Something I’ve mentioned before here is the fallacy of being smart.
Intelligent people are can be more likely to misunderstand data shown to them if it proves them wrong. All people are reasoning machines that like to explain themselves as correct, and higher reasoning abilities mean you can trick yourself more elegantly.
Higher intelligence levels increase the likelihood you will be correct, this in turn develops an expectation that you will be correct.
This can lead to stubbornness because they (often correctly) expect that other people aren’t as smart as them. Being told you are wrong by others that haven’t grasped half of what you’ve already processed is a tedious pastime.
This greater power to understand things can also lead to greater misunderstanding of things if they let their ego take hold.
A contradictory idea or evidence offering valuable insights can be easily wasted. Their strong creativity and reasoning skills quickly explain this information in a beautiful package that fits what they want to believe.
This inhibits their long-term improvement. They might read the best information but not gain wisdom as they don’t challenge their own thinking.
You can read many books but they are wasted if you can’t read yourself - Steven Bartlett
How about you?
It’s easy to read this and think that those smart-arses are idiots. I am DEFINITELY not like that. I am not stubborn and I listen to the facts.
But then what about Edison or Steve Jobs? We revere their stubbornness despite overwhelming common belief against them.
It’s easy to attribute our own occasional stubbornness (which does exist after all) to the currently uncommon knowledge that we are actually a genius.
Okay - so let’s examine if you have genius tendencies…
How good are you at understanding new information?
You read the statement above that smart people don’t interpret new information correctly. They often explain it to their own advantage.
So how did that information get interpreted:
Did you conclude that you are self-aware enough to not make this mistake?
Did you assume you are not one of these silly people who ignore/misinterpret new insights?
Did you quickly group those close-minded individuals as people you have nothing in common with, mentally distancing yourself from them?
Well then, your creative reasoning has efficiently explained this new information in a way that fits seamlessly into how you think about yourself.
You’re great. Nothing to challenge your own sense of worth.
You just became aware that there are many more idiots in the world but you’re definitely still quite wonderful.
Did you honestly consider how this error might apply to you?
Did you think about the times when you were presented with evidence that you ignored and it turned out you were wrong?
Do you have three examples readily to hand where you were wrong?
Do you use these all the time to remind yourself to be humble?
Well, you have the wisdom and self-awareness to hear new ideas and conceptualize how they might apply to you.
Your ego doesn’t jump in to save you.
You are radically open to new opportunities to learn.
You are highly aware you aren’t perfect and know you are making dumb mistakes every day because you're a human.
You don’t waste any opportunity to lean into improvement, even if it means admitting to yourself that you are flawed
I am in awe of you.
The slippery ego
If you are as wise as you think you are, you would be highly aware of your personal flaws. You would not interpret new information in a way that protects your knowledge that you’re a sensible human.
You would spot the opportunity that you might be wrong and get excited.
Wise people always love to learn, even if it means they are currently wrong.
Unconscious bias is a slippery beast because it is unconscious!
If you knew you were making a mistake you wouldn’t be doing it. So logically it is impossible to see the mistakes we make as we make them. We can only learn from open self-reflection and listening to others that tell us when we are wrong.
Anyone who thinks they don’t have unconscious bias all the time is already lost. They will live a life of being ruled by their bias.
Your ego is so efficient and fast because we don’t have time to be aware of it. It is evolved to give us confidence instead of questions.
Accept you are mostly wrong, only then do you have a chance of being right.
☝ Unbias yourself
Do you have three examples of being ignorant?
(I’m not judging here, you can’t notice yourself making the mistake so 99% of your mistakes won’t be accessible to you)
Try to write 3 down!
If you’re struggling ask a friend and they will probably list 10.
Hit reply to this email and let me know your mistakes. You’ll remember them better.
If you’re feeling social, tell the world!
Put them in a LinkedIn, tweet or Insta post.
Everyone loves hearing an honest tale of failure. It might be your best post yet.
Tag me and I’ll promote. (If you happen to link to this email that would be glorious)*
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My three mistakes
Being a human, I of course make these mistakes all the time.
Here are a few big ones across my adult life that might give you an idea of things you can look for.
Mistake 1 - Unscientific Scientist (2012)
Possibly the biggest mistake that totally changed how I think was during my University 3rd year mini-thesis.
I weighed up all the evidence on both sides of the argument around the impact of soya and phytoestrogens on bone health and delivered my review. The fact that Asia has been eating soya since forever without all the men turning into women kind of made me look down on the anti-soy side. Also, as I was specifically looking at the impacts post-menopause on osteoporosis (which directly affected my mother) I was more threatened by anyone making up scientific claims that would reduce her health.
So I over-worked on the area because it interested me and was super proud of my submission. Also, I was right.
My professor marked me down because I had been biased. I had quickly worked out what I wanted to prove and hadn’t listened to all the data in an open way.
The idea that my bias had actually led me to quickly draw conclusions that could have harmed my mother was kind of shocking.
I, with a childhood of science scholarships, was used to understanding stuff before the teacher finished explaining. I, with my high IQ and running a successful business at the same time as doing a degree.
It lead me to realize how easy it is to get carried away when you have a hunch. A high IQ means nothing if you don’t know how to apply it.
I also understood how much content out there is actually just people proving their point rather than seeking the answer (from scientific literature to social media). Many people don’t even realize they have an agenda!
I learned to question what I’m creating. I also understood just how important it is to question what I read and watch whilst also asking why it was created and what the author is trying to achieve.
I can’t even recognize my own mistakes so I can hardly expect others to recognize theirs. I certainly shouldn’t let myself become more opinionated by reading other people’s biased opinions.
Mistake 2 - Unbalanced balancer (2016-17)
I have always been focused on being fair. It might be my love of physics and the conservation of energy and inputs and outputs where everything can be balanced in a fair way. Or perhaps the fact I’m a Libra actually means something.
As such, I was always good with money because I knew how much I needed to be able to do something. It seemed pretty easy to balance what I needed to do to have the money to do what I want.
This also led to me often lending friends money because I always had it. Thus I developed the habit of tracking things people owed me (way before SplitWise existed).
When I went traveling with a friend for a year I was a little over the top on tracking everything from my side and knowing what he owed me. We were often relying on each other for different things, a beer here, a bus there, a hostel, camel rides, breakfast etc…
He was quite relaxed and was happy to do things for me without tracking them and having it all work out. I was totally not used to swapping money with people without it adding up. He kept track of the big things but didn’t have time for looking at the smaller stuff.
I became annoyed at all these things that he didn’t pay me back for without really being aware of things he might have done. We were also doing some contracting together earning way more than anyone might suspect of these two backpackers on a shoestring bumming around Asia.
My frustration came out mostly in passive-aggressive moments and complaints about him not being kind.
We had some arguments but I totally felt like he was a bit of a melon.
I took a Vipassana 10-day meditation retreat near the end of the journey. The self-reflection you can reach during an extended period of silence is something we can’t reach in our day to day. The loss of ego you experience slowly peels away the protective layers of the mind to allow you to actually glimpse reality.
During our travels, I was totally unaware of the information in front of me.
That he was the one being kind all the time and I was the one starting battles that didn’t even need to be fought. Here I was getting annoyed over a few dollars whilst he was helping me earn thousands…
All the frustration and problems were entirely started by me trying to be fair, but instead blaming him for the headaches I was creating.
What a melon I was.
Mistake 3 - Unentrepreneurial Entrepreneur (2020-21)
A fallacy that many an entrepreneur has dived straight into is falling in love with their solution rather than the problem.
My last business was started as an idea for a problem I thought I had. Connecting with others over podcasts. I spent so much time learning alone and wished others could share my learnings and also inspire me with theirs. An app that lets you see what everyone listens to and add comments and share clips.
It was Covid lockdown and a perfect solution to connecting remotely with people without using comparative social media. Just geek out with your mates.
What convinced me even further was Techstars backed us. We had validation from a respected company accelerator and I was also attracted to the dream of running a scalable tech business.
What I missed was the fact that similar solutions weren’t that interesting to me. It must have been because none of my friends were on them I reasoned. Although I never felt the urge to invite my friends on those apps. I was in a WhatsApp group for sharing great podcasts and the members weren’t that interested in using an app for it.
When ClubHouse came out and there was a flurry of other live social audio apps my cofounders wanted to pivot to user-generated audio clips. It was easy for me to see the fact that they didn’t want to use any of the other apps which were exactly like our potential new idea because I didn’t like the idea from the start.
Yet I didn’t see the same problem myself with my idea. At scale, it seemed to make so much sense that an ecosystem could exist that was better for the listener and the podcaster.
Customer feedback was staring at me in the face from day one of the idea and real user feedback and poor retention continued to be ignored as we grew.
Queue another Vipassana retreat and possibly some LSD to finally get my head out of my arse.
I saw that it was a solution I wanted to work rather than what the market needed.
I realized that the tech founder dream wasn’t necessarily what I wanted and was an opinion given to me by society and all the bloody podcasts I listen to. Watching the reality of so many of my peers just having horribly stressful lives wasn’t all that appealing.
I’ve been a very successful guy doing my own thing and have always relished the freedom to do adventures when I feel like it. Responsibility for investors’ millions and a lot of employees’ lives might not actually be my thing at the moment. It might be in the future or for a cause that I’m more in love with.
So eventually we pivoted the business and redefined my role so both made sense.
Being more humble and more in love with the problem would have helped a lot.
Becoming an ego detective
Our ego is forever falling into traps. The world is one giant infestation of ego traps.
I like to pride myself on not making mistakes twice. Though I might not make the same specific mistake it appears the wider mistake of falling foul of my ego has always been the real mistake.
It took some hard moments of awareness to notice each mistake and rewire my brain.
The ego is so deceptive that the reality of our errors can hide out of sight our whole lives.
Going on a 10-day Vipassana silent retreat or using LSD are powerful tools to help lose your ego. Honestly, most people aren’t going to try them, although the world would be a much better place if they did.
Write out the 3 errors I mentioned earlier if you haven’t.
Once you realize how self-deception happens and stop taking yourself so seriously you can appreciate the extent to which it occurs.
Like spotting ants, after you find one or two you suddenly start to realize they are everywhere.
You can start easy. Such as those times you say you’ll watch 1 episode on Netflix with a sense of purpose, despite the fact your entire life’s worth of data is there to remind you that you will definitely want to watch 3.
Try to aim to have 3 biggies like the ones I wrote about above that really humble you.
Journalling, meditation, and reflective time such as exercise or menial activities can help a lot. There is a reason these tools are recommended so much by the self-improvement community. It covers the bases but the depth to which these strategies can go will be limited by your own awareness (of course!).
Listing your assumptions and exploring the opposite of your ideas sounds easy but it isn’t a thing people practice regularly or effectively without a coach or therapist to guide them.
Therapy is probably the most practical option to get kick-started. It isn’t just for people who are struggling.
The other strategy is hanging out with people that you feel are highly aware of their egos. Realizing they are way happier and calmer than you and nurturing some healthy aspirations.
Maybe you can develop an ego around having no ego 🙃
Fact: I’m considerably smarter than average (as borne out objectively by IQ and test scores, and anecdotally by confirming statements of both friends and enemies alike).
Fact: I’m not nearly as smart as I used to be, raw reasoning and computational-wise (likely due to some combination of age (63), booze, and packing my brain with the complex architecture and tedious details of my long career (corporate M&A and private equity law)).
Fact: I’ve become considerably more humble about the reach, depth, and reliability of my intelligence, having honestly confronted the pesky fact that I’m wrong about so many goddam things so frequently.
Fact: I’m always right, because when confronted with a superior argument demolishing my blinkered goddam opinion, I will happily change it, therefore rendering it right.
Fact: I can recognize, without ego or envy, when someone is smarter than I and am drawn to and enjoy hearing what they know and their opinions on topics I care about. Even when they’re clearly wrong.
(I subscribed to your Substack after listening to your interview on Lex Fridman’s podcast, where I recognized and enjoyed your superior intelligence, despite your being wrong about a couple of things.)