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Weekly 3: How often are you right?


Idea Journal Weekly 3

December 27 · Issue #171 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Being right consistently is hard. For example, reflect on your past predictions about when some project would end, or how successful some initiative would be. How accurate were your predictions? How often were you right?
The good news is that there are ways to increase the accuracy of your beliefs and opinions. This issue explores a few of them.
(~4 min read)

#1. Make your beliefs and opinions testable
Computer science professor and linguist Michael Covington admits that epistemology can seem like an intimidating subject, but it shouldn’t.
Epistemology is simply the study of how to acquire knowledge by observing the world around you. 
The goal of epistemology is to believe things that are true, and not to believe things that are false.
The key to being right more often is to develop beliefs and opinions that are based on evidence whenever possible. 
Here’s a summary of how to do that: 
  1. Propose some belief or opinion 
  2. Try to prove it
  3. Then try to disprove it
Most of us skip the last step, but it’s important. 
Because in order for you to be confident that some belief or opinion is accurate, it has to be testable. And it’s your job to test it. There has to be some way that you could tell if it were false. 
For example, say you believe that all swans are white. It’s your job not only to look for white swans, but also to look for swans that aren’t white.
Covington notes that there are plenty of widespread misconceptions that are based on epistemological errors. 
Here’s an example of such misconception: “It’s OK to believe anything you want because we never really know anything. It’s all just opinions.” 
This is a misconception because of two facts: 
  1. Our knowledge of the world is incomplete.
  2. Nonetheless, the world is objectively real.
And here’s a test: If you step in front of a speeding bus, it will run you over. Even if you can find people whose opinion is different.
#2. Don't be afraid to change your mind
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos believes that “good leaders are right a lot.” 
And for Bezos, a key reason why they are right more often than others is that they change their minds a lot. 
He acknowledges that frequently changing your mind is generally seen as a negative trait. For example, in politics you’ll likely be looked down upon as “flip-flopping.”
But as Bezos puts it, the rationale for changing your mind a lot is straightforward: “The world is so dynamic that if you don’t change your mind a lot, you’re just, by definition, going to be wrong a lot.”
Yet this doesn’t mean that the people who are right a lot are simply lucky. 
Instead, what Bezos is referring to is people who are willing to question their own assumptions. 
“They work very hard to discipline themselves, they want to disconfirm their foundational biases and things. And this is very unnatural for human beings. We are very selective in our evidence gathering.“
We generally prefer to look for evidence that confirms our assumptions and our biases.
But if you actively look for evidence that disconfirms your views, then you’re going to be right more often.
#3. Start from scratch: what do you know is true?
Researchers Lauren McCann and Gabriel Weinberg define intuition as a “gut feeling, drawing on your past experiences and natural programming to react to circumstances.”
For McCann and Weinberg, one way to make your intuition more accurate is to argue from first principles. 
When you use first principles, you deliberately start from scratch.
Arguing from first principles can decrease the likelihood that you’re wrong: “it means thinking from the bottom up, using basic building blocks of what you think is true to build sound conclusions.” 
For example, consider your next career move. 
Most people looking for work will apply to a bunch of jobs and take the first one that is offered to them. But this is unlikely to be their optimal choice.
Instead, when you use first principles you start by thinking about what you truly value in a career (e.g., autonomy, status, values), your required job parameters (e.g., location, money, title), and your previous experience. 
If you add up these considerations, you’ll have a much clearer picture of what’s best for your next career move. Then you can seek out relevant roles.
Quote of the week
“We’re so well-conditioned from infancy not to see the truth or relate to the truth … the first step in reaching for an education, I think, is to mistrust what you’re most certain of.”
- Author and educator John Taylor Gatto in a 2012 interview
Other Weekly 3 issues about being right
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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