This blog became successful because in the early days of blogging, when most blogs were personal diaries, I never wrote about my life. I have also tried to steer clear of any religious, political, or scientific controversies, particularly as the increased exposure led to many people I know reading this blog. But with 10 days left until I’m done writing, it is time to talk about the period in my life that, more than any other single time, has influenced my thinking on business… well, really, on everything.
Last night someone asked me about Mike Huckabee. Without thinking I blurted out that I could never vote for anyone who did not accept the theory of evolution. It wasn’t the right crowd for me to say that.
The me of eleven years ago, if he was still around, would have started an argument with the me of yesterday. Then, in 1997, I was solidly in the creationist camp. It’s not important to talk about what changed my mind, but the process and the results are important, so this is a story about how I came to accept the theory of evolution and how it changed my thinking on many other issues. Comments about the creation and evolution debate will be deleted, so don’t waste your time.
In 1997 I wrote an editorial in the University of Kentucky school paper in which I stated that “evolution has been disproved time and time again.” I wrote that because I believed it. I had looked into the issue, and decided that evolution was wrong. I had researched both sides, I knew all the arguments, and I knew why they did not stand up to scrutiny.
Now, I’ve always been confident in my intelligence. Ok, maybe even a little on the cocky side. In my college days, I spent a lot of time debating creation, evolution, and religion in general on various message boards found around the web. I was constantly told by the evolutionists on these boards (both theists and atheists) that I didn’t really understand evolution. I insisted that I did. Finally, I decided to offer a challenge. They were to recommend three books about evolution and I would refute them page by page.
Only one of the books I read, Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, really dealt with the creation-evolution debate. The others, Beak of the Finch, and Bully For Brontosaurus, were just popular science books about evolution. Needless to say, I never got around to disproving these books. Instead, I realized that I didn’t fully understand the theory of evolution. It sparked me to read more, and eventually I came around and accepted evolution as a fact.
Talk about cognitive dissonance. I could still remember my mindset a couple of months earlier. If someone had told me I didn’t understand evolution, I would have vehemently denied it, but now, I knew that my denial was wrong. I knew that I had a false confidence in my view on what I considered an important issue. It really shook me up. It made me wonder what else I was wrong about. It made me realize that I could be wrong about things, even if I had 100% confidence that I was right. It spawned the single biggest change that ever took place in my thinking… metacognition.
Metacognition occurs when you think about your thinking. It means that instead of just analyzing evidence at face value, you start to ask questions about why you favor certain facts over others. You think about whether or not you have emotions, cognitive biases, peer pressures, or other things that are affecting your thought processes. You ask yourself if you would think something different if the roles were reversed, if you had a better day, if you had not had such a bad experience last time. Metacognition has become somewhat of an obsession with me.
When I make business decisions, I spend time on metacognition. I think about why I like certain pieces of evidence over others. Do I favor things said by one person more than by another person? And if so, is it because that evidence is really better or do I just like the person who said it better? Do I weight that evidence higher because it is what I want to hear? These are the things that metacognition causes you to ask. It forces you not just to think through decisions, but to think about the process of making decisions.
Complexity and Randomness
The second thing that came out of this was a totally different understanding of complexity and randomness. Before, I saw the world as very orderly and structured. Now I am amazed at how much it is in chaos. To see things like Conways’ Game of Life made me realize the vast array of complex outcomes that can arise from a few simple rules. It made me realize how business situations can be just as sensitive to initial conditions, and how even simple strategies and industries with only a few competitors can still lead to complex behaviors and outcomes that are often difficult to predict.
I began to understand how small changes can add up to huge differences. Have you ever read Beowulf in the original English? Believe it or not, that really is English. It’s much different than English is now, but we made the transition without any huge jumps. Every generation, a few words changed. At any point along the English language development timeline, most English speakers could understand each other. But, when you look at two discrete points very far apart, the languages could look totally different. This same idea explains one common reason that companies fail. The industry in which they compete changes a little bit here, a little bit there, and the next thing they know, it is entirely different and they didn’t see it coming.
Results Do Not Always Indicate Intention
People often talk about evolution as if it has a direction. That isn’t true. It only seems that way in retrospect. Corporate behavior can be similar. Google didn’t set out to become this huge company that dominated the web by combining search and advertising. They got started by just building a search engine that was better than anything out there. In the late 90s, search wasn’t as lucrative as it is now. The plan evolved along with the company.
Sometimes strange things happen and we feel like we are conspired against at work. While that could certainly be true, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it only seems that way. Sometimes the chips just fall that way, and the promotion or layoff or pay raise or pay cut or product success or product failure or whatever it is that happens seems planned and coordinated even though it wasn’t. I think in business, you just have to learn to take the right next step. Predicting where things can be in 5 years is too hard if your industry has an kind of technology component.
Everyone has those books or teachers or ideas that shape their thinking about the world. My worldview stems primarily the cognitive dissonance that I went through as I grappled with why I could so strongly believe in an idea that I now consider incorrect. (As an interesting aside, a few years ago, when a local blog wanted to write a pro/con piece about intelligent design and couldn’t find writers, I even wrote both arguments. ) I think as a result, I’ve steered clear of some common business mistakes because I am better at filtering out my cognitive biases and careful not to be so sure of myself without really investigating the other side of any decision.
As I said at the beginning, this isn’t the time or place to have a scientific debate. If you want to talk about something other than business, please email me instead of leaving a comment.