The Most Important Skill in 2020 Is the Ability to Change Your Mind
The more power a person or group has, the more likely they’ll end up in an echo chamber of yes
“You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.” -Timothy Leary
In 1974, Stephen Hawking bet fellow physicist Kip Throne a year-long subscription to Penthouse magazine that the bright object in the constellation Cygnus was not a black hole. Throne, believing it was, took the bet and went to work. 16 years later, he proved the black hole existed, won the bet, and the magazines were delivered.
This wouldn’t be the last time Hawking made (and lost) a public bet with a peer. He bet Peter Higgs $100 that the Higgs boson — a subatomic particle that was Higg’s legacy — would never be found. Hawking actually made this bet in a room full of reporters, who then told the whole world. Higgs didn’t appreciate the public callout. Physicists are only as good as they are correct, and being wrong meant losing respect, funding, and opportunities. But Hawking didn’t see it that way. He figured whether he was right or wrong, public wagers would challenge and push science forward. In fact, it was the Penthouse bet with Throne that got an entire generation of scientists interested in black holes. And when the Higgs particle was found, Hawking proudly paid the $100 and publicly congratulated Higgs.
Abraham Lincoln was another human more interested in truth than personal beliefs. When he was elected, he filled his cabinet with the same men who ran against him. Known today as his Team of Rivals, Lincoln surrounded himself with people who openly ridiculed and challenged him.
The CIA uses Red Teams — teams dedicated to finding weaknesses and loose ends in the intelligence community. When the government thinks it knows something, a Red Team goes to work to prove it wrong. After the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, White House officials credited Red Team analysis for providing the level of certainty needed to greenlight the mission. Hawking, Lincoln, and the CIA all knew the danger of not having their personal beliefs challenged. They understood that the more power a person or group has, the more likely they’ll end up in an echo chamber of yes. To combat this, they actively sought out the people and information that could change their minds. They already knew what they believed. What they wanted was to be proven wrong.
Here’s one great reason that the ability to change your mind is important: You’re probably wrong. Not about everything, but more than you think. You, like me, probably aren’t seeing the whole picture. There’s evidence you’ve overlooked, perspectives you haven’t considered, and personal biases left unchecked. Don’t worry, you’re in good company. It doesn’t take much digging through history to see how often, and how likely, humans are just plain wrong.
From 1500 to 1776, the whole world was positive California was an island. Doctors used to use bloodletting to treat virtually every illness for over 3,000 years. And in the mid-nineties, my parents were convinced a Beanie Baby collection would one day pay my college tuition. Yet, despite the amount of hindsight available to us all, the risk of being wrong — or changing one’s mind — is still risky.
Politicians who change their stance on issues are called flip-floppers. Those who entertain ideas from across the political aisle aren’t just wrong anymore, they’re considered evil. The unfortunate motto of many modern-day belief structures is, if you believe X, then you must be a Y.
Binary beliefs. Strict thinking. Blind loyalty. Doesn’t exactly sound human, does it?
The problem with attaching our identities to our beliefs is that it makes questioning those beliefs scary. But now, more than ever, truth is a moving target. New tools for blurring fact into fiction are being invented every day. Having the capacity — and the appetite — to sift through new information and welcome opposing ideas is vital for anyone who wants to thrive in the new world.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote,
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
It’s by listening to someone with an opposing viewpoint that you’re able to strengthen your own argument. Because if you can’t properly articulate opposing arguments, then how can you properly debunk them? And more importantly, what happens when you have a new perspective that goes against the grain of common knowledge? We should all hope that when we do, there is a precedent set that will allow us to share that idea without the fear of being shamed.
This is one of the beautiful parts of the human mind — we can keep a loose grip on strong opinions without compromising our core values. It’s OK to stand up for what you believe in while remaining open to changing your mind. Even though at times it might feel like our beliefs are programmed into us (or into other people) we have the power to rewrite the code. We have the power to update our beliefs as needed.
Technology and AI can do a lot, but it’s lightyears away from replicating human empathy. It’s empathy that allows us to think, feel, and see things from a different point of view. Without it, there is no human connection. We can’t maintain a strong connection to the outside world without the ability to see things from different perspectives. You never know what walking through a new door of thought might lead to. You never know what a new perspective might knock loose in your own imagination.
Timothy Leary, the psychologist and writer synonymous with the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, nails it with the line: “You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.” This is another reason why spending time with other humans is so important: to be exposed to new ways of thinking and different perspectives. It is then equally important to carve out moments of solitude to reflect on how those perspectives may or may not fit into your worldview. It all feeds into a circle of connection that makes our world larger and our perspective wider.
If you want to live a life full of connection and meaning, you should be more than willing to be proven wrong — you should encourage it. Seek out the information that might crumple your beliefs. Run toward the voices eager to change your mind.
Because, ironically, there’s sweet freedom in knowing that you don’t know everything.