Unlearning and Rethinking – the Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Unlearning and Rethinking – the Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant began his research for Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know well before the coronavirus pandemic upheavaled our lives in countless (and seemingly endless) ways. But learning how to unlearn and rethink in a rapidly changing and increasingly divisive world can be as necessary as learning to learn and think in the first place. Published February 2, 2021, Think Again is exactly the right book at the right time.

[See end of newsletter for brief bio; please read the book itself for Dr. Grant’s clear research examples, delightful stories, awesome wit and humor.]

Even though Dr. Grant mentions resilience only once and never mentions mindfulness or self-compassion as relevant to re-thinking at all, the underlying premises of the book – that keeping an open mind is a teachable skill and that when we question old assumptions we can embrace new ideas and perspectives – has never been more relevant to cultivating a resilience mindset than during (enduring) the ongoing coronavirus pandemic when it might seem impossible to envision life beyond the current shutdown. 

Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed; that what was once right may now be wrong.  Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves. We listen to opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.  We may favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.  The result is that our beliefs get brittle long before our bones. 

Dr. Grant offers a very simple example right at the beginning, one that caused me to challenge my own beliefs immediately:

At some point, you’ve probably heard that if you drop a frog in a pot of scalding hot water, it will immediately leap out.  But if you drop the frog in lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog will die.  It lacks the ability to rethink the situation, and doesn’t realize the threat until it’s too late.

I did some research on this popular story recently and discovered a wrinkle: it isn’t true.  

Tossed into the scalding pot, the frog will be burned badly and may or may not escape.  The frog is actually better off in the slow-boiling pot, it will leap out as soon as the water starts to be uncomfortably warm.

It’s not the frogs who fail to reevaluate. It’s us. Once we hear the story and accept is as true, we rarely bother to question it. 

Dr. Grant proposes a useful trajectory for unlearning and rethinking:

Humility – acknowledging what we don’t know; grounded in awareness of possible (probable) fallibility

Doubt – willingness to question and challenge assumptions, beliefs, even certainties

Curiosity  about what’s missing, willingness to ask, explore, learn about alternatives

Discovery – discovering new truths, especially what was unexpected

Rethinking – opening up to new perspectives and new possibilities

Grant applies this trajectory to many, many life situations, for individuals, for groups, for organizations. Opening our own minds; helping other people open their minds (rather than trying to change or fix them). Rethinking becomes not just a skill set, but a mindset, a way of approaching everything in our daily and ongoing lives.

Along the way, Grant explores many well-known psychological principles to support a shift toward rethinking as a viable paradigm:

* Confirmation bias – seeing what you expect to see

* Desirability bias – seeing what you want to see

* Binary bias – seeing two sides to every question rather than the complexity of many sides

*Using our own open-mindedness, motivational interviewing and empathic listening, to help other people open their minds 

*Seeing people as individuals and finding common humanity to overcome prejudice and stereotypes.

Our beliefs are like pairs of reality goggles. We use them to make sense of our world and navigate our surroundings. A threat to our opinions cracks our goggles, leaving our vision blurred. Rather than trying on a different pair of goggles, we become mental contortionists, twisting and turning until we find an angle of vision that keeps our current views intact.

– George Kelly

Practices of unlearning and rethinking help us not only question the content of our thinking but the underlying process of thinking. (As we would in mindfulness practice, observing not only thoughts and emotions but the mental processes that create and perpetuate those thoughts and emotions.) Grant suggests one tool of imagining what beliefs and assumptions you might have if you were born in a different gender, or race, or class, or a different culture, or a different century. 

I don’t believe for a minute this is enough to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict or stop racism.  I do think it’s a step though, toward something more fundamental than merely rethinking our stereotypes.  We might question the underlying belief that it makes sense to hold opinions about groups at all. 

He offers this stereotype timeline that could lead to rethinking:

1.  Having an experience: A kid with a mohawk stole my bike

2.  Forming a stereotype: Kids with mohawks are thieves.

3.  Having a new experience: A kid with a mohawk was nice to me.

4.  Questioning the stereotype: Maybe mohawk kids aren’t so bad?

5.  Questioning stereotypes in general: You can’t judge a kid by his cover.

Of course, when the world is collapsing around us, we do want to maintain some stability and predictability. That’s why we create structure and routine in times of great transition. Grant makes the case again and again for anchoring our well-being in flexibility and pivot-ability rather than consistency leaning into stuckness.

People who are right listen a lot and they change their mind a lot. If you don’t change your mind frequently, you’re going to be wrong a lot.- Jeff Bezos

Grant acknowledges that challenging our beliefs and assumptions can trigger the fear response of the amygdala – we respond instinctively to protect our sense of self, our identity. That can lead to falling into roles of :

The Politician – seeking approval from constituents, family, friends

The Preacher – defending our sacred beliefs and promoting our ideals 

The Prosecutor  – arguing our case and proving the other side wrong


The scientist – since rethinking is a fundamental part of the training of young scientists, while searching for truth, becoming aware of the limits of your understanding to better pivot when proven wrong.

Grant suggests creating a challenge network of trusted friends and colleagues who can be trusted to challenge your process of thinking (and then ask them!).  And he suggests scheduling an inquiry at least every six months: “When did you form the aspirations you are currently pursuing?” and “How have you (or your world) changed since then?”

These practices help us focus on the core values that underlie a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, and foster the rethinking that helps us get comfortable with being wrong.

Grant includes many charts and cartoons to illustrate his points. Among my favorites: a New Yorker cartoon with someone on stage at a conference with many people lined up at the microphone for Q&A: “We’d now like to open the floor to shorter speeches disguised as questions.”   Been there, done that, so many times. Humbling….rethinking.

I do encourage you to read, ponder, soak in the premises of unlearning and rethinking.  As noted in their endorsement:  In an increasingly divided world, the lessons in Think Again are more important than ever. – Bill and Melinda Gates

[Brief bio from the book’s jacket: Adam Grant is organizational psychologist at The Wharton School, where he has been the top-rated professor for seven straight years. His books have sold millions of copies, his TED talks have been viewed over 25 million times….He has been recognized as one of the world’s ten most influential management thinkers and Fortune’s 40 under 40.]