This one crappy chart changed the way I think

I TOOK TWELVE FULL PAGES of notes from Nir Eyal’s new book Indistractable when I read a draft copy of it last fall. The book promised to help me “get real” with myself about my distractions, procrastination, and subtle addictions—and ultimately to help me, as Nir puts it “be able to do what you say you will do.”

But the first thing the book actually did was help me solve my email problem.

The second—and I admit, my favorite—thing it did was teach me something new about intellectual humility. If you’re getting this email, you are by now overly aware how important this topic is to me. :)

A key principle in Nir’s book is called “Proximate Cause,” and it explains a lot about why people don’t change when they should. (I.e. why we often aren’t intellectually humble.)

The theory of Proximate Cause says that humans are bad at identifying the real reasons we do things. And it’s not because we can’t dig deep. It’s because we tend to only dig until we find the closest rationalization—and then we stop. We don’t dig deeper to the REAL reason underneath our rationalizations.

Here’s my crappy chart I drew in my notebook summarizing this simple, but powerful principle:

(If you can’t read my bad handwriting, it says “Observable Behavior < Rationalization < The Real Reason”.)

We say we’re watching TV (Observation) because we’re tired (Rationalization), but The Real Reason is we don’t want to think about the hard conversation we need to have at work tomorrow.

We say we have an email problem (Observation) because we get so many emails (Rationalization), but The Real Reason is we don’t have a thoughtful, deliberate process for dealing with the reality of email overload. (And the Real Reason for that might be because we’d rather not do the hard work of thinking about how to solve it, or we think we’ll fail, or we think we’re helpless, or something else.)

Nir writes that it’s like when you play pool: You hit the white ball with the stick, and that ball hits another ball into the pocket. The white ball is not the REAL reason the other ball goes into the pocket.

Much of the time, we take our observable behavior—say, “I got snippy at my coworker at the offsite”—and we claim that the reason was something external—because the coworker said something annoying or stupid.

But this “rationalization” actually masks The Real Reason—Perhaps going along with our coworker’s idea might mean we’d have to do a lot more work we don’t want to do. Or if they’re right about the thing they’re talking about, it might mean we were wrong earlier, and that would bruise our ego.

So we treat them snippily, so they can lose the debate.

It’s not bad to watch TV to turn our brains off sometimes, but if we don’t identify the REAL reason we’re doing it, we’re giving up a little bit of power over ourselves. It actually is a bad idea to get snippy at our co-worker if the real reason we don’t want to listen to them is because we don’t want to change.

My intellectual humility research shows that the #1 thing that prevents most people from being truly intellectually humble is not being able to separate our ego from our ideas. The more we abstract ourselves away from the real reasons we do what we do, the harder it is to do that.

In real life, it’s ultra common for us to pay more attention to—and blame—that second cue ball for our behavior and not dig deeper into what’s behind it. And that prevents us from exercising intellectual humility.

Getting “real” with ourselves is easier said than done. I recommend Indistractable as a great first step on that journey.

Meantime, here’s to thinking a little bit harder about why we do what we do—and CHOOSING to do it!

Much love,

Shane

P.S. If you’d like to take a more advanced step on the journey of intellectual humility (and becoming a great team player in general), I’m soft-launching the Snow Academy online course on Dream Teams this month. Be among the first to check it out here!

How "Range" Promotes Intellectual Humility

ALBERT EINSTEIN WASN’T the only one working on the big math problems that ended up becoming the theory of Relativity. While he toiled for years to refine the troublingly imperfect mathematics of gravity, other geniuses were racing to get there first.

But as we know, Einstein won the race. And the answer he discovered was not just an improvement on the math behind why apples fall and planets orbit the sun. It was a monumental paradigm change. A breakthrough that no one had considered: that space and time were connected.

That breakthrough, however did not happen because Einstein thought harder, or longer, about these math problems.

It happened because he thought about something else.

When Einstein was working on all this math, he was also working a day job at a patent office, reviewing proposals for inventions from various entrepreneurs. And as luck would have it, one of the main ideas that inventors as the time were pursuing was a method to synchronize clocks across Europe. As transportation and communication technology were improving—and people were taking more and more fast train trips and doing business across the continent—it was becoming more and more important that the clocks in Bern lined up with the clocks in Berlin.

Inventors were proposing all sorts of ridiculous methods to sync clocks up. And Einstein had to look at them.

And not long after, Einstein got it in his head that perhaps clock synchronization was a useful analogy for exploring the way space and gravity worked. Perhaps time could even be as flexible as space.

Boom! Relativity. Expanding Universe. E=MC2. All of it.

In his new book Range (which everybody seems to be talking about right now), author David Epstein points out something marvelous. A huge percentage of breakthrough inventors, thinkers, scientists, and artists—the kinds of people who change the world—do a fair amount of thinking and exploring outside of their areas of expertise.

All things being equal, data shows, if two people are neck deep in a topic, the person who also has a toe in another topic is more likely to make a breakthrough in the shared topic than the person who’s spending all their time there. This is why so many geniuses also play instruments, have diverse hobbies, and pursue learning outside of their fields.

It’s not just practicing for thousands of hours that leads to breakthroughs. It’s practicing a lot… and also veering outside of the lines.

This is what happened to Einstein with his breakthroughs, over and over again. It’s no secret that he played violin, loved the theater—and that he had his eyes on patents for all sorts of things from all sorts of industries. Einstein was a genius in part because his brain could do complex calculations and logic… and also because he would connect dots between all sorts of different perspectives.

I love this, because it gives us an excuse to explore things outside of our “lane.” Range will tell you all about how you should do that if you want to get smarter.

But I love this even more because it connects to the idea of intellectual humility in a wonderful way.

(If you’re not familiar with it, you can learn all about intellectual humility here. In a nutshell, it’s the ability to let go of what we know and change our minds when it’s hard.)

Research tells us that the more of an expert we become in something, eventually the harder it is to see that something differently—to consider alternative viewpoints about it. This is called cognitive entrenchment, and ironically we get it precisely BECAUSE WE’VE BEEN SMART AND SUCCESSFUL.

(See Dream Teams Chapter 1 for more on this!)

When you make a big achievement, your brain creates neural pathways that the way you did that thing is great. And the more you reinforce those neural pathways with validation of that success, the easier it is for your brain to always slip into that way of thinking.

It’s like you’ve been going sledding down a hill; the more times you go down the same path, the bigger the groove in the snow becomes, and the easier it is for your sled to slip into that groove the next time you go down, even if you start out a few feet away from your original spot.*

But when you spend time exploring things outside of your area of expertise, it’s like you’ve moved your sled so far away from the original spot that you can’t slip into the old groove. You sled down, and you see the snow hill from a different perspective.

And that’s when your brain subconsciously reinforces that there’s more than one “right” way to go down a hill. This makes it easier to choose a different snow path on purpose.

Or, when you start on your original sledding path, you can jump your sled out of the groove and cross over to one of your new ones and end up somewhere else.

In other words: Do you want to have more intellectual humility? Then take up a new hobby. Read some books well outside of your field. Get curious, and find some new sledding paths.

Much love,

Shane

P.S. If you like this Snow Report, check out my books—or share this email along!

*(I credit the snow hill analogy to Michael Pollan’s “shaking the snowglobe” concept that he describes in How To Change Your Mind.)

Never lose an argument again, using intellectual humility + debate skills

Hey there—Shane here with my monthly Snow Report!

It seems like every social network and the entirety of cable news is now one big angry debate these days. I don’t see that stopping anytime soon, unless Mr. Rogers comes back from the dead and wins the 2020 election after all the other politicians hug it out and retire.

In the event that that doesn’t happen, the skills of a) detecting b.s., and b) debating productively, are going to pay off more and more for us.

That’s why I’m excited about the latest episode of on Jordan Harbinger’s video show and podcast that I just went on. We discuss the tactics for spotting bad debate and how to debate better at work and in civil discourse—and Jordan made a whole worksheet you can use to master these skills!

The secret to never losing an argument again is simple, though not easy: set up every argument so “winning” means learning something from it. Depersonalize the argument, so it’s not about who’s right, but rather about digging through to truth, logic, and new ideas. Again, easier said than done, but it’s possible and powerful:

Check out the episode and worksheet about how to do that here: https://jordanharbinger.com/202

And speaking of getting better at debate and discourse—I’m rolling out my brand new Dream Teams training course at the Snow Academy this summer!

If you and/or your organization want to master the skills of teamwork, leadership, cognitive friction, and intellectual humility, you can check out what the course covers here, and you can go here to let me know that you’re interested in getting access to the course.

In the next Snow Report, we’re going to be discussing a related topic I’ve been obsessing over lately: power dynamics. I’m super excited to share with you what I’ve discovered on this increasingly timely subject!

Much love,

Shane

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