Many first-time entrepreneurs share a similar narrative: They stumbled upon a problem in need of solving and, against all kinds of odds, worked like crazy to come up with the best solution to it. "I just had to figure it out!" they often say. "I felt like such an imposter!"
That early period can be one of the most fruitful and special times in the life of an entrepreneur: You're eager to learn and act on that new knowledge. You have confidence in your ability to achieve a future goal but also the humility to question whether you have the right tools, says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know (Viking, 2021). It's when you move from complete novice to somewhat successful amateur that you are likely to run into trouble. Fast growth can promote a false sense of mastery.
"That jump-starts an overconfidence cycle, preventing us from doubting what we know and being curious about what we don't," Grant writes. "We get trapped in a beginner's bubble of flawed assumptions, where we're ignorant of our own ignorance."
In Think Again, Grant explores why entrepreneurs and executives--and really everybody--get caught in the trap of closed-mindedness, unwilling to change their assumptions and beliefs even when the evidence is right in front of them. In a turbulent world, he argues, your ability to rethink and unlearn matters far more than raw intelligence.
So how do you second-guess yourself in the smartest way possible? Read on for the biggest takeaways from the book and from Grant, who discussed his work recently with Inc.
1. Beware of "founder syndrome."
It can happen to even the most innovative founders: They bet (correctly) against the consensus and proved all the naysayers wrong. "And then they overgeneralize the wrong lesson: that every time they bet against consensus they will have better judgment," Grant says. "That's when arrogance and narcissism rear their ugly head."
The better approach is to analyze why you were right and others were wrong in this situation. You need to attribute your success to something specific. Did you have different knowledge? A better approach to analyzing the problem? Were you lucky you lacked experience and came in with a fresh view? "Don't follow your intuition; test your intuition," he says. This is particularly important when you've done well in one realm and now want to launch in another. What worked at a consumer-facing startup may be irrelevant to a B2B venture.
2. Come up with at least one reason you might be wrong.
One of the easiest ways to try to curb overconfidence is to come up with even one viable reason why you might be wrong, Grant writes. "When you form an opinion, ask yourself what would have to happen to prove it false."
Consider the fate of BlackBerry, a company that in 2009 accounted for nearly half of the smartphone market. The BlackBerry, its creator Mike Lazaridis believed steadfastly, was a device for sending and receiving email; people were never going to want to carry around the equivalent of a computer in their pocket. Many of his engineers believed otherwise. By 2014, of course, BlackBerry's market share had fallen to less than 1 percent. What might have happened if he had questioned his assumptions?
3. Develop a trusted "challenge network."
You are unlikely to be able to see all of your own blind spots, no matter how self-aware you become. To ensure you know what you don't know, you need a team of employees willing to challenge you. Grant calls these employees "disagreeable givers." "They dish out the tough love and critique you because they care and want to make your thinking better," he says. Grant's favorite way of identifying these types of people in a job interview is to ask some version of this question at the end of the interview: If you were going to reinvent our hiring process, what would you do differently?
Disagreeable people often will give you the most honest feedback without fearing repercussions. That last part is key: For disagreeable givers to be most effective, they must operate in a psychologically safe culture that treats mistakes as learning opportunities.
4. Find joy in being wrong.
This is perhaps the most challenging bit of advice in Grant's book--particularly for entrepreneurs who are often rewarded for managing the expectations of others and projecting success--but it may be the most crucial. When Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, discovers an aspect of his research or thinking that is wrong, Grant says, his reaction is more like joy: It means he's now less wrong than before.
Think more like a scientist performing an experiment and less like a preacher or politician defending your ideas. If you consider your own conclusions and theories as provisional, Grant says, you're less likely to escalate your commitment to a losing strategy.