Stop Fooling Yourself by Changing Your Mind


Here’s a way to arrive at what you believe: first, decide that you believe something. Then, throw your very best arguments against it until you believe something else. Repeat as many times as possible.

Most people do this in some capacity, probably subconsciously and very quickly, but I recommend doing it consciously, slowly, and deliberately. You may be surprised by what you find.

Now, no blog post by a (former) physicist is complete without a Feynman quote, so let his words enlighten us here:

  • “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
  • “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
  • “I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong.”

Progress By Being Wrong

Trying to contradict yourself is immensely important. In some sense, the strength of sciences like physics comes from this very process. To a first approximation, what experimental physicists spend their time doing is trying to make theories incorrect by measuring things.

Likewise, strong decision-making can emerge from this process. The risk of not bending over backwards to try to disprove yourself is believing all kinds of bogus things. For one, humans tend to see what they want to see. No matter how rational you think you are, you’re still the easiest to fool.

Now, “belief” may sound abstract and philosophical, but it doesn’t need to be. It could be something as simple as “there are at least 100 people who want to use my web app” or “we’ll work better if we do a daily standup”. That’s the starting point, your working hypothesis, until you gather evidence, experience, and data that doesn’t just confirm your position but leads you to something you feel is more correct. And because conditions, situations, and information continue to change and evolve, even if you think you’ve gotten to a “correct” point, you have to keep throwing your best counterarguments at yourself.

Over here at the iDoneThis World HQ, the leadership has changed their minds about all kinds of things. We will take credit cards up front, no we won’t, yes we will, no we won’t. We should add tagging, no we shouldn’t, yes we should. We’re focusing on email, we’re focusing on the web. The list just keeps going.

One benefit is that we’re always learning. We went back and forth on doing weekly team video calls because we were basically learning how to do better meetings. Questioning our belief that we should have a weekly check-in exposed the fact that we weren’t being clear on purpose or process. Not doing the calls taught us that, as a distributed team, face-to-face time was extremely important for a sense of togetherness. We settled on doing weekly calls but with clearer protocols, for now.

The process of changing our minds about communication as a team through active questioning is one that’s making us stronger.

The Cost of Always Changing Your Mind

Alas, this won’t be just pretty pink unicorns. We think the process is healthy, but it can be frustrating too. Arriving at what you believe by changing your mind a lot has an unavoidable side-effect: you are always changing your mind.

Declaring your change of mind isn’t free. Whenever a leader changes his mind, it is usually perceived as being irresolute. I don’t mean Henry V here, but if your boss changes her mind about what you should be working on, it will annoy you. Conversely, if you change your mind too much, you’ll be a pain to work for and even be seen as less of a leader.

Each time a team or a company is steered in a new direction, the gratification of achieving goals and milestones is delayed. Furthermore, with each swerve and turn, work gets scrapped and people can feel their time is being wasted. All of this leads to lowered morale.

So, the cost of changing your mind out loud is lowering the morale of your team, which may sound like a small price to pay but isn’t. Paul Graham likes to say that startups run on morale, but good morale applies more broadly. It is very difficult to do good work at all while not in good spirits.

Transparency goes a long way in mitigating the morale costs, though. Acknowledge the facts of change. Explain the new information or thinking within the context of the old — here’s what we thought, here’s why we no longer think that, here’s the new thinking — and involve your team in the changing minds process.

* * * * *

If you aren’t changing your mind, you are not trying very hard to contradict your beliefs.

Don’t worry, you’ll be in good company when you do. Jeff Bezos points out that smart people change their minds often, which leads to “getting it right” more often. Buffer’s CEO Joel Gascoigne goes one step further to say that “your success might be determined by how willing you are to be inconsistent.”

So, change your mind early and change your mind often. It’s the way to grow.

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