Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

What Type of Perfectionist Are You?

Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism

Psychologists recognize two forms of perfectionism—adaptive and maladaptive. Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists have high personal standards—for themselves and for others. However, failing to meet those standards is more stressful for the latter than for the former.

Adaptive perfectionism is the normal, healthy form of perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionists endeavor for success—they tend to complete tasks in good time and have high standards for their work. They take into account their strengths and limitations and don’t overexert themselves unless it really matters.

Perfectionism turns out to be maladaptive when people become terribly concerned with the notion of “just the thing”—they strive for perfect performance. So nearly nothing turns out to be “good enough.”

Failing to meet high standards is more stressful for adaptive than for the maladaptive perfectionists

The #1 Pitfall: Maladaptive Perfectionism Rigidifies Behavior

Maladaptive perfectionism may cause people to dodge tasks for fear of making an error or for not being able to complete tasks to their lofty standards. They tend to want to control their environment. When events do not go as planned, they develop negative attitudes. They are inclined to striving to achieve goals in their own way; consequently, they regard their personal and professional settings as competitive and handle relationships more aggressively.

Many maladaptive perfectionists aren’t necessarily high achievers because their drive for perfection leads them to chronic procrastination and to never-ending, futile agonizing.

Even success can be imperfect to maladaptive perfectionists. Their reaction to reaching a goal is often “so what?” followed by “what’s the next big thing?” with nary a pause for “I did it! Let me celebrate.”

Idea for Impact: Prioritize Your Perfection

Perfection can boost your satisfaction too much can be paralyzing There’s nothing wrong with high standards. Soaring, impracticable standards are another matter, however.

While a reasonable dose of perfection can boost your satisfaction, too much can be paralyzing. In the real world of constraints and limited resources, perfection is hard to achieve and your quest for the ideal can suck up precious time, energy, and money that could produce superior results elsewhere.

You don’t have sufficient resources to do everything, so commit them where they can bring the greatest overall improvement. (I’ll write about the concept of opportunity cost next week.)

If you’re an obsessive perfectionist, recognize that your compulsion to “get it right” can endorse a rigidity of character and action that is limiting.

Prioritize your perfection. It’s impractical to reach perfection in all areas of your life concurrently. Rather than trying to master everything, pick some areas of life you want to excel in, and go for average in others.

5 Minutes to Greater Productivity [Two-Minute Mentor #11]

How to Get Unstuck---5 Minutes to Greater Productivity

When you’re stuck—whether it’s at work, play, love, or some other facet of your life,—don’t wait for external change to come about and inspire you. As I’ve written before, motivation is glorified as a personal trait. While it is beneficial to be motivated, folks who actually manage to get things done are those who find a way to work at whatever they are interested in even when they do not really feel like doing it.

When you’re stuck, if you can take time out and reflect on your current difficulties, many opportunities may open up that can help you get unstuck.

  • Clearly understand your objectives and your problems. Identify what you must do to solve problems or meet goals as efficiently as feasible. Get honest with yourself and reconsider your motivations. Being realistic can allow you to think more flexibly and creatively.
  • Target the causes of your problems and the reasons behind what you are doing. Analyze your current actions to determine whether they will effectively accomplish what they should. Look for ways to simplify your goals and targets.
  • Check if your perfectionism is holding you back. Folks who tend to be perfectionist are afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and that they won’t measure up. Could you lower your standards?
  • Organize your options. Are there faster-but-equally-effective alternative methods to the ones you’re currently trying? Could you learn new methods or delegate parts of your responsibilities to help you save time? Could you break your work into smaller, more manageable chunks? Focus on the next small step that will move you forward and set in-between deadlines.
  • Plan your work and carry on. Initiate the most efficient action plan to get the results you want. If you find yourself uninspired, take action—even a small step. Often, beginning to do a task builds momentum and motivation kicks in within a few minutes. Doing is everything.

Idea for Impact: The most effective form of change doesn’t happen to you—it comes from within you. To free yourself when you feel limited or stuck, take a breather and organize yourself. Introspection can unlock more adaptive behavior.

Death Should Not Be Feared

The Flickering Flame of Consciousness Will Go Out One Day

A friend was recently racked with melancholy: in the last few weeks, five of his family members and friends were diagnosed with debilitating diseases or cancer. This followed the passing away of a dear friend earlier this year. Like everybody else, facing the decline and death of the near and dear compelled my friend to contemplate life and confront his own mortality.

Convention can bind us to the notion that death is frightful and should not be talked about. However, death needs to be discussed—and contemplated—all the time, not in terms of the fear of life but as a reminder of the brevity of life. The great English author Graham Greene (1904-91) wrote in the novel Travels With My Aunt (1972,)

You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it ever night while you try to sleep…

Death Should Not Be Feared; It’s an Essential Progression of Life

When we’re forced to confront death, we resist doing so. Death is a very natural phenomenon just like birth, and there’s no need to shy away from it. In his famous 2005 Stanford graduation address, Steve Jobs (1955-2011) addressed his pancreatic cancer and his brush with death:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Accept the impermanence of health and life. Appreciate and live each moment wisely.

Bertrand Russell’s Evocative Reflection on Transience and Morality

The celebrated British mathematician, political activist, and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) wrote a beautiful reflection on death and life in his essay “How To Grow Old.” The metaphors evoked by the way that Russell portrayed human existence “like a river” are overpowering.

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Idea for Impact: The Only Thing We Really Get to Influence About Death is the Course of Our Approach to Death

We may look at death and decline with fear instead of anticipation, but the alternative to death could truly be worse: boredom and stagnation.

Fortunately, though death and decline may be unavoidable, how we look at it is totally up to us.

Every brush with death and serious illness should remind you to accept the impermanence of health and life. It should help you appreciate and live each moment wisely. It should serve to remind you to cherish everything with you while you have them.

One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Our Vision of What Our Parents Achieved Influences Our Life Goals: The Psychic Contract

Understanding Others’ Motivations is a Key to Building Better Relationships

Psychic Contract Theory: Children are Programmed to Want to Do as Well as or Better Than Their Parents Understanding others’ deep-held motivations involves recognizing what drives them, why and how they want to work, work styles they may adopt in various circumstances, and what levers you have to motivate them.

Take for example Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a motivation hypothesis used widely for several decades now. Represented as a pyramid, this hypothesis proposes that people are motivated to fulfill basic subconscious desires such as food and shelter before trying to fulfill higher-level needs such as affection and prestige. Even though academics have extensively debated its specifics, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has provided a handy framework to value the multifaceted composition of human motivation and to understand how to engage others.

The Relationship between Your Own Vision of Success and Your Parental Influence

'The Anatomy of a Great Executive' by John Wareham (ISBN 0887305059) One less-known framework for understanding the provenance of people’s life goals—their deep-seated aspirations for want to achieve in life—is the “Psychic Contract” hypothesis, a concept that dominates The Anatomy of a Great Executive (1991) by John Wareham, a leadership psychologist from New Zealand.

According to Wareham, a psychic contract is a set of “deals” we subconsciously strike with our parents early in life. Our life-goals are defined primarily by our own vision of what our parents achieved—and what they failed to achieve:

As we grow we absorb the values of our parents, and are conditioned to improve (albeit marginally) upon their achievements. We strike a psychic contract with them whereby “success” in life is defined by the attainment of a similar social positioning, which we later embark upon attaining, sometimes very consciously, but often entirely unconsciously.

Throughout our lives, we unintentionally adhere to our psychic contracts, despite the limitations they place on us. We use our psychic contracts to not only define and approach our life goals but also think about how we measure success.

We consciously measure success in terms of milestones and standards instilled by our parents.

As a rule of thumb, about three quarters or more of people in westernized culture seek first to equal, then marginally to improve upon the lifestyle or status level perceived to exist in the childhood home.

Psychic Contract Theory: Children are Programmed to Want to Do as Well as or Better Than Their Parents

Our Vision of What Our Parents Achieved Influences Our Life Goals: The Psychic Contract In The Anatomy of a Great Executive, Wareham goes into depth explaining how we can know our own psychic contracts and how we can reset our goals to give ourselves permission to succeed. Here are some other prominent learning points:

  • Our psychic contract is based on our birth order, our parents’ birth order, and roles we play relative to our parents in our families.
  • The so-called “prime parental injunction” sits at the heart of our conscious. We go through our lives trying to become the people our parents wanted us to be. Even people who spend their lives trying to become exactly the opposite of what their parents wished are still influenced by this injunction.
  • Every person has a pre-programmed financial comfort level. Most of us strive to reach this level; but once there, we slow down—not because we are lazy, but because we have fulfilled our inner desires and don’t need more. Wareham cites the example of commission-based sales people who, after earning adequate commission to reach their financial comfort level, tend to be less aggressive in selling cars to customers for the rest of the month.

Idea for Impact: “Psychic Contract” is a handy and thought provoking—if unsubstantiated—hypothesis to understand how your and other people’s deep-seated life goals are established. It can give you one more data point in trying to figure people out.

Become a Smart, Restrained Communicator Like Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, America’s founding father, statesman, and polymath, was a doyen of the self-improvement movement. His methods for self-mastery are worth taking a serious look at if you’re interested in getting better at anything in life.

In his wonderful Autobiography (1791,) Franklin discusses his once-foolish delight in spinning artful arguments and doggedly winning over his opponents.

Winning an Argument Aggressively is but a Short-term Ego Victory

'The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin' by Benjamin Franklin (ISBN 1492720941) As a young man, Franklin had a habit of fervently arguing his case in all matters and alienating people around him. He frequently ensnared his challengers with hard-hitting rhetoric:

I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.

However, Franklin ultimately recognized that his take-no-prisoners approach of arguing was by no means endearing him to other people. His realized that his brash way of outwitting his challengers had been self-defeating.

Benjamin Franklin, Doyen of the Self-improvement Movement

Arguing, if it is to Be Constructive, Must Be Done Tactfully

In an attempt to develop amenable character traits, Franklin radically improved the way he interacted with others. He let go of all expressions of conceit and bold self-confidence. He stopped using words such as “certainly” and “undoubtedly” in his speaking and replaced them with phrases that signified personal opinions—for instance, “It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such & such Reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken.”

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire. [Alexander] Pope says, judiciously:

“Men should be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown propos’d as things forgot;”

farther recommending to us

“To speak, tho’ sure, with seeming diffidence.”

Learn to Resolve Important Issues through Sensible Discourse

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) Franklin realized that this measured conversation and gentler interactions was helpful in preventing conflicts and softening resistance in those he wanted to influence. He writes, “This Habit, I believe, has been of great Advantage to life, when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions & persuade Men into Measures I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting.”

This rule of skilful conversation and interpersonal relationships later became one of the foundational principles in Dale Carnegie‘s masterful self-help manual How to Win Friends and Influence People—specifically, that our ticket to success in life is the ability to make others feel good about themselves.

Persuasion is Not About Outmaneuvering Others and Proving Them Wrong

The ability to communicate effectively, plead your case, and influence others is one of the most useful skills for succeeding in the modern world.

  • Learn to resolve important issues through sensible and mindful discourse.
  • Be assertive where you must, but never aggressive.
  • Be open-minded, understand the other person’s perspective, and keep your emotions under control.
  • Never insult, disgrace, or cause the other person to lose face.

Views, opinions, and judgments can differ, and these can and should be discussed civilly. However, to debate such differences vigorously so as to cause bad feelings toward is not necessary and is almost always counterproductive.

Idea for Impact: Arguing for the sake of deciding a winner is never constructive. When an argument starts, persuasion stops.

Before Jumping Ship, Consider This

Don't Jump Ship in Frustration

Dissatisfied with your job? Considering jumping ship? There’s no guarantee your next job will be any better. Many people who jump ship in frustration run into the same problems that were an obstacle with previous employers.

Consider working on a solution before trying to jump ship. Try to discuss your future with your boss.

  • Examine your motivations. Insist on realism. Do you have clear goals and priorities? Step back and assess what’s happening in your career journey. Don’t have unrealistic assumptions.
  • Start with a plan. What specifically are you seeking to make your job better? How can you get it? If you feel your career has become stagnant, realize that people who stay in one function or one industry may move up quickly in the beginning of their careers but often reach a ceiling later when they become too specialized.
  • Be brutally candid with yourself. Make sure you’re capable of handling the roles and responsibilities you’re seeking. Determine if they’re available.
  • Meet formally with your boss to discuss your plan. Take the initiative to lead the discussion; unlike at a performance review, here you drive the discussion.
  • During the meeting, ask your boss to evaluate your skills and your potential. Hear him out. Use active listening—repeat what he said to make sure you understand each other.
  • Give the boss your perspectives after hearing his. Don’t be confrontational. Try to cooperate. Think before you respond: reacting too quickly will set your boss on the defensive and guarantee an argument.
  • Once you’ve agreed upon a solution, do everything to progress it. Example: One woman wanted to be reassigned to her company’s trade sales unit. At her own initiative, she attended her industry’s trade shows, developed contacts, and learned what was necessary to succeed in sales and marketing.
  • Don’t expect quick action: changes take a little time. Perhaps you may be happier with a lateral move: many people think that careers should follow an upward trajectory. In fact, most jobs transitions don’t entail a promotion. Most successful careers involve a mix of lateral and upward movement.

Idea for Impact: Try to ask for honest feedback about what’s holding you back from a promotion. You’ll find it easier to tackle career frustrations in a familiar environment at your current employer rather than at a new company where you’ll be under pressure to learn the ropes and produce results quickly.