Learning to unlearn: Insights from Wharton Professor Adam Grant’s new book
November 17, 2021
“Why am I more interested in feeling right than getting it right?” A twelve-year-old Adam Grant reflected on this question after a movie quote argument with his best friend. When they watched the clip back—and discovered the friend had been right—Adam took more than 24-hours to admit that he was wrong.
We all encounter this desire to be right—in ourselves, our relationships, and our organizations. However, we may be missing out on incredible opportunities when we reflect on a question like Adam’s and challenge our own thinking.
Throughout his experiences as a University of Michigan-educated organizational psychologist, a Wharton School of Business top-rated professor, a bestselling author, and an influential thought leader, Adam has remained curious about what happens when we unlearn and rethink. His most recent book, Think Again, invites readers to unlock the unparalleled wisdom of knowing what we don’t know.
Adam recently sat down with his friend and fellow scholar, Michigan Ross Associate Professor Julia Lee Cunningham, as part of the Michigan Ross Center for Positive Organizations’ Positive Links Speaker Series. Together they reflected on how individuals and organizations can practice unlearning and rethinking to become better leaders.
1. Think like a scientist.
Adam’s colleague Philip Tetlock has outlined three modes of communicating our opinions:
1. Preacher mode: Defending your view and persuading others to adopt it.
2. Prosecutor mode: Attacking those views that don’t align with your own.
3. Politician mode: Only listening to others who share your views.
When we adopt one of these three modes, we firmly hold that our opinions are right, and others are wrong. However, if we operate from scientist mode, we acknowledge that our world is dynamic and we are “as motivated to find reasons why [we] might be wrong as reasons why [we] might be right,” as Adam explains. When we think like scientists, we recognize the possibility that we developed our opinions for a reality that may or may not exist anymore. Such a recognition frees us from letting our opinions become our identity and unlocks an opportunity to evolve with the existing world.
2. Create a challenge network…that includes yourself.
Scientists work hard to surround themselves with people who challenge them. Adam argues that we all need challenge networks to make us aware of our blind spots, just as much as we need support networks to propel us forward.
Adam regularly identifies people in his life that he considers part of his challenge network. He asks them to continue challenging his beliefs, even if he hasn’t always taken their criticism well in the past. He also makes himself an active member of his challenge network by adding “rethinking time” to his calendar. During this time, he revisits his formerly held opinions—maybe by rereading a chapter from an old book or listening to a past podcast episode—and asks, “Do I agree with my past self?” Creating intentional opportunities to challenge ourselves allows us to harness a confident humility—having conviction in the beliefs we hold but creating space for them to change with new information.
3. Enable brave spaces.
Leaders can help others develop confident humility by enabling spaces where people feel psychologically safe but take intellectual risks. Adam recalls a moment with his students when he switched from prosecutor mode to scientist mode. He created a mini-podcast assignment where each student was asked to disagree with a learning from the class, citing relevant management and psychology evidence. He was blown away by the students’ arguments. The assignment helped turn Adam’s classroom into what Julia refers to as a “brave space”—a space where taking risks and challenging one another is welcomed as an invaluable learning opportunity. Defining a brave space up front enables people to “require less bravery to [take intellectual risks],” says Adam.
4. Lead from your values.
If we switch into scientist mode and challenge our past thinking, we will likely find ourselves changing a formerly held opinion. How can we articulate our rethinking without being labeled a “flip-flopper” or having others doubt our integrity? The answer lies in the difference between values and opinions.
“It’s actually frightening to me that anyone would make their opinions part of their identity,” says Adam. When you’re truly in scientist mode and constantly gathering new information, your opinions may need to change to remain aligned with your values.
Adam illustrates this with a well-known historical example. Abraham Lincoln ran for office on the platform that he would not abolish slavery because he had two values that seemed to compete: maintaining democracy and freedom for all. If abolishing slavery would tear apart the Union (which he expected it would), he wouldn’t do it. Eventually, he found a policy that could advance both priorities and, well, the rest is history. If we gather new information while rooted in our values, we can unlock novel solutions instead of being attached to a specific course of action.
“Being wrong is not nearly as bad as staying wrong. The faster you are to recognize you were wrong, the faster you can move to getting it right,” Adam says. When we regularly challenge our thinking in our constantly changing world, our unlearning can unlock new insights, new opportunities, and better lives.
About Adam Grant
Adam Grant has been Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years. As an organizational psychologist, he is a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. He has been recognized as one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers and Fortune’s 40 under 40.
He is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of five books that have sold millions of copies and been translated into 35 languages: Think Again, Give and Take, Originals, Option B, and Power Moves. His books have been named among the year’s best by Amazon, Apple, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. His New York Times article on languishing is one of the most-shared articles of 2021.
Adam hosts WorkLife, a chart-topping TED original podcast. His TED talks on original thinkers and givers and takers have been viewed more than 30 million times. He received a standing ovation at TED in 2016 and was voted the audience’s favorite speaker at The Nantucket Project. His speaking and consulting clients include Google, the NBA, Bridgewater, and the Gates Foundation. He writes on work and psychology for the New York Times, has served on the Defense Innovation Board at the Pentagon, and has been honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He has more than 5 million followers on social media and features new insights in his free monthly newsletter, GRANTED (sign up at the bottom of this page).
This story is a collaboration between the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) and Riverbank Consulting Group, whose purpose is to energize and engineer organizations to unleash potential. It is based on the Center’s Positive Links Speaker Series.