Just about everyone wants to be smarter. But if you want to improve your performance and up your chances of success, you'd probably do better by striving to be less dumb.
Or as Warren Buffett's right-hand man Charlie Munger put it: "It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent."
That's because science shows most humans are wildly overconfident in our ability to do just about everything. We think we're smarter, more ethical, and more popular than average. We rate ourselves better drivers and stock pickers. We learn about cognitive biases that mess up other people's thinking but remain confident they don't afflict us.
Boosting your intelligence is a long, hard (but worthwhile) road, but realizing you're probably dumber than you think you are and being more thoughtful to guard against overoptimism is simple, if not always psychologically easy.
In fact, according to a new book by UC Berkeley business professor Don Moore, just one simple question can get you a long way to fighting back against overconfidence.
Moore is the author of Perfectly Confident and he recently spoke to Wharton's Katherine Milkman about his obsession with humanity's overconfidence and how we can train ourselves to take off the rose-colored glasses and make better decisions.
The two professors' entire conversation is well worth a listen, but Moore's most actionable advice comes toward the end, when Milkman asks him how we can have a better grasp of our own limitations. Moore cites Thinking in Bets, a book by pro poker player Annie Duke, in offering his simple but powerful suggestion. It boils down to asking yourself one question: "Wanna bet?"
Every decision amounts to a prediction in disguise. We decide to get down on one knee because we predict we'll be happy with the person we're proposing to. We decide to open a new store in location X rather than location Y because we predict more people interested in our product will pass by that spot every day. But, being human, we are often overconfident in those predictions, and that leads us to make shoddy decisions.
To make smarter decisions, we need to learn to be more clear eyed about the predictions that underlie them. We need to think not "Will this happen?" but instead "What are the odds of this happening?" And there's no better way to do that than to think about how much cold hard cash you'd be willing to bet on a particular decision and why someone else might be willing to bet against you (perhaps do not mention that you're thinking things through this way to your future fiance).
"We can discipline our forecasts for the future by thinking about putting stakes on them. Do I believe that prediction enough to be willing to bet on it? How likely do I think it is? And if there's someone else willing to take the other side of that bet, what do they know that I don't?" Moore says.
Thinking this way "leads to the very useful question, 'Why might I be wrong? What information out there suggests I'm wrong? Or what do others who believe differently know that I don't?' That is very useful for helping us question our assumptions and calibrate our confidence," he concludes.
If you're interested in learning more about how the world's best poker players think through decisions, here's a deeper dive into the subject, or check out New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova's new book on the subject, The Biggest Bluff. Any of these resources will make you instantly smarter simply by reminding you how dumb you often are.