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Unlearning Lesson #4

Posted in Unlearning Lesson

Unlearning Lesson #4: Argue with Yourself: It’s Not Debatable

“I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another and that is: I say that I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the argument against my position better than the people who support it. I think only when I’ve reached that state am I qualified to speak.”

Question #4: If you had to select one of these two tables to fit into a long narrow space which would you select?

Did you say the table on the left? If so, you are correct. If, however, you opted for the other table you are also correct. Why? Because both tables have the exact same dimensions. Don’t believe me? Measure the width and the length of the two tables.

The optical illusion and the above quote from Charlie Munger—Warren Buffett’s right-hand man for more than 40 years—offer both visual evidence and worldly advice for anyone wishing to stay open to the importance of unlearning. They also because serve as useful reminders that it is important to consider all sides of something—be it a table or an issue.

Munger’s practice of arguing opposite sides of a question is a practice dating back thousands of years. As Nassim Taleb recounts in his book, Fooled by Randomness, in 155 B.C. the Greek philosopher, Carnaedes, traveled to Rome to argue against a penalty thathad been levied upon the Athenians. With unmatched eloquence, Carnaedes sang the praises of Roman justice and convinced his audience of the merits of his position. Alas that wasn’t the point he was trying to make. The very next day Carnaedes dissected his previous arguments and proceeded to convince the same audience the opposite was true.

So where did Carnaedes really stand on the issue? We don’t know. But that doesn’t matter because what he wanted to advocate was a doctrine of “uncertainty of knowledge.” Carnaedes was a “radical skeptic” and believed that all knowledge is impossible to know—except for the knowledge that all knowledge is impossible to know. Or, as Taleb writes, “Carnaedes stood all his life against arrogant dogma and belief in one sole truth.”

The philosophy calls to mind a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald who once said: “The test of a first rate mind is the ability to hold two diametrically opposed ideas at the same time and still function.”

This ability to deal with ambiguity is not a luxury reserved only for ancient philosophers and poets. In 1988, a study by the American Management Association found the leadership characteristic most essential for steering organizations through troubled and complex times was “the ability to deal with ambiguity.”

One strategy for preparing to deal with such ambiguity is, like Munger and Carnaedes, to familiarize oneself with all sides of an issue. In this way, whenever new—and perhaps contradictory information—becomes available, the holder of the opinion can assimilate this new information into their decision-making process. This, in turn, may make it easier to unlearn a position in spite of having voiced support for it in the past because you have at least acknowledged the merits of the opposite side of the issue.

Why might this be so? Because the previous work in understanding the opposing viewpoints will have created the space for a different but equally plausible idea—or even a table—to fit.

Homework Assignment #4: List all of the reasons why your competitors’ products or service are superior to your own, and why its revenue growth, profits and stock performance may outperform your own over the next three years. For individuals, identify your favorite stock and list all the reasons it may underperform the broader S&P index in the coming years.

(P.S. If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.)

Interested in other “unlearning”-related posts? Check out these older posts:

Unlearning Lesson #3: Become Uncomfortable in Your Own Skin

Unlearning Lesson #2: Don’t Climb the Highest Mountain

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