height of a whiteboard is actually a microcosm of our decision-making process, and there's something about that if that activated the wrong then in the group of people who are supposed to fix it.
So if I can get to the bottom of it and analyze it for a trivial decision, then maybe we can prevent that if then pattern from repeating. We can either activate a different if or we can find the people who have the right set of then to handle that issue that required a lot of attention to detail. I thought that was so interesting and it really got me thinking about how in fact all of our work and all of our lives are just the same kinds of situations repeating over and over again. We don’t see that because we tend to look at those situations through a microscope when we’re in them. We see all the idiosyncrasies of them.
What we really should be doing is zooming out and looking at them through a telescope, which is when we’re able to see how this one argument that I'm having with a coworker is actually sort of triggered by the same fundamental disagreement that the last four were too. So I think that it seems like time wasted, but ultimately it's time well spent if you can help you change a whole pattern of behavior. Longest answer ever.
[0:35:49.7] MB: No. That was great. You brought it all the way back around, which is awesome. It's funny, one of the things that we talk a lot about on the show and I’m a huge believer in people like you and Ray Dalio obviously, kind of help shape that thinking as well. But is this idea that we — I call it kind of the art of decision-making, but basically if you really hone your ability to make better decisions, it cascades through everything in your life, whether you're buying a car, a new house, business decisions, making an investment, etc. I almost look at it as if you're harnessing the power of compounding by getting better at making decisions. It's sort of cascades through everything that you do from that point forward.
[0:36:27.3] AG: I love the idea of talking about that in terms of compounding. It never occurred to me to use that language for it, and I think that's exactly what you're doing. By investing and improving your decision-making skills, you're accumulating more and more interest on that investment over time. If you don't do it, if you just treat each situation as completely different from all the others, then you really fail to learn anything from the last [inaudible 0:36:53.0] that might apply to tomorrow’s.
[0:36:54.9] MB: Yeah. I think that's a really, really good insight. The other thing that I think is great, and your analogy with personality was really relevant, but this whole notion, there's a lot of different systems where you might have a really kind of a large amount of randomness in the short term, but the kind of outcome is really predictable and aggregate. If you look at everything from kind of poker, right? If you're making positive decisions, positive expected value decisions, in the short term, you might end up losing a bunch of hands are going broke, but over a long time horizon, that variance kind of evens out.
If you look at something like whether, it was kind of the distinction between weather versus climate. It’s really hard to predict sort of short-term variations in the weather, but over time, over a longer time horizon, the climate is actually extremely predictable. So I think that's a great analogy and almost, really, a really relevant mental model to think about as well.
[0:37:42.1] AG: Yeah. I think it's a mental model that we should all use more often to say, “Look. Any time you have a model, you should be trying to predict the outcome — You should be trying to predict an aggregate of the outcome. You want to predict a pattern of behavior. You want to predict what the climate is going to do over multiple years, as opposed to multiple hours.”
Brian Little, the personality psychologists, mentioned earlier, he said that he thinks that often one of the things that actually both frustrated me and hooked me on psychology was when Brian said, “Look. I think we have the wrong model often when we’re trying their think about what psychology is supposed to do. We’re not doing physics. We’re not doing sort of hard science. We’re doing social science,” and people are much, much more complicated in the sense that we don't operate by stable laws. There’s no law of gravity governing my decision-making process.
So he said he actually felt the best model for our field would be meteorology, that predicting human behavior is at least as hard as predicting the weather if you look at all the complex factors interacting to affect it. I hated that it first, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became as a puzzle. If we could get a little bit better at predicting human behavior, then we could probably make fewer awful choices and we can try to use our knowledge of psychology to help people live better lives.
[0:39:11.6] MB: I mean, that makes me think of Charlie Monger, who’s one of my all-time favorite thinkers. It's funny, because you talk about and he writes a lot about kind of building this toolkit of mental models across a huge array of academic disciplines, and that sounds very kind of amorphous and ethereal, but that's a perfect example of really concretely bringing that to bear in the sense that if you study meteorology, there's actually some really practical applications for how to think about psychology and how to think about applying psychology to making better decisions and living your life.
[0:39:42.3] AG: Yeah. It just can't tell me whether I should wear a raincoat today.
[0:39:45.7] MB: That's right. This is going to be kind of a hard segue, but I want to get into some other kind of really important concepts and talk about them briefly. One of the things that you wrote about in Originals that I think is, to me, kind of one of the really important kind of fundamental conclusions was this notion of output and how that kind of impacts originality and creativity. Could you talk a little bit about how the power of having bad ideas and creating kind of prolific output is really important in being an original?
[0:40:16.3] AG: Yeah. There’s a psychologist, Dean Simonton, who put this idea on the map. He studied what he calls is creative productivity, which is basically both the quantity and the quality of creative output. But he doesn’t just study it among ordinary people. He does this historiographic analyses of eminent creative people throughout their lives and across centuries.
He studied Shakespeare, and Edison and Picasso and compared them to their peers to try to figure out what makes them different. He had this finding that sort of knocked me out of my chair when I first read it. I was reading his research and he said, in a nutshell, that the more bad ideas you have, the more creative you are. I read that and I thought, “What? How could this be true?”
I thought I always had this vision of creative people as dreaming up there masterpiece and then going and executing on it. Not really tinkering with a bunch of other possibilities, right? It’s hard to imagine that Shakespeare didn't immediately know Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet as he envisioned it, or the moment it struck him, that he didn’t know that’s the one.
What Simonton shows very clearly in his data and now we have experiments also showing that it’s s true for ordinary people, not just sort of outlier original thinkers, is a huge part of creativity is the volume of ideas that you generate. Part of that is because we’re too close to our own ideas to judge them accurately.
One of the studies that Simonton sort of launched and [inaudible 0:41:52.8] and others had followed up on is Beethoven is a self-critic. You have roughly 70 of Beethoven's compositions where he actually wrote letters to people who knew him well, like his friends and contemporaries, evaluating his own work. So he got a sense of what kind of self-critic he was. He committed lots of false positives where he thought a composition was brilliant and the expert really didn't think it was particularly great. Then also committed plenty of false negatives, where he said, “Yeah, I'm really not happy with this work,” and it became a classic.
You see form that work and lots of subsequent research that we are often too close to our own ideas to judge them just like we’re too close to our own minds sometimes to see them clearly. You need lots of ideas just because you can't trust your own judgment. You also need lots of ideas because your first idea is rarely your best idea. The first idea that you have is usually the easiest one to think of. It’s either sort of a rare Eureka moment or something that's relatively simple and obvious.
You want those second, third and fourth thoughts. Simonton was able to show this between creatives. So if you look at Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, one of the things that differentiates them from their peers as they produced not just a few more, but hundreds more compositions, into the 600 and 700. At least in Bach’s case, I think about a thousand, when most of their peers we’re in the sort of below a hundred range. And there's a really nice linear relationship — number of compositions that you do in a lifetime and your eventual greatness.
I think that's because the more of those variations you run, the more experiments you try, the more likely you are to stumble on to something that's truly original. We see this in all kinds of domains. So a couple colleagues, Christian [inaudible 0:43:48.1] and Carl Ulrich, who studied people trying to create new products. They look at these innovation tournaments where you just have people submit ideas and then peers and subject matter experts vote on them and the question is; which of them are most promising? And then you advance in then the next round and eventually bet on some ideas. They found that a typical brainstorming session might produce 10 to 20 ideas, but you don’t max out on quality and in originality until you have about 200 ideas on the table, which is why you see that when Pixar makes a movie like Cars, they will consider about 500 scripts. It’s why you'll see when Fisher-Price makes a toy, they’ll consider about 4,000 concepts before honing in on a final 12. You need a very, very, very big haystack to have a better shot at finding a needle.
[0:44:36.9] MB: I love the kind of example from Beethoven, and I think Simonton wrote about this, this similar corollary, that idea, which is basically that even the most creative and successful people, these kind of creative geniuses, etc., had essentially zero predictive ability to determine whether their next kind of project would succeed or not, which I just found fascinating.
[0:44:59.2] AG: Yeah. That turns out to be an individual difference too, right? Some people turn out to be more accurate self-critics than others, but no one is anywhere near perfect. I have a former student, Justin Berg, who wanted to follow up on that and figure out how we can all improve our creative forecasting skills.
He studied circus artists, I think Cirque du Soleil. He got over 100 of them to submit videos of brand-new acts that had never been seen before, and then he had different groups rate them, actually have them rank them. So groups got to watch a bunch of different videos, ranked them from best to worst, and then he sent them out to over 13,000 audience members. Not only had the audiences evaluate them, he also had the audiences donate their own money if they wanted to the performers as an indication of would you pay to see this person in action?
He found that the worst judges of the performances were the circus artists themselves judging their own act. They would they would say things like, “This my act. How could it not be amazing?” It was just too easy for them to fall in love with their work. But then he went to managers. They are the gatekeepers. It's their job to pick ideas. He found that they were almost as bad as the circus performers themselves, and they’re bad for the opposite reason. Instead of being too positive, they tended to be too negative. Especially on the truly original ideas, they were disproportionately likely to reject the most promising, most novel ideas.
I think that seems to happen for two reasons. One is cute incentives. If you bet on a bad idea, everyone it will know and it could embarrass your career. Whereas if you reject a good idea, no one will ever find out. At some level you say, “All right. Am I going to stick my neck out for an unproven idea, or am I going to play it safe and just pass up this this weird idea?”
The other thing that happened to managers was they tend to build a prototype through years of experience. So they would say, “All right. When I see a new idea, I’m going to compare it to all the ideas that have worked before,” and the more different it was, the more likely they were to reject. But that doesn’t make any sense. If you're trying to be original, what's been successful in the past is as best, be relevant and it might even be negatively correlated with what’s going to work tomorrow, which is why you see examples like Seinfeld and Harry Potter getting rejected by industry executives, because you can't make a sitcom about nothing where no one likes any of the characters. You can't write a children's book that that’s long, and it turns out that the people deepest in the industry are the most blind to ways that you can deviate from the prototypes.
And so [inaudible 0:47:31.2], well who can you trust? If you can trust yourself and you can't trust your boss, who do you go to? He found a third group that was excellent at creative forecasting, which was creative peers, circus artists judging each other's ideas. They had this great sort of distance so they could tell you, “That act where you dress up like a clown, don't do that. No one likes clowns.” Which is actually a data point in the study; Clowns Are Universally Hated. But there's also the flip of that, which is unlike the managers, these creative peers are really invested in seeing new ideas takeoff. So instead of looking at an idea and saying, “Eew! That's weird.” They would look at it and say, “Huh! That’s weird,” and they're much more likely to give it a chance.
Actually two quick things that Justin discovered which I think are really powerful is, one, you can get other people if your boss is not open to ideas, you can open your boss's mind. Before your boss judges other people's ideas, just have your boss spend five minutes brainstorming him or herself. That five minutes of brainstorming is enough to take your boss out of sort of an evaluative mindset where they're looking for reasons to say no and into a more open, creative mindset where they're looking for reasons to say, “Maybe.”
Then the other thing is Justin wanted to improve people's judgment of their own ideas. So one of his experiments, he had people — They generated 10 to 15 ideas and then they had to rank them from favorite to least favorite, and he found that your most promising idea is not on average the one you rank first. It's the one you rank second. That first idea is the one that you are still passionate about that you just can't see it clearly.
Whereas idea number two, you have a little bit more distance, a little more objectivity and you're more likely to recognize the flaws, but also have enough enthusiasm about the idea to try to fix the flaws. So I realized that some people are probably going to try to game the system and say, “Wait. I’m just going to take my favorite idea and call it my second favorite and then I'll be good,” and that doesn't work. But I think there's something to be said for your next favorite idea as one that has a lot of potential.
[0:49:38.3] MB: What would be one piece of homework that you would give as kind of a concrete action steps for listeners to implement some of the things we’ve talked about today?
[0:49:46.9] AG: Oh! I think if I were going to give one piece of homework, I would say start by evaluating your challenge network. So think about the people who’ve given you the best critical feedback throughout your career or throughout your life and ask yourself, “Okay. First, who are those people? Secondly, how do I build in a regular system of engaging them to benefit from their criticism knowing that I trust the quality of their feedback and that I believe they care about helping me improve?” I guess my version of this is whenever I write an article, I have my challenge network that I send it to for feedback. There are four or five people there are sort of go-to sources, and then I know they will tell me what arguments don't make sense, what ideas are not interesting. I also know that they care about helping me write better articles. So they’ll also say, “You know, in that last paragraph, there’s actually a gem here that you should written the whole article about it.” Then I have my work cut out for me. I think if you identify your challenge network and then you create a system or a process for engaging them regularly for feedback, you will become less defensive and more open and you’ll also get better information.
[0:51:00.4] MB: Where can listeners find you and your work online?
[0:51:03.8] AG: It's kind of you to ask. For anyone who’s motivated to do that, at adamgrant.net I have everything I’ve have ever published up there. You can download lot of articles and TED Talks. I do a free monthly newsletter called Granted on work in psychology where I answer and read questions and then I also share some of my favorite articles of the month. Then I guess for anybody who’s into podcast, which I suspect is everyone here. For people who are excited to add more podcasts to their listening schedule, Work Life is now available everywhere you get a podcast. It's just like all the good ones, free.
[0:51:42.2] MB: Well, Adam, thank you so much for coming on the show. Incredible insights, wisdom, so many things that I would've loved to go deeper on, but so much valuable information and really, really appreciate your time and your insights.
[0:51:53.6] AG: It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you for asking such interesting and thought-provoking questions. I really will work hard to cut my answers in half next time.
[0:52:01.3] MB: All right. Cool.
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