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How do you challenge what you know?

February 17, 2022 3 min read

How do you challenge what you know?

I’ve been reading a lot about neuroscience and creative thinking lately. I have a newfound interest in behavioural economics (related to my obsession with reading anything related to creativity tools and design thinking). 

A recurrent theme through all of these books (Creative Acts for Curious PeopleQuiet LeadershipThe Brain that Changes ItselfThink AgainBrain RulesThink Like an ArtistThinkertoys) is to challenge the "known”.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that questioning our assumptions is now more critical than ever. It's a cognitive skill that we should all practice a lot more regularly

Entrepreneurs, and leaders generally, are so often celebrated for being clear-sighted, decisive, and firm in their convictions.

The world has changed. Dramatically. 

We change our clothing, renovate our homes and update our possessions when they date; yet this same reasoning doesn’t always apply to our beliefs, our thoughts, our accepted truths; our assumptions. 

This behaviour would carry us well if we existed in a more stable environment, but we do not. 

The world has changed more rapidly in the past 5 years than it has in the past 50. Mental processing, cognitive skills and ways of thinking need to adapt to change. 

Who knew that the few working from home would soon become the majority? Who would have thought that something you might now worry about was your ability to source toilet paper!

We should be leading with questions. 

Not just questioning others. We need to question ourselves and what we know. 

Going back to the data more regularly to validate our opinions and having the courage to dare to disagree with our own arguments is essential. 

It’s not that easy though. Part of the issue is definitely our physiology; the way our brain is wired. We are programmed biologically to create neural pathways to find the easiest route (in a primal way to escape threats, danger, to stay alive). 

It is uncomfortable questioning those well-worn neural tracks, and takes great self-awareness to sidestep our many inbuilt habits, biases and “accepted truths” - but it is now critical. As the world updates and changes, available knowledge does too. The accuracy of data and our access to this information has changed - our understanding equally needs updating. 

Discomfort in doubt should be celebrated and encouraged

It’s no longer a success driver to favour the comfort of your convictions. We should all seek ideas that make us think harder, rather than those that make us feel comfortable or validated. 

We need to:

  • Question more; what do we need to “unlearn” or “re-learn”? / “What got us here, won’t get us there” (Marshall Goldsmith). 
  • Be fearless about directly questioning “the way things have always been done”.
  • Speak up more.
  • Challenge ourselves not to sit with the familiar and safe answers.
  • Experiment and test our hypothesis; daily!
  • Validate and more regularly check our assumptions, opinions and any strongly held beliefs.
  • Make a list of “accepted truths” relevant to a problem you’re facing, and then reverse those statements. How does this affect your thinking if the opposite is true? Does this change your point of view?
  • When facing robust discussions, write down any strongly held opinion(s). Consider what variables would have to be in play to change your view(s).
  • Embrace the discomfort that comes with letting go and mastering new - and continually challenge our own best thinking.

In an ideal world, there would be no more Dunning Kruger effect; no more armchair experts reaching the top of Mount Stupid, and NO MORE IMPOSTER SYNDROME. 

Embrace the limits of your knowledge

Much like utilising the Johari Window model to find out our blind spots we should embrace the limits of our knowledge. Be curious about and lean into the concept of “not knowing what you don’t know.” 

The Johari Window

We need to develop skills to feel comfortable having more uncomfortable conversations. We need to practice getting comfortable asking the hard questions and being unafraid of the consequences because the place that you're coming from is care and betterment for the outcome. 

We should be questioning our views and updating our thinking routinely as new information, more accurate data, and the world in which we live rapidly evolves. The only constant is change. 

Challenge what you know, or risk getting left behind. 

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