Coca-Cola Executive Donald Keough’s Ten Commandments for Business Failure [Book Summary]

Coca-Cola executive Donald KeoughDuring a remarkable business career of 60+ years, Coca-Cola executive Donald Keough (1926–2015) developed an inspiring lecture on leadership failures. At the prompting of Warren Buffett, a former neighbor and friend, Keough published his lecture as Ten Commandments for Business Failure.

Keough worked for the Coca-Cola Company for 43 years and rose through the ranks to become its President and COO. Following retirement in 1993, he served on the boards of Coca-Cola, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and many other organizations.

At Coca-Cola, Keough steered the company’s global product expansion and directed its iconic brand image and enviable distribution network. He became the business world’s most celebrated non-CEO leader.

Keough gained reputation as the public face of Coca-Cola’s 1985 New Coke misadventure—he delivered an on-TV mea culpa (see YouTube video) and announced the volte-face reinstatement of “Coca-Cola Classic.”

Donald Keough’s Straightforward Analysis and Leadership Lessons

'Ten Commandments for Business Failure' by Donald Keough (ISBN 1591844134) Keough’s Ten Commandments for Business Failure is a predictable, yet insightful—even if circuitous—exploration of ten (and a bonus) leadership mistakes.

  1. Quit Taking Risks: “Failures, for all the valuable lessons that they teach us in hindsight about management blunders, are simply risks that just didn’t work out. Such miscalculations, costly though they might be at the time, are part of the price of staying in business. As Peter Drucker pointed out nearly fifty years ago, it is management’s major task to prudently risk a company’s present assets in order to ensure its future existence.”
  2. Be Inflexible: “Flexibility is a continual, deeply thoughtful process of examining situations and, when warranted, quickly adapting to changing circumstances. It is, in essence, the key to Darwin’s whole notion of the survival of the fittest. … Most recalcitrant business leaders would certainly never actually characterize themselves as inflexible. More than likely they would pay lip service to a philosophy of change, expressing the usual platitudes about how they embrace change and welcome it.”
  3. Isolate Yourself (i.e., Be Out of Touch): “One of the traits of many of the legendary builders of business was that they had an uncanny ability to know and relate to their employees at every level … if you isolate yourself, you will not only not know what you don’t know about your business, but you will remain supremely and serenely confident that what you do know is right. Isolation, carried to its most extreme form, tends to breed a sense of almost divine right.”
  4. Assume Infallibility: “The infallible we-know-best attitude of management has caused many companies to ignore reality and miss opportunities … If you want to increase your chances of failure, deny the possibility that you are not always 100 percent perfect in your judgment. Ignore the fact that sometimes others do know a thing or two. … So, if you want to fail, pose as an infallible leader.”
  5. Play the Game Close to the Foul Line: “Business finally boils down to matters of trust consumers trust that the product will do what it promises it is supposed to-investors trust that management is competent-employees trust management to live up to its obligations. In recent years we seem to have quite a few smart, energetic people who have evidenced a rather fuzzy view of the right thing.”
  6. Don’t Take Time to Think: “Time to think is not a luxury. It is a necessity. As Goethe noted: “Action is easy; thought is hard.” Yet action frequently-in fact, more often than not-takes on a life of its own. We pay homage to reason, but we are held hostage to emotion. We are, after all, feeling creatures, and in the excitement of a particular endeavor once the ball is rolling, it’s difficult to stop.”
  7. Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants: “The narrow perspective of what appears to be genius is often the inverse of wisdom.”
  8. Coca-Cola Company's COO Donald Keough with Investor Warren BuffettLove Your Bureaucracy: “As [Warren] Buffett said, “It’s unbelievable how much bureaucracy can build up in businesses, particularly those in which you can pass almost all of your costs to the consumer.” … On the hazards of bureaucracy: at their worst, they cannot only impede success, they can also precipitate disaster. … The more cooks there are in the kitchen, the greater the chance that bureaucratic decision making will either be deadlocked or the decision will become an exercise in group wishing. … Ultimately, a bureaucracy can become so dysfunctional that there is literally no one who can rain on the parade. The team can never make anything approaching an objective decision.”
  9. Send Mixed Messages: “Sending mixed or confused messages to your employees or your customers will jeopardize your competitive position, and result in failure.”
  10. Be Afraid of the Future: “The most serious problem with great pessimism is that it is absolutely paralyzing. People are so afraid of dire consequences that they throw their hands up in despair and do nothing. Fear of the future guarantees that the future will be a failure. … To aspire to any kind of leadership in business you simply have to be a rational optimist. One optimist in a sea of pessimists can make all the difference.”
  11. Lose Your Passion for Work-for Life: “A major component of happiness in the business world is finding something you love doing, whatever it might be, and then finding a way to do it. To have success you have to have a high level of unadulterated desire to get up and go to work. … The easiest way to develop an inner passion in a business setting is to focus all your mind and heart on four aspects of your world: your customers, your brands, your people, and, finally, your dreams.”

Words of Wisdom from a Distinguished Corporate Executive

Donald Keough was the public face of Coca-Cola's 1985 New Coke misadventureAmong the myriad offerings of “rules for success” volumes, books such as The Ten Commandments are distinctive for their memorable business stories and examples. Keough’s candid analyses include narratives as captivating as the historical origin of Coke, the commercial history of the xerographic machine, the Coke-Pepsi rivalry, Coca-Cola Company’s ownership of Columbia Pictures, and the New Coke debacle. When asked in an interview if New Coke was worth the risk, Keough famously replied,

I wouldn’t want to do it again. But it was an enormous learning experience, and oddly enough, it turned out to be positive for the Coca-Cola Company. Our sales increased when we brought the original formula back. The reaction from our customers was overwhelming. Once we realized that we had made a mistake, I went on television and simply said that we don’t own this brand, you do. You’ve made it clear that you want the original formula back, and you’re getting it back.

Henry Ford and Model TIn the chapter on flexible and adaptive leadership, Keough blames Henry Ford’s stubbornness for the flagging market share of the Model T vehicle. During the mid-1920s, the industrial triumph of his mass production system and the commercial success of the Model T blinded Henry Ford to a budding customer penchant for cosmetic customization and convenience features. Electric starters, for example, were starting to be perceived as essentials and not as luxuries. Keough argues,

Henry Ford reportedly said, regarding the Model T, “They can have it in any color they want, as long as it’s black.” For a long time that was just fine. But then people began to get tired of the black tin lizzies. Yet even as America was roaring into the 1920s with bigger, faster, fancier, brightly painted automobiles, Henry Ford kept insisting that the Model T, essentially unchanged since 1908, was still what America wanted and needed and he was not going to change his mind. Inevitably, upstarts like Chevrolet and Dodge began to erode Ford’s market and seriously challenge the company’s dominant leadership. At last, more rational minds prevailed and Ford admitted the need to produce a better vehicle. After shutting down his main plant for six months, he successfully launched the Model A in 1928. But Henry Ford’s inflexibility had brought the company to the brink of disaster and cost it a competitive edge that it has never regained.

Recommendation: As a fast read, Donald Keough’s The Ten Commandments for Business Failure is worthwhile for its many nuggets of business history. Even though many of his cautionary lessons are not entirely unexpected, some are insightful. The “play the game close to the foul line” warning about values and ethics is especially thought-provoking. Keough writes, “The fact is, if you play on the edge the organization will step over the line from time to time. It is inevitable. Warren Buffett says: ‘Play to the center of the court’.”

How to Handle Upset Customers

Servicing Angry Customers

From an angry customer’s perspective, the impressions left by customer-service providers are long-lasting and can heighten the impact of a service experience, for better or worse.

A failure to recognize and quickly respond to the needs of angry customers can make them feel ignored, frustrated, and powerless. Here are nine guidelines that can result in a constructive interaction with an angry customer and restore his perception of satisfaction and loyalty.

  1. Don’t adopt an angry tone. Stay calm and professional. When an upset customer starts shouting or being foul-mouthed, you’ll gain nothing by reacting in a like manner. Actually, responding to anger with anger can easily escalate the hostilities and thwart meaningful communication. Exercise self-control and regulate your feelings. Without remaining calm, you cannot break through emotional barricades or preempt the customer’s frustrations going from bad to worse.
  2. If the customer is yelling, ask him to speak slower. A louder voice often goes with a faster speech. When the customer slows down his speech, the level of his voice will also drop. Repeat this request as many times as necessary to calm him down.
  3. Declare that you intend to understand the customer’s situation and help. Say, “Could you please speak more slowly. When I understand your situation, I can help you better.”
  4. Let your angry customer vent. When a customer is upset, what you tell him matters less than what you enable him to tell you. The first thing an upset customer wants is to vent. Commonly, just the modest act of listening patiently can defuse the customer’s anger. Only after you facilitate getting the customer’s emotions off his chest can you have a constructive discussion.
  5. Recognize that the customer’s problem does exist. Restate the customer’s analysis of what the problem is. “If I understand you appropriately, you have a problem with X and you don’t like Y. This has caused Z.”
  6. How to Handle Upset CustomersDemonstrate sincere empathy for the customer’s feelings. Say, “I can understand why this situation would upset you. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Your best response to the customer’s anger is empathy.
  7. Ask what the customer would like to do to have the problem solved. Ask, “What can we do to make this right for you?” By shifting the customer’s focus from annoyance to problem solving, you can determine ways to negotiate a satisfactory solution. If the customer’s request cannot be met, provide alternative solutions that may alleviate the situation or placate the customer.
  8. Let common sense prevail over standard operating procedure. Much of current customer service initiatives (especially with outsourced call centers) has devolved into standard operating procedures, carefully formulated decision-trees, and scripted answers that customer service agents dispense mechanically. To an upset customer, these automated responses often seem hollow and inacceptable. Deviate from the canned responses and use good judgment. Exercise the autonomy you’re granted over how you can respond to help solve customer complaints. If necessary, involve your manager.
  9. Don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. If the customer asks for more than you’re able to accommodate, defer your answer by saying, “Give me a minute to consider all the options I have for you” or “let me talk to my boss and see how I can help you.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the customer doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he will still appreciate knowing that you’ve seriously considered his appeals.

Idea for Impact: Body language, phrasing, and tone can have a big impact on angry customers who are on the lookout for evidence of compassion and want to be reassured that they have chosen a good provider for their product or service.

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments of Honest Thought and Discourse

The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) is one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century.

As a lifelong patron of lost causes, Russell published an essay titled “The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism” in the 16-December-1951 issue of The New York Times. In this essay, he supported liberalism—the political philosophy founded on the importance of human individuality and equality, and a restraint of the stern grip of law and authority.

A tireless champion of morality and reason that he was, Russell wrote in this essay, “the essence of the liberal outlook is a belief that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments.”

Bertrand Russell's Ten Commandments of Honest Thought and Discourse

Bertrand Russell’s Decalogue of Critical Thinking

Beyond political philosophy and classical liberalism, this essay is famous for Russell’s vision for honest thought and discourse. Here is that thought-provoking list in full form—worth reading and practicing.

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You

If you’re like most people including me, you struggle with criticism. You find criticism harsh and unhelpful because criticism strikes at the very conflict between two deep-seated human desires—the desire to be accepted just the way you are and the desire to learn and grow. Consequently, even a nonthreatening comment can leave you feeling uneasy, irritated, angry, and vulnerable.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You Your sensitivity for disapproval is often justified. Your detractors aren’t perhaps thinking straight. When they pass judgments about you, their critical pronouncements often reveal a great deal about themselves and little about you. Psychologists contend that critics, in offering their disapprovals, are subconsciously projecting their own insecurities, pessimism, and fears onto you.

Most people are driven by emotions and not hard evidence. They tend to impulsively estimate your merits, instead of evaluating you thoughtfully. Therefore, when you confront those inevitable disapprovals, disappointments, and setbacks, don’t pity yourself and feel sorry for the conditions you face in life. Don’t get hung up on waiting for others to give you positive strokes. Give yourself gratitude for your efforts, and choose to get back up, dust yourself off, and move on.

'The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' by A.S.L. Farquharson (ISBN 0192827901) Life isn’t easy for anyone. But it could be made easier by valuing yourself when you confront adversity, hardships, and disapprovals. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about the art of forbearance in Meditations (trans. A.S.L. Farquharson,)

Remind yourself of the kinds of things you have passed through and the kinds you have had strength to endure; that the story of life is written and your service accomplished. How many beautiful things have been revealed, how many pleasures and pains you have looked down upon, how many ambitions ignored, to how many unkind persons you have been kind!

Coaching, feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—benevolent people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and, most importantly, have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity (Was the criticism offered in good faith? Was the criticism true?), and disregard them if they don’t seem justified.

Idea for Impact: When people try to tell you who you are, consider them with a grain of salt. You are the sole curator, guardian, and defender of your integrity and your sense of self-worth. So, don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Care less for what other people think. Believe in yourself.

You Can’t Know Everything

“Have intellectual humility. Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”
Charlie Munger

You Can't Know Everything, So Embrace Uncertainty In the course of life, some of the most dangerous circumstances to be in are when you think you’re the smartest person in the room. Smarts without humility can get you into trouble because hubris leads to intellectual arrogance and a blatant disregard for opinions and judgments that are contrary to the ones you already hold.

Recognizing that you can’t know everything and that you will never know everything must not prevent you from acting. Rather, you must embrace uncertainty and take into account the possibility that you could be wrong.

Embrace Uncertainty

Risk is what is left behind after you think you’ve thought of everything you currently can. Risk embraces all those matters that are unaccounted for—everything that you need to protect yourself from.

Intelligence transforms into wisdom only when you recognize that, despite your confidence in the present circumstances, you cannot predict how things will play out in the future. You will not be able to make an optimal decision every time.

The conduct of life is not a perfect science. Rather, it is an art that necessitates acknowledging and dealing with imperfect information. Be willing to act on imperfect information and uncertainty. Set a clear course today and tackle problems that arise tomorrow. Learn to adapt more flexibly to developing situations.

Idea for Impact: The wisest people I know are the ones who acknowledge that they don’t know everything and put strategies in place to shield themselves from their own ignorance. Make risk analysis and risk reduction one of the primary goals of your intellectual processes.

Care Less for What Other People Think

Care Less for What Other People Think - Quote by Theodore Roosevelt

The American sociologist Charles H. Cooley once described the irrational and unproductive obsession with what others think; he said, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

Some people care excessively about what others think. They place undue importance on external validation, so much so that they sometimes place more emphasis on the commendation or disapproval they receive than on their actual actions.

The great Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays,)

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.

'Self-Reliance' by Ralph Waldo Emerson (ISBN 1604500093) In Self-Reliance, American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged people to shun conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas:

Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be chaste husband of one wife,—but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever only rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.

Don’t become dependent on what others think of you

'What Do You Care What Other People Think' by Richard P. Feynman (ISBN 0393320928) Feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity, and disregard them if they don’t seem right.

Idea for Impact: Don’t do things differently just because somebody asked you to or just because you want to be different for somebody. Do things differently because it makes sense to you. (Read my articles on discipline and motivation.)

Problem Reversal: How to Solve a Problem By “Standing It on Its Head”

Problem Reversal

Fixed Mental Set or Fixation

Psychologists use the terms ‘fixation’ and ‘fixed mental set’ to describe a person’s inability to see his/her problem from a fresh perspective. Fixation impedes problem-solvers from approaching problems from a different angle and from finding novel solutions.

Fixation is a persistent impasse in problem-solving in which predispositions towards a previously-reliable process, unwarranted postulations, unjustifiable assumptions, conventional thinking in identifiable contexts (called Einstellung Effect,) or recent experiences block awareness of possible solutions that may exist within other contexts. A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment frequently can dissipate fixation.

Problem Reversal in Problem-Solving

If you’re stuck on a problem and can’t solve it because you’re fixated on a reliable process, try reversing the problem to reframe your thinking and consider alternate perspectives.

Solve a Problem By

As the following three case studies illustrate, reversing a problem simply involves taking a problem and turning it on its head.

  • A top-level executive at a large American corporation loved his job, his company, his employees, and his salary. However, he despised his boss. The executive and his boss were both long tenured; neither was likely to move out of their jobs anytime soon. The executive decided to find a new job at a different company. A headhunter assured the executive that a new job could be easily arranged. While speaking to his wife in the evening, the executive realized that he could easily reverse the problem. So he returned to the headhunter the next day and provided the boss’s name. Within days, the headhunter found an appealing new job for the unwary boss, who accepted. The executive then got his boss’s job and was even more content with his career.
  • A herd of sheep was moving slowly along a narrow country lane that was surrounded by high banks. An ambulance in a great hurry came up behind the herd and requested the shepherd to move his sheep to the side so that the ambulance could drive through. The shepherd declined because getting the ambulance past the sheep would be slow and he wasn’t sure of keeping all his sheep out of the way of the ambulance on a narrow lane. Instead, he reversed the problem: he got the sheep past the ambulance. He asked the ambulance to halt and then gently turned the herd round and guided it back past the stationary ambulance.
  • An ethical used-car salesman loathed his job because he felt compelled to sell cars with problematic features to unsuspecting buyers. He was eager for a career change, but the only thing he knew was cars. Therefore, he reversed his problem: he started a new business of locating, inspecting, and recommending used cars to prospective buyers. For a reasonable fee, he helped car buyers by scrutinizing used cars, listing current and prospective problems, and offering an estimate for repairs. His business boomed and he was much happier than he was as a used-car salesman.

Idea for Impact: Solve Problems by Reversing Them

When you’re stuck and can’t see how to solve the problem at hand, try reversing it or “standing the problem on its head.” Reversal as a problem-solving technique can free you from old ways of looking at problems.

Anger Is Often Pointless / How to Free Yourself from Anger

Buddha on Anger (Dhammapada)

Anger is often nothing more than an intense emotion caused by an apparent injustice. The destructive outcomes of anger are well known. When even a slight annoyance arises, it is capable of growing quickly and overwhelming your state of mind.

Anger results in (1) a loss of perspective and judgement, (2) impulsive and irrational behavior that is destructive to both yourself and others, and (3) loss of face, compassion, and social credibility.

Anger is often pointless, as the following Buddhist parable will illustrate.

Often, there’s no one to blame

Once upon a time, a farmer was paddling his boat upstream to deliver his produce to a distant village. It was a sultry day, so he was covered in sweat. He was in a great hurry to reach the village market.

Further on upstream, the farmer spotted another boat rapidly moving downstream toward his vessel. It looked as though this boat was going to hit him. In response, he paddled feverishly to move out of the way, but it didn’t seem to help. He yelled, “Hey, watch out!” The other boat seemed to approach him swiftly. The farmer shouted, “Hey, you’re going to hit me! Adjust your direction.” He got no response and continued to yell in vain.

As a last resort, the farmer stood up angrily waving his arms and shaking his fist. The other boat smashed right into him. He was hopping mad and cried out, “You imbecile! How could you hit my boat in the middle of this wide river? Couldn’t you hear me asking you to get out of my way? What is wrong with you?”

Then, all of a sudden, the farmer realized that the boat was empty; it had perhaps cut loose of its moorings and floated downstream with the current. He calmed down and realized that there was no one to blame but an empty boat and the river. His anger was purposeless.

Anger depletes energy and leads to loss of perspective and judgement

When you lose your inner peace, you expect that your anger can help you get even with the offending person or amend the vexing circumstances. However, responding with anger is illogical. The offending deed has already occurred, a fact your anger fails to negate. Also, your anger cannot thwart or diminish the perceived wrong.

In the New Testament, Ephesians 4:26–27 advise, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”

How to Free Yourself from Anger

Free yourself from anger

There is no benefit to anger at all. All anger can beget is negative energy, which can aggravate an already volatile situation. Anger can also impede sound judgement and inhibit your ability to consider the negative consequences of your abrupt reactions.

The next time you’re angry, consider the following response:

  • Stop. Don’t respond immediately. Walk away from the situation that has instigated your anger.
  • Breathe deeply. Become fully aware of your state of mind. Assess what’s going on.
  • Calm down and compose yourself. Invoke mindfulness to appeal to your wisdom. Anger and other emotional arousals often stem from a lack of self-awareness or mindlessness, and can simmer down if you just wait long enough.
  • Consider the matter from other points of view. Ask if there could be other possible explanations for what happened.
  • Identify the reasons for your anger by asking three questions: (1) “Is this matter serious enough to get worked up about?” (2) “Is my anger necessary and warranted?” (3) “Will getting angry make a difference?”
  • Reflect about what response will be most effective. Try to develop a wise and measured course of action.

Idea for Impact: A low-anger life is a happier life

Patience is the definitive antidote to anger and aggression. With patience, you may not always be able to eliminate anger, but you can usually control it. Patience can build and fortify your intellectual and psychological resources.

As Proverbs 19:11 tells in the Hebrew Bible, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” Ultimately, developing greater patience enhances your romantic, personal, professional, and casual relationships—as well as that all-important relationship: the one you have with yourself.

Ever Wonder If The Other Side May Be Right?

Considering different viewpoints on any issue

The French essayist and novelist Andre Gide once wrote, “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”

Scratch the surface of any thinking ideologue and you’ll find not certainties but contradictions and doubts.

Darwin’s doubts about natural selection and evolution

Even after the publication of his seminal Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin had crippling doubts about some aspects of natural selection. Specifically, if natural selection was to have lasting effects, evolutionary advances had to be conserved and passed on from one generation to the next. Darwin agreed with scientists who argued that his evolutionary theory failed to explain how variations are transmitted from parents to their offspring.

It was not until the 1930s that biologists started to study Gregor Mendel’s work on genetic inheritance and heredity in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Only then did biologists come to understand how variation of characteristics is passed on to new generations and how evolution is a process of descent with modification.

Seek to have an idea tomorrow that contradicts your idea today

At a Q&A at American web application company Basecamp, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos opined that people who are “right a lot” are those who had a flexible mindset and often changed their minds. Summarizing the conversation, Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried wrote,

[Bezos] observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy—encouraged, even—to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.

What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.

Idea for Impact: Wisdom comes from seeking wisdom

Want to learn, expand your worldview, and broaden your mindset? Start by seeking out the right people—mix with people other than those from your own background (professional, cultural, social, academic, racial, ethnic, etc.) Remember that birds of a feather do flock together. Instead of preferring the company of other people from similar backgrounds, try investing some time with people who have viewpoints that contrast your own.

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 those who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives and push you into considering different viewpoints on any issue of mutual interest.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

Bertrand Russell on Certainty and Self-Doubts

In a 1960 TV interview, celebrated British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said,

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt. … One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

Intellectual Censorship

It’s regrettable that many ideas imprinted into the soft putty of an unformed mind sometimes remain there forever. Many people seem to believe the very first thing they’re told and stick with it for the rest of their life. What’s worse, they are often willing to defend that position to their death. They engage in intellectual censorship: not only do their core beliefs remain unexamined, but also any attempt to challenge their beliefs is taken as a grievous insult. They don’t realize that the suppression of opposing viewpoints doesn’t add credibility to an argument.

One reason could be laziness. In On Being Certain, Robert Burton highlights the neuroscience behind the discrepancies between genuine certainty and the feeling of certainty. Arguing that certainty is an emotion just like anger, passion, or sorrow, Burton provides summaries of many studies that show that people’s certainty about their beliefs is an emotional response that is distinct from how they process those beliefs. Consequently, once they develop a “that’s right” disposition about a subject matter, their brain subconsciously protects them from wasting its processing effort on problems for which they have already found a solution that they believe is good enough. In other words, their cerebral laziness subconsciously leads them to “do less” by simply embracing certainty rather than reexamining their assumptions.

Intellectual Censorship and Intellectual Arrogance

Intellectual Arrogance and Philosophical Idolatry

One outcome of feeling certain is intellectual arrogance. People who live by the illusion of their own self-sufficiency will shut their arrogant minds to alternative perspectives and even turn hostile towards those who possess or produce new ideas, since they regard their own truths as absolute without the need for alternative viewpoints or even amplification of their own convictions. On the other hand, people who recognize their limitations will necessarily feel modest about themselves and be enthusiastic to broaden their points of view. They actively seek differing viewpoints with compassion and gratitude and seek to cross-examine their convictions, strengthen them, explore alternative viewpoints, and perhaps discover new truths.

The 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote (per The New Organon and Related Writings,)

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.

The 19th Century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill actively advocated understanding every side of an argument because he wanted to “see that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error.” Mill explained in Early Essays:

Every prejudice, which has long and extensively prevailed among the educated and intelligent, must certainly be borne out by some strong appearance of evidence; and when it is found that the evidence does not prove the received conclusion, it is of the highest importance to see what it does prove. If this be thought not worth inquiring into, an error conformable to appearances is often merely exchanged for an error contrary to appearances; while, even if the result be truth, it is paradoxical truth, and will have difficulty in obtaining credence while the false appearances remain.

Uncertainty is a Fundamental Tenet of Thinking, Discovery, and Invention

Speaking of the virtues of uncertainty and doubt in the scientific and unscientific methods of questioning, experimenting, and understanding, the celebrated physicist Richard Feynman said in The Meaning of It All,

This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, “This is the way it’s going to work, I’ll bet,” he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this.

Reiterating the virtues of uncertainty in a discussion of the thought process of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness (see my summary of this book):

It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations— scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves.

And British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his Autobiography,

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

It’s a Narrow Mind that Stays Rooted in One Spot

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in Ideals and Doubts, “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.”

An important characteristic of an educated person is an inquiring mind and the pursuit of intellectual growth. People of sound conviction have nothing to fear from civil debates and are willing to throw a wide net in exploring their own beliefs. They are ready to give up the refuge of a false dogma. They have no fear of meeting minds that may be sharply different from their own. Seek alternative—even opposing—perspectives to broaden your perspectives and persistently examine your biases and prejudices.

Charlie Munger, the widely respected vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, constantly reminds us that one of our utmost intellectual duties is to scrutinize our most cherished ideas as ruthlessly and as intellectually as we can—something that’s hard to do.

Idea for Impact: Expose Yourself to Alternate Viewpoints and Grow Intellectually

If you earnestly survey an opposing viewpoint and find it is still erroneous, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your views withstood intellectual scrutiny. Alternatively, if you determine that another viewpoint is partly or wholly right, you have the equal satisfaction of softening your rigid position, setting your opinions right, and feeling smarter for not succumbing to your ego’s demand to cling to a sense of certainty. The German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Let no one be ashamed to say yes today if yesterday he said no. Alternatively, to say no today if yesterday he said yes. For that is life. Never to have changed—what a pitiable thing of which to boast.”

By all means, dismiss ideas if you find that they lack coherence, evidence, or argumentative power—but don’t dismiss ideas merely because they disagree with your existing viewpoints. As the French writer and philosopher Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”