Author of the New York Times Bestseller, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World. If you’re like most of my readers, you’re already a high-achieving leader. You’re committed to making big contributions at work—and seeing big results.
Anytime a person must gather information, there is no substitute for asking the right questions. Asking the right questions means asking someone to teach you things you do not know, or correcting you if your knowledge is distorted.
We see forms of questions all around us: a manager interviews a job applicant, a detective talks with an eyewitness to a crime, a parent asks a child for a summary of the school day, a TV reporter interviews a newsmaker. One quality that drew me to journalism was the prospect of interviewing interesting people and writing about our discussions.
Based on my years of interviewing people for a living, and listening to other interviewers of greater talent, these are principles I have found reliable in helping people reveal their deeper truths, those things that they would like to discuss if only someone would ask.
Unless you are a genius of improvisation, you will likely need to prepare a list of questions and to do any necessary research in forming those questions. The most rewarding conversation often occurs if you rely on your list of questions only for your first question or two. Consider the list your safety net and something that will quietly inform your subsequent questions.
2. Follow through
Why prepare a list of questions you may use only minimally? The most rewarding material in a conversation often occurs in a subsequent question informed by a person’s answer. You will hear this frequently in a gifted interviewer like Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air: a celebrity will allude to a childhood memory, or to some other more intimate detail. Though Gross can sometimes go too far and ask questions that sound invasive or boorish, the important principle is that she is willing to take risks for the sake of a compelling detail. There is a delicious quality when Gross asks a risky question, there is a slight pause, and then the subject answers her question with a soul-baring candor.
3. Be open-ended
Another way of putting this is to be non-directive. Unless you are a prosecutor at full throttle in a courtroom, your task is not to prove a point or to ask people a question that conveys how you want them to answer. Your task is to ask an honest question about what you want to learn from them. Andy Raskin wrote on Medium about overhearing a Famous CEO teaching a Young CEO about two simple questions that the late Steve Jobs asked of employees at the film studio he helped oversee: “Tell me what’s not working at Pixar,” and, “Tell me what’s working at Pixar.” Who would not love answering a question like this by the boss, so long as it was clear the boss meant it?
4. Dig for a person’s dignity
Any effective conversation builds on an understanding that you have something to learn from the person hearing your questions. That person has a family history, struggles that few others know about, and most likely some wisdom gained from experience. Ask questions that show you want to know some small part of that person’s story, something of what makes that person unique.
When I interviewed theologian Ron Sider for my book about tithing, I thought my best question was whether his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger had inspired many people to take on the hard discipline of a graduated tithe, in which a Christian gave a higher percentage with each higher step in income brackets. No, he said, precious few people had ever mentioned that detail. But somewhere in our conversation, he delivered what I considered the most poignant details by discussing his disappointment that his effort at living in intentional Christian community came apart at the seams. That sort of vulnerability does not come cheaply to the person making the disclosure, but it flows from a conversation that indicates love and respect.
5. Be willing to walk away
This last point is simply my way of admitting that not every attempted conversation will succeed. I remember only a few examples from my years of interviewing people as a reporter. In one case, a public school teacher was so cautious about everything she answered she gave that she spoke at 50 percent of a conversational pace and had me read her answers aloud immediately afterward. After a few questions, I conceded that the interviewer was leading nowhere and (more important) assured her that I would not use anything she had said, lest she feel her remarks had been bowdlerized.
In another case, an actor launched into a long-winded monologue worthy of a telemarketer who will not you to get in a word edgewise. In short, sometimes the person to whom you are extending love and respect is less willing to receive or return it. In moments like those, there is no shame in cutting your losses and bringing the conversation to a polite conclusion.
Taking an Interest Can Lead to a Longer, Better Life
Curiosity starts early. Children throw cups from highchairs over and over, testing gravity and their parents. They repeat the same noises and ask the same questions, exploring sound and language. When everything is new, there are countless experiments to run. The answers are awe-inspiring: sunsets, gravity, hula hoops, and bugs.
As more and more questions are answered, our curiosity can subside or it can evolve. Philosophy, scientific innovation, and progress are the natural results of adult curiosity. Cultivating this curiosity is important in life, love, and success. Here’s why.
Curiosity enhances learning
Applying knowledge in innovative ways is essential to discovery and progress. Curiosity helps us to build that knowledge, making it available for novel interpretations and applications. How? The neural circuits of curiosity prime the brain’s learning circuits, creating stronger activation and increasing our ability to learn.
In a 2009 research paper published in Psychological Science, Dr.Colin F. Camerer and team presented curiosity as “The Wick in the Candle of Learning.” In the study, subjects were given trivia questions to read out loud and instructed to guess the correct answer. They were also told to rate their level of curiosity.
Functional MRI showed increased activity in the caudate regions of the brain, associated with reward anticipation, in parallel with participants’ curiosity levels. When correct answers were revealed, the learning circuits in participants’ brains were activated more strongly if they had guessed incorrectly.
Based on these findings, Camerer and his team hypothesized that “curiosity would be associated with memory enhancement for new information.” Indeed, a follow-up study revealed that participants were better able to remember the answers to trivia questions if they had been curious about them beforehand.
Five years later, Dr. Charan Ranganath dug deeper into the relationship between curiosity and learning. Repeating a similar protocol as the 2009 study, Ranganath’s team also flashed photographs of faces during periods of high and low curiosity arousal. Curiosity not only helped participants to remember trivia, they were also better able to remember the photos if their curiosity had been piqued.
Curiosity feeds relationships
You probably already know that being genuinely interested in other people is an important precursor to building robust interpersonal relationships, but you may not know that scientists have delved into this very topic.
Likening curiosity to an interest in learning new things (exploration) and the ability to become absorbed in tasks (absorption), social scientists asked 90 students to complete researcher-designed Curiosity Exploration Inventories based on these two attributes. Then they gave each student forty-five minutes to talk to a participating stranger of the opposite sex. Half the couples were prompted to have an intimate talk, while the other half were set-up for small talk.
Curiosity mattered. When set up for intimacy, both groups experienced intimacy. When prompted to spend forty-five minute engaged in small talk, however, only those participants who had exhibited high curiosity and their partners felt a close connection. Curious people, even in low-intimacy situations, tended to engage in playful and probing interactions with their partners, prompting a greater feeling of intimacy and building more meaningful interpersonal relationships.
Though curiosity tends to decline with age, keeping novel-seeking behavior and a sense of wonder throughout life helps people to stay young.
Curiosity keeps you young
Though curiosity tends to decline with age, keeping novelty-seeking behavior and a sense of wonder throughout life helps people to stay young. A 1996 longitudinal study followed 1,118 aging individuals while tracking their curiosity levels. Those who exhibited high levels of curiosity were more likely to be alive five years later, even after accounting for other risk factors.
How does it work? As in most complex systems, we can’t be 100 percent sure, but research points to neurotransmitters. Curiosity activates the brain’s reward centers, which are regulated by dopamine. This particular neurotransmitter is less prevalent in aging brains and has been linked to cognitive decline. There is almost certainly more going on, but understanding the dopamine response is an important piece of the puzzle.
Curiosity can decline with age, or it can become an intrinsically woven part of your adult life. Here are 3 ways to keep your curiosity alive and well.
1. Find wonder
You don’t need to go trekking the Himalayas or scuba diving in a blue hole to find wonder. It is more of a mindset than an experience. Choose to notice the world around you. Take a moment to stop and revel in a sunset. Spend an afternoon with the sole mission of following bees back to their hive. Buy a camera. Nothing fancy. Framing beauty is a great way to learn to appreciate it.
2. Break the routine
Routine can be a blessing. It helps us focus on what we’re doing and allows us to build consistent, healthy habits. Routine is a great productivity hack, but not every day needs to be a productive one. Take time to break the routine. Try something new. Better yet, try something that makes you just a little apprehensive.
Routine is a great productivity hack, but not every day needs to be a productive one.
3. Learn something new
Most people learn new things every day, but these things are often in one particular area of interest. Learn something entirely new. If you’re a book person, learn something physical. If you’re always on the move, learn the benefits of stillness. It isn’t what you learn that is important, but that you are stretching new muscles, whether mental or physical.
As leaders, we often think we must have all the answers. That can result in a leadership style that exudes arrogance and ignores the wisdom that might be sitting in the room. In this episode, you’ll learn how to avoid becoming stagnated or committing foolish errors by learning to ask three types of questions in any situation.
The Right Questions Can Lead to Business Breakthroughs
Eight years ago, Craig Ross achieved a career milestone. He became the majority owner, CEO, and president of Verus Global, a leadership development organization based in Littleton, Colorado. There was no time to celebrate because of declining profits and growth. “For the first time in my career, I was asking questions I’d never asked,” Ross says. “[I wondered], ‘Am I capable of leading a successful company?’”
In retrospect, Ross acknowledges that that question, along with similar ones (What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t the plan working? What skills don’t I have that our founder demonstrated?) weren’t just unproductive—they were also destructive, borne of feelings of inadequacy and rooted in Ross’s tendency to compare himself and his personal leadership style with that of the company’s founder.
It was during a conversation with his mother that Ross’s perspective changed. “I began to ask, ‘How can I get better at being true to myself and my leadership?’” Ross says. “It caused me to step back and more clearly identify my purpose, vision, and motivations. From this clarity, my leadership actions evolved.”
Not only did Ross’s approach to leading Versus Global shift, so did the company’s fate. Ross says that the company has “grown in ways that were unimaginable at that time.” Ross is more prepared than ever to navigate challenges—now that he knows the right questions to ask.
Slowing sales isn’t the only precursor to a paradigm shift. Gemma Bonham-Carter had already achieved profitability as a blogger and blogging coach with a suite of successful products. But a reliance on launch-cycle revenue meant that when she wasn’t actively selling to her audience, she wasn’t making any money at all. “I would either be doing an intense, high-stress launch of one of my products—which was time-consuming even though it produced successful results,” she says. “But I would then go into a lull where I would be list-building but not actively making sales.”
The problem? When evaluating her income strategy, Bonham-Carter was asking the wrong question: “What’s the next product I can launch?”
The question that ultimately led to the breakthrough she needed was, “How can I automate the sales process so that I can make regular, consistent sales without having to constantly be actively launching?”
“After asking that question, I created video content and email sequences to use in a sales funnel that allowed me to build trust with my potential customer,” Bonham-Carter explains. “This has meant I can be hands-off with the launch and can instead focus my energy on providing the most high-quality program for my students. I have been able to scale this automated sequence using Facebook and Instagram ads, and I now generate more revenue month-over-month than was ever possible with the live launch strategy.”
Looking for answers in all the wrong places
Sometimes even asking the right questions isn’t enough to achieve leadership breakthroughs. According to Ally Compeau, founder of Woof Signs, an online provider of customized signage. “As opposed to asking the wrong questions, I actually feel like I was asking the wrong people,” she explains. “I was doing competitor research, speaking to others in the industry, and trying to get a sense of what was popular in the market and how consumers were currently engaging in the market. I needed to ask the right questions to the right people—who ultimately turned out to be the end customer.”
To differentiate her new business by succinctly addressing customer pain points, Compeau began to interview each of her potential customers. After asking questions like “Have you purchased a sign before?”; “For your ideal sign, what would you pay?”; and “How would you like to be able to buy?”, Compeau was able to distinguish important data that could then be integrated into the Woof Signs marketing strategy.
“The breakthrough I achieved was identifying where customers were not satisfied with the industry and how I could capture that dissatisfaction and turn it into satisfaction with my approach,” Compeau says. “It helped me to innovate within an industry based on the end customer rather than based on what is already out there.”
Ellie Thompson agrees on the importance of customer-focused questions. The Washington, DC-based money coach notes that, despite her extensive finance knowledge and past experience helping others achieve financial freedom, she still had many clients who weren’t taking the necessary steps to improve their relationships with money.
“It was infuriating, feeling like you know the solution, yet for some reason, others aren’t willing to make that solution possible,” Thompson says. And simply turning to her clients to help her uncover the source of her business difficulties wasn’t enough. She also had to ask the right questions of the right people.
“This is when I realized I was asking the wrong questions,” Thompson says. “Instead of asking, ‘Why aren’t you saving up for retirement?’ I needed to be starting with the emotional side of things—such as, ‘How are you feeling about your money?’, ‘Are you overwhelmed?’, ‘Are you unsure?’, ‘Do you feel stuck?’”
Ultimately, that shift lead to a breakthrough in Thompson’s business. “I totally changed my process,” she says. “I asked the emotions up front and put the logical next. Now, I am receiving client after client who wants to feel free with their finances.”
Solomon was said to be the most successful king that Israel ever had—renowned for his wisdom and his riches. His heir Rehoboam, not so much.
Of the 12 tribes of Hebrews that constituted the nation of Israel, 10 revolted under Rehoboam’s reign. Later leaders would manage shaky alliances. But after Rehoboam, it was no longer just Israel that people spoke of but rather “Israel and Judah.” (And what most of us think of when we think of ancient Israel—Jerusalem, the temple, the Davidic dynasty—was actually Judah.)
Some lump Rehoboam’s failure up to heavy taxation. That’s part of the story behind the fracture, but far from the whole of it. Kings, like all leaders, rely on their advisors to read the mood of their constituents. And whose advice Rehoboam chose to heed here proved ruinous.
Monarchy at the time was a new experiment for Israel, and it faced resistance. One failed dynasty (Saul’s) gave way to a more successful one (David’s, expanded under Solomon). The last recognized prophet-leader of Israel, Samuel, had warned the people against the high costs of a monarchy.
Samuel preached against “the ways of the King who will rule over you.” There would be mass conscription for his army and his palace, enabled by heavy taxation and with what we might call “eminent domain“ today.
The king would expropriate “fields, vineyards, and olive orchards,” along with “a tenth” of the nation’s grain and livestock and gift them to his generals and cronies. Echoing the Hebrews’ Egyptian past, the prophet predicted the people would ultimately be the king’s “slaves.”
And that is, by and large, what happened. “King Solomon created the wealthiest and most powerful central government the Hebrews would ever see” explains historian Richard Hooker, “but he did so at an impossibly high cost. Land was given away to pay for his extravagances and people were sent into forced labor into Tyre in the north.”
Consequently, when the great king died “between 926 and 922 BCE, the ten northern tribes refused to submit to his son, Rehoboam, and revolted.”
Whips and scorpions
The story behind that revolt is told in dramatic fashion in the first book of Kings. Many people petitioned their new king at the time of his coronation. They rightly pointed out that his father had laid “a heavy yoke” on them and asked for some relief.
The people said they would pledge their undying loyalty to him if he would give them a little bit of breathing room. This seemed to surprise Rehoboam. He asked for some time to consider their petition while he consulted his retinue.
Among his advisors, Rehoboam found two schools of thought, diametrically opposed. One group, the greybeards, advised what we might call servant leadership. They said that at the very least he should “speak good words” to the people and consider reducing royal demands. Another group, his peers and flatterers, said that would indicate weakness. The impression that the people needed to have of their new king was that his “little finger” was “thicker than his father’s thigh.” He liked that advice better.
So when the petitioners returned for an answer, hoping for the best, they got an earful instead. “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to it. He disciplined you with whips. I will use scorpions,” the new king informed his subjects.
Sticks and stoned
Such a frankly Pharaonic pronouncement did not play well with this crowd. Rehoboam had promised scorpions, but it was their response that really stung. They declared, “We have no inheritance” in this “son of Jesse,” Rehoboam’s great-grandfather. They refused to recognize him as king and crowned their own competing king of Israel instead.
Rehoboam tried to reassert his rule by sending a fearsome “taskmaster over forced labor” into the North to restore order. The people responded by stoning the taskmaster to death. Even within Judah, Rehoboam found himself embattled, holed up in Jerusalem. He called up an army of 180,000 men to march north and take it back.
They were stopped in their tracks not by an opposing force but by a prophet named Shemaiah, who delivered a message from a Higher Power. “Thus says the Lord,” Shemaiah prophesied, “You shall not go up or fight against your relatives the people of Israel. Every man return to his home.” And that was that. Unified Israel was undone.
Rehoboam’s folly, and ours
One obvious lesson here is that Rehoboam failed because he acted not like a leader but like a caricature of a leader – what we would call a dictator or a tyrant. Though they may make claims to the contrary, no leader’s power is absolute. They operate under both material and manpower constraints. Their constituents or soldiers or followers or customers ultimately will have some say. In this case, what they said was, “Enough!”
Then there is the matter of the advice Rehoboam chose to take. It was whatever comes after “bad.” And it was a disaster.
Imagine that you are an ambitious new CEO. You have just laid our your vision for the organization and you talk to advisors who break down into two schools of thought.
One is a group of seasoned pros who know the workers and customers well. They say they want to help you realize your vision but point out real obstacles to progress. They propose that you make some practical concessions. They advise that you get buy-in from stakeholders and from your team—and that you give serious consideration to your customers as you change things.
The other group is younger, hungrier, more ambitious. They tell you that you should go forth and change the world, avoiding all advice from “naysayers.” They tell you that any caution is really a concession to fear and that you should “go with your gut.” In fact, maybe you aren’t going far enough! In other words, they tell you something that is much more pleasant for you to hear.
What this particular vignette teaches us is that it is unwise to dismiss the cautions of your seasoned pros out of hand. At a minimum, hear them out, take their reasonable concerns to heart, let that inform how you speak about your vision going forward. More honey, fewer scorpions.
Your Brain's Attention-to-Detail Is Like a Superpower
Your intuition is a lot like Shawn Spencer. If you’re not familiar with the hit TV show Psych, Spencer is a private detective with a twist: he has everyone convinced he is psychic. In fact, his supernatural, detecting power is nothing more than exceptional attention-to-detail.
How is this like intuition? Though people are apt to consider fantastical reasons for their confirmed hunches, your subconscious is really an attention-to-detail guru. Intuition is how your subconscious communicates.
A good demonstration comes from a 2009 study in which participants were shown a series of images. Half the time they were able to concentrate on the images, the other half of the time they were distracted. Despite insisting that they were guessing, participants were better at recognizing the latter images as ones they had seen. “With the brain’s analytical system occupied by another task, the intuitive system—which excels at picking up the gist of a scene or situation—is better able to do its work,” coauthor Dr. Ken Paller explains.
Though people are apt to consider fantastical reasons for their confirmed hunches, your subconscious is really an attention-to-detail guru.
Researchers haven’t always been so quick to describe intuition as a scientifically-based phenomenon. The first step was quantifying what had long been regarded as just a feeling.
Something that cannot be seen, touched, or measured is difficult to build and test hypotheses around, which made understanding intuition from a scientific perspective challenging. The breakthrough came when researchers discovered that intuitive knowledge results in physiological signals long before a conscious hunch develops.
In a 1997 study, sixteen healthy subjects were each given four decks of cards. Their aim was to make money, and each deck held a predetermined bias. One was set up to be a winner every time, but only small amounts would be won. Another offered major wins alongside major losses, with the losses slowly gaining ground. After about 50 cards, people began consciously choosing the better decks. After 80 cards, they could explain this decision.
Within only ten cards, however, participants exhibited a sweat response to the more risky decks: the hands reaching towards risky decks would sweat, while those that reached towards safe decks did not. Scientists had found physical, measurable sign of intuition. The next step was understanding where it came from.
The neurobiology of inner knowledge
We experience our brains as a single organism, deciphering information and informing consciousness, but the multivariable complexity of the organ is far from being fully understood. We do know that the brain is compartmentalized, and consciousness is only one small piece of the puzzle.
In 2011, a group of Japanese neuroscientists set out to identify the source of intuition in the brain. They turned to shogi, which can be thought of as an incredibly complicated version of Japanese chess. Like chess players, accomplished shogi players understand the game intuitively, often knowing the winning moves unconsciously before they can articulate why. Using functional MRI, researchers scanned the brains of professional shogi players whilst giving them only one second to find the winning move on a shogi board. A tiny piece of the basal ganglia lit up with activity: the caudate nucleus. This may not be the only source of intuition, but it appears to be the brain’s intuitive hotspot.
Studies in cats and humans suggest that the caudate nucleus is involved in helping us to form relationships, among other things. Though perhaps not an immediately obvious connection, recognizing and correctly reacting to the complex behaviors of our fellow man is a herculean task. It is rarely accomplished without some sense of intuition. This may be why so many of our hunches involve human relationships.
Much as connections in your brain can be weakened or strengthened in a “use it or lose it” manner, intuition can be either undermined or fostered. As a method of more strongly linking the caudate nucleus to intuition, our neuroanatomy-finding researchers trained a group of novice shogi players in the game. Before training, they were unable to successfully predict winning moves and their caudate nucleases lit up sporadically or not at all. What impact did training have? Increased activity in parallel to a player’s improvement.
Intuition is task-specific, and strengthening an intuitive understanding of shogi is a different process than strengthening, say, your ability to identify an untrustworthy business partner. The strategy to development, however, is the same: practice makes perfect. Learn to listen to your inner voice. Whether you should follow its advice, however, is case-specific.
Learn to listen to your inner voice. Whether you should follow its advice, however, is case-specific.
Intuition in context
Intuition is a fantastic tool, but it isn’t without flaws. Our special spidey sense is compelled to pick up patterns and draw connections, even where none exist. “Intuition leads us astray because it’s not very good at picking up flaws in the evidence,” Cornell psychology professor Dr. Tom Gilovich reminds us. “It will be faulty when the world conspires against us and presents information that is unrepresentative and misleading.”
The bottom line? Learning to listen to your gut is a formidable back-pocket skill that can guide you through business and life, but those who can weight intuition within the context of other measurements will always be a stroke ahead.
We Need to Rediscover that Numbers Aren't Everything
If thou gaze long into an algorithm, the algorithm will also gaze into… well, not exactly thee, right? More like a patchy portrait of your likeness churned out by a mimeograph low on ink—sharply delineated in a few areas, sure, but hazy and obscure in many others.
Yet close enough in the broad strokes to serve as a makeshift Rorschach test for those who believe a selective data set can provide the imprimatur of scientific detachment to a conclusion in search of confirming evidence.
Back in 2013 an “Industry Insights” report published by IBM estimated there were 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every single day. That’s the number one followed by eighteen zeroes and drawn from “sensors used to gather shopper information, posts to social media sites, digital pictures and videos, purchase transaction, and cell phone GPS signals to name a few.”
Now, five short years later, the ante has been upped considerably. In 2017, Forbes reports, “more personal data was harvested than in the previous 5,000 years of human history”—an impressive figure considering the Sumerians of Mesopotamia only invented the written word 5,500 years ago.
Go back any further and we’d have to start arguing over whether the European Union’s new General Data Protection Act requires us to erase Paleolithic cave paintings in France.
Big Data’s boosters
This, friends, is the grist that feeds the much-ballyhooed mill we call Big Data—and its boosters are legion. In fact, a writer for App Developer Magazine recently fretted that “less than 0.5 percent of that data is actually being analyzed for operational decision making.”
But is it really a positive development to find our data points tossed to and fro in oceans of petabytes, exabytes, zettabytes, and bytes likely so vast they can not yet be named, occasionally to be fished out by some technocratic administrator or another to determine whether we’re worthy for a loan, an education, a job, an insurance policy, an early release from jail?
“We risk falling victim to a dictatorship of data, whereby we fetishize the information, the output of our analyses, and end up misusing it,” Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier warn in Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. “Handled responsibly, Big Data is a useful tool of rational decision-making. Wielded unwisely, it can become a tool of the powerful, who may turn it into a source of repression, either by simply frustrating customers and employees, or, worse, by harming citizens. The stakes are higher than is typically acknowledged.”
Hmm. Seems like perhaps something of an understatement?
It also raises the question, what’s the next new thing? It’s one thing to blithely click “agree” on a social media user agreement; it’s quite another to have the information gleaned from there married to location data from your cell phone and facial recognition systems embedded in advertising.
Despite the velocity of change and the abstruseness of this digital architecture, we have largely placed our trust in the benevolence and good intentions of those who either constructed or administer these contrivances—without realizing how much flesh and blood creator has ceded to a machine.
Once gone will we ever get it back?
The tyranny of the collective
Towards the end of his expansive, mind-bending tome Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, acclaimed statistician/scholar/essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb goes on an extended and convincing riff about the many ways “the abundance of data” can be “extremely harmful to knowledge.”
“More data means more information, perhaps,” he writes, “but it also means more false information.” Taleb illustrates his warning by asking us to imagine “distinction between real life and libraries.”
“Someone looking at history from the vantage point of a library will necessarily find many more spurious relationships than one who sees matters in the making, in the usual sequences once observes in real life,” he explains. “He will be duped by more epiphenomena, one of which is the direct result of the excess data as compared to real signals.”
Now hold on a second, you say, libraries have done alright by me!
Yes, of course. But we’re not talking about your local or university library in which the curation process is driven by compounding human consensus and diversity. This is more akin to being ushered into a theoretical library full of books chosen by an entity possessing a singular presupposition and devoted to a very specific agenda or agendas. Any volume that challenges or offers contrary evidence is ignored or discarded.
If you’d like to personalize this thought experiment even further, imagine all of these books are volumes detailing how your life should be run, what you should be allowed to do, the degree of trust you should be granted.
“The researcher gets the upside, truth gets the downside,” Taleb posits. “The researcher’s free option is in his ability to pick whatever statistics can confirm his belief—or show a good result—and ditch the rest. He has the option to stop once he has the right result.
“The spurious,” he adds, “rises to the surface.”
Big Data raises this “cherry-picking to an industrial level,” Taleb argues, adding: “Modernity provides too many variables (but too little data per variable), and the spurious relationships grow much faster than real information, as noise is convex and information is concave.” We find ourselves, he fears, at the mercy of a “tyranny of the collective,” made all the more formidable by those daily quintillions added to its mass.
Beware mathematicians bearing magic formula
“When I was a little girl, I used to gaze at the traffic out the car window and study the numbers on the license plates,” Cathy O’Neil writes in the opening chapter of her always elucidating, frequently harrowing 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. “I would reduce each one to its basic elements—the prime numbers that made it up. 45 = 3 X 3 X 5. That’s called factoring, and it was my favorite investigative pastime.”
Not exactly the sort of material that’ll send folks into wistful exclamations of “Hey, kids will be kids!,” but for O’Neil math “provided a neat refuge from the messiness of the real world.” She went to math camp, followed numbers into college, eventually got her Ph.D. “My thesis was on algebraic number theory,” she writes, “a field with roots in all that factoring I did as a child.” She got a tenure-track gig at Barnard then made the jump to the hedge fund D.E. Shaw to “put abstract theory into practice.”
“At first I was excited and amazed by working in this new laboratory, the global economy,” she writes. Then, a little more than a year later, came the 2008 crash which “made it all too clear that mathematics, once my refuge, was not only deeply entangled in the world’s problems but also fueling many of them.”
“The housing crisis, the collapse of major institutions, the rise of unemployment—all had been aided and abetted by mathematicians wielding magic formulas,” she continues. “What’s more, thanks to the extraordinary powers that I loved so much, math was able to combine with technology to multiply the chaos and misfortune, adding efficiency and scale to systems that I now recognized as flawed.”
Yet in what should have been a humbling moment for her field, she notes in the aftermath, “new mathematical techniques were hotter than ever and expanding into still more domains.”
Without any real discussion and a tacit approval seemingly based purely on awe, humanity had surrendered to techno-deities and “like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists.”
If this seems like hyperbole before you read Weapons of Math Destruction, it certainly won’t by the time you finish it.
From chasing excellent teachers out of failing public schools where they’re desperately needed to keeping qualified applicants out of good jobs and educational institutions to calculating the potential recidivism of inmates in dubious ways that keep the reformed as wards of the prison-industrial complex to creating false feedback loops that reinforce and amplify inequality and limit social mobility to preventing us from advocating for ourselves in the very political system that frequently appears determined to foist all of this upon us, O’Neil makes a convincing case that we should all begin and end our days acknowledging, There but for the grace of the algorithmic gods go I…
“[Y]ou cannot appeal to a WMD,” she writes. “That’s part of their fearsome power. They do not listen. Nor do they bend. They’re deaf to charm, threats, and cajoling but also to logic—even when there is good reason to question the data that feeds their conclusions.”
From her perch at the Mathbabe blog, through her books, and in a bracing TED Talk entitled “The Era of Blind Faith In Big Data Must End,” O’Neil has established herself as an eloquent advocate for humanity in the face of technocracy.
“Models,” she warns we laypeople, “are opinions embedded in mathematics.” Ah, but therein lies the rub. What incentive does any person or institution that benefits from a given algorithmic outcome to acknowledge to themselves or anyone else that the dispassionate automation that got them to it is a fiction, polite or otherwise?
What’s at stake
Of course, none of this is new. When in Ecclesiastes it is said that, “God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices,” it’s not a reference to iPhones and supercomputers…though it easily could be updated as such. Nor is the state of affairs hopeless. It simply requires more honest grappling and pushback than what has hitherto occurred. For that to happen we must first set aside a bit of convenience and have a frank discussion of the stakes.
“The essential point about big data is that a change of scale leads to a change of state,” Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier write. “[T]his transformation not only makes protecting privacy much harder but also presents an entirely new menace: penalties based on propensities. That is the possibility of using big data predictions about people to judge and punish them even before they’ve acted. Doing this negates the idea of fairness, justice, and free will.”
One hopes those remain universal ideals we can all come together to defend.
You will never make a fully-informed decision. Accept it. The reality is that every choice involves using limited information, can have unforeseen consequences, and, because of conditions that change before your very eyes, may end up being the wrong decision anyway. Then you will have to change your mind.
Yet you still can make good decisions within the limitations facing you. This starts by taking four critical steps that can focus your decision-making, help you assess the situation before you, help you avoid past mistakes, and provide you with enough flexibility to change course when necessary.
You will never make a fully-informed decision. Accept it.
1. Make your decisions with the goals in mind
Data is incredibly helpful when it is high quality, fully vetted, and used in sophisticated ways. But even the best data cannot help you assess the future—or make decisions that always hold up over time. As many a political and business leader will admit, unforeseen changes can alter the course of everything, rendering your data useless.
Given that life is full of uncertainty, your first step in decision-making starts with what you are setting out to accomplish. This means setting clear and concise goals that may be achieved even if you must change course or come up with new decisions. As part of that process, you should focus on making your goals specific, measurable, timely and realistic given the lay of the land.
But it isn’t enough to just think about your decisions in the context of your goals. You may even need to reassess whether the goals are achievable or worth doing. After all, the goals themselves may be the bigger problem than the decisions you make to achieve them. This means assessing your goals to see if they are too vague, merely aspirational, or just plain unrealistic.
2. Consider skeptically the conditions before you
John F. Kennedy learned a critical lesson from his ill-fated backing of the Bay of Pigs invasion: Scrutinize an entire situation critically before making (or going along with) a decision. He put that lesson to good use nearly two years later when he learned that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba as part of its alliance with Fidel Castro.
To look holistically at the situation (and to discourage groupthink), Kennedy encouraged each person addressing the Cuban Missile Crisis to act as a “skeptical generalist,” asking tough questions about both the situation and the ideas of their colleagues. He also broke his advisers up into teams (and even asked them to meet without him present) so that they developed alternative strategies. As University of California, Berkeley, Professor Morten T. Hansen points out, Kennedy’s approach helped America (and the Soviet Union) avoid nuclear war.
Kennedy’s approach to his decision-making on the Cuban Missile Crisis is one we should embrace. After all, a situation can be more than what it appears to be, and we are limited in what we can assess from our particular viewpoint. One way to skeptically assess conditions is to seek advice from trusted sponsors, mentors, and colleagues who can provide honest feedback on an issue or situation. Another is to develop alternative solutions to the problems and situations you are tackling; doing so will give you additional approaches to take if you have to change course.
3. Learn from—but don’t dwell on—past mistakes
No one goes through life without making an error or a thousand; you wouldn’t be human if every choice was the right one. Yet those past errors and mistakes are critical in making better decisions; after all, you can only connect the proverbial dots of your life backward in your quest to move forward.
One way to learn from past mistakes is to look at every aspect of those situations. This means sitting down and charting out the conditions at that time, the decisions made in response to them, and how things went awry. What you will learn is that sometimes, the problem wasn’t the decision, but in how you assessed the situation. Other times, the problem may be everything, including unforeseen circumstances you could never anticipate.
This assessment should also include looking at the good that did come out of the mistake—including how you overcame the adversity. Understanding how you made it through a situation is helpful in making good decisions in the present and future.
Understanding how you made it through a situation is helpful in making good decisions in the present and future.
4. Accept the possibility of course correction
Even if you take all the right steps, changes in conditions (from the departure of a supervisor to a natural disaster) can force you to make a different decision. This is okay. As the serenity prayer reminds us all, you are only in control of the things you can change.
The good news is that you can actually make a different decision to achieve your goals when those course corrections happen. So embrace the ability to make decisions—even if they end up being different from your first choices. Always remember that there is more than one way to get to the next level.
Decision making may be the toughest thing leaders do. we have to make critical choices that affect the welfare and livelihood of dozens or even thousands of people—often using conflicting or incomplete information. In this episode, we’ll show you the three factors leaders must consider when making an important choice.
You are often your own worst enemy. It starts with the words out of your mouth and the voices in your head. From telling yourself that you aren’t knowledgeable enough to take on a new challenge to the nagging doubts about important career moves, the negative words in your mind are obstacles to the success you want to achieve.
A little self-doubt is normal because life is filled with uncertainty. The risks that you take to stretch yourself and succeed are real ones, accompanied by the possibility of failure. But when you speak ill to yourself, you are hurting your chances for success.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are three simple steps you can take right now to stop sabotaging yourself—and affirm your capacity for success.
The words in your mind are obstacles to the success you want to achieve.
1. Change the words in your mind
Gospel singer Hezekiah Walker once sang, “I won’t harm you with words from my mouth.” But each and every day, people sabotage themselves with the I can’ts and I’m not good enoughs in their minds. Not only do these words cause career-limiting procrastination and indecision, they even contribute to physical ailments and untimely deaths.
Simply ignoring these words of doubt isn’t enough. You must combat them with affirmations of your capacity to take on challenges and succeed. This starts at the end of the day by listing and reciting I cans, I ams, and even I wills, affirming your ability to achieve. By affirming yourself before going to bed, you organize and focus your mind on achievement.
Another strategy lies in recalling your past successes—and writing them down so you can reference them every now and then. Even the simplest signposted achievement can cause you to feel positive about your ability to succeed in the future. More importantly, those thoughts, along with the positive words, crowd out the negative words stuck on repeat in your head.
2. Deal with the fears inside
William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that “Our doubts are traitors.” They make us “lose the good we oft might win.” Those doubts, and the words of self-sabotage that emerge from them, result from the fears of failure. Too often, these fears are allowed to fester.
You must realize that fear is not a sign that you are incapable, but merely the signal that you must take on the next challenge. By understanding fear as a positive signal, you can then take action instead of wallowing in indecision and procrastination. That fear can even help you find ways to avoid pitfalls on the way to progress.
At the same time, you should accept fear as a healthy way of driving your own self-improvement. You may not know everything you need to take on the next challenge. So read books on the areas you are about to undertake, and seek advice from sponsors, mentors, and others whom you trust.
3. Embrace the fact that you are enough.
Once you embrace words of affirmation and leverage your fear for success, you will stop engaging in self-sabotage—and see yourself as more than capable of achieving what you set out to do.
“Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forwards,” said the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. This means looking at your past successes and moments of overcoming adversity, then using those lessons to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Once you embrace words of affirmation and leverage your fear for success, you will stop engaging in self-sabotage—and see yourself as more than capable of achieving what you set out to do.
Another step lies in realizing that you are smarter and talented than you think you are. If you have achieved in the past, you can succeed in the future. By remembering this, you are engaging in what author Margie Warrell describes as calling out the critic, dissecting the doubts and words of self-sabotage that keep you from seeing your full potential.
Finally, you should stay true to yourself. This is critical in pushing back against words of self-doubt and the self-sabotage that results from them. Steve Jobs once said that you shouldn’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your inner voice. Knowledge that you are being true to your best self is a great way of shutting out the inner critic as well.
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