Ironically, the book forced me to think again about the author. I’ve come across his work many times in TED talks, podcasts and columns. He is an organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton, best selling author, who has done pioneering research on issues I care deeply about. Yet for some unexplained or unexamined reason, his work has always rubbed me the wrong way.
So it was with great reluctance that I picked up his book. I’m glad that I did.
It was a welcome reminder that in a world too often marked by black and white wisdom is earned in the grey.
Or that there is power, indeed joy, to be found when we realize we are wrong. That an argument or debate is better treated as a dance not a fight. That inquiry is more persuasive than advocacy. Or that listening is a better motivator than speechmaking.
My favorite chapter was on teaching and learning. The stories he shares illuminate a fundamental distinction between two standard definitions of the word “think.”
One is rather passive. “Think; to have a particular opinion, belief, or idea about someone or something.”
The other more active: “Think; direct one's mind toward someone or something; use one's mind actively to form connected ideas.”
In one story, he tells us about Erin McCarthy, an eighth grade social studies teacher in Wisconsin. Erin often surreptitiously teaches her students from 1940’s textbooks to see how long it will take them to notice that the text is outdated and question what’s on the page (sadly it’s longer than you think). She’s also rewritten chapters from textbooks using only female historical figures to see how long it takes boys to notice that it’s not fair that men aren’t included. Not surprising this happens rather quickly and helps the boys realize this is how female students have felt for generations when reading history that excludes the contributions of women.
In the other, he uses the story of a simple student art project to show how being open to the critiques and challenges of others can dramatically improve our creations. Watch this brief video of Austin’s butterfly and you’ll see what he means.
After finishing the book, I wondered - how much time do I allow myself to really think?
What do I do to challenge my own beliefs? When was the last time I changed an existing opinion? How often do I invite open criticism into my ideas? When I use the phrase, “I think….” am I passively stating an opinion or have I actually directed my mind’s energy to interrogate something important?
In other words, it forced me to think again about thinking.