I still remember what the student teacher said as she passed out our exams. "You have 40 minutes to take the test," she said. "So don't be in a hurry. And if you finish early, use that time to go back over your answers and check your work."
Our actual teacher cleared his throat. "Keep in mind, though, that your first instinct is usually the right one," he said. "So unless you absolutely know an answer is wrong, do yourself a favor and don't change it."
You've probably also heard advice like that. My wife taught nursing for a few years at two different universities, and in both cases other faculty members gave students the same guidance.
Even people in the test-taking business have espoused a similar approach. As Adam Grant writes in his excellent new book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know, test-prep company Kaplan once warned students to "exercise great caution if you decide to change an answer. Experience indicates that many students who change answers change to the wrong answer."
Even Albert Einstein seemed to agree, once writing in a letter to a friend, "It is not so important where one settles down. The best thing to do is follow your instincts without too much reflection."
Unfortunately, all that advice -- and even Uncle Albert -- is wrong.
A comprehensive review of 33 studies Grant cites found that when people change their answers, the majority of time they switch to the right answer. Another counted eraser marks on the exams of more than 1,500 students and found that while approximately 25 percent of the changes went from right to wrong, half went from wrong to right.
That may happen because we only tend to change an answer when we feel extremely confident the change is a good one.
More likely, though, it's because we're willing to consider whether we should change an answer.
In short, we're simply willing to think about rethinking.
Which is harder to do than you might think.
Stick to the Path?
Steve Jobs believed in grit. "I'm convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the nonsuccessful ones is pure perseverance," Jobs said. "There are such rough moments ... that most people give up."
Makes sense: Mental toughness builds the foundation for long-term success. Successful people delay gratification. Successful people withstand temptation. Successful people consistently do what they have decided is most important.
Successful people? They stay the course.
But they don't blindly stick to the same path.
According to the authors of a 2020 study published in Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences, thinking about how you think about achieving a goal -- the strategy you employ to consider your approach, to consider when to adapt and revise, to consider when to pivot, etc. -- pays significant dividends.
Psychologists call that higher-order thinking skill "metacognition."
But really it's just the art of thinking about thinking: being willing to question and refine your current process, current routine, current habits, and current "answers" in order to overcome challenges and further improve the odds of success.
In short, to stay the course, but by thinking about how you think about staying the course.
If that sounds too meta -- it kind of does to me, and I'm the one writing it -- think of it this way. Consider a difficult long-term goal you've been working hard to achieve.
Then consider your approach. Whenever you feel you aren't making progress, how often do you ask yourself, "What are things I can do to help myself?"
When you feel frustrated or challenged by a particular task, how often do you ask yourself, "What are things I can do to get better at this?"
When you face a roadblock, how often do you ask yourself, "What is a better way to do this?"
According to the 2020 study, the more often you ask yourself those questions -- the more you think about how you think about accomplishing a goal -- the greater your likelihood of success.
Maybe your "answers" will be the same. Maybe they will be different. Changing your approach isn't as important as the willingness to consider whether you should change your approach.
Because then you're more open. Then you're more willing to analyze what works, dig deeper into what doesn't work, and never stop looking for a better way -- no matter how complex the task. A 2005 Journal of General Internal Medicine study found that doctors given challenging clinical scenarios were only able to come up with a correct diagnosis two-thirds of the time.
But when doctors were willing to analyze their initial diagnosis and consider alternative possibilities, their diagnostic accuracy improved by as much as 40 percent.
The next time you feel stuck, don't just blindly forge ahead. Be willing to consider whether you should make a change.
And even if you think you already have the answer, occasionally take a step back and be willing to think about whether that answer is best.
Because, as with most things, before you can be able, you have to be willing.
Especially where rethinking is concerned.