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Q&A on the Book Think for Yourself

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Key Takeaways

  • We have outsourced too much of our thinking to experts and technologies. 
  • To reclaim control, we need to keep experts on tap, not on top.
  • Context matters - and since experts live in silos, we must pay attention to the big picture.
  • Breadth of perspective is as important, if not more important, than depth of knowledge.
  • We must (re)develop the ability to bring multiple perspectives to complex phenomena, else we are destined for disappointment.

The book Think for Yourself by Vikram Mansharamani provides a balanced approach to working with experts to help us deal with uncertainty. Instead of outsourcing our thinking to experts, we should tap into appropriate expertise when needed. Multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches can be used to see the whole picture and stay on top of things. Further, appreciating the context can help understand the boundaries of expert value and aide in the appropriate utilization of their insights.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt from Think for Yourself.

InfoQ interviewed Vikram Mansharamani about the problems caused by specialization and why today's complex problems need integrated thinking, why people outsource their thinking to experts and if experts help or hinder our thinking, the drawbacks of being focused and the benefits that zooming out can bring, how having a devil's advocate can improve the quality of our decisions, what skills we should develop to navigate through uncertainty, and how we can balance the depth of expertise with the breadth of perspective.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Vikram Mansharamani:  As a student of financial bubbles, I had spent a great deal of time thinking about how a multidisciplinary and multi-lens approach was able to identify irrational investor exuberance.  I came to realize that a similar multidisciplinary and multi-lens (or multi-expert) approach was useful in thinking about all complex decisions.  THINK FOR YOURSELF is my attempt to help readers harness the power of triangulation to navigate through uncertain times.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Mansharamani: The book is intended to be useful to anyone who may be surprised to realize how dependent we are on experts and technologies, how we came to be this way, the costs of this dependency, and how to reclaim control from those who have hijacked our thinking.  Given the examples are from a wide range of domains, I am hoping it will have broad appeal to anyone who utilizes expert input into decision-making processes in their life. 

InfoQ: Why do many people focus on specialization? What problems does this cause?

Mansharamani: The overwhelming flow of information and explosion in data suggests no one person is able to fully understand everything.  So what do we do?  Specialize.  And it hasn’t been a bad thing. It’s allowed tremendous progress in lots of fields. It allows us to move our understanding forward.  

But it is not without cost.   If you stop and think about it, focus really is a two-edged sword.  Focus allows us to shine a spotlight on a specific area and delve deeper.  But it also means that we ignore all that lies in the shadows. Another way to describe “narrow specializing” is “broad ignoring.”

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that today's complex problems need integrated thinking. Can you elaborate?

Mansharamani: Today’s complex problems demand multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches.  Just think about inequality, a very complex problem that plagues many societies today.  Thinking merely of income and wealth (and how to tax each) would miss key topics of consideration.  Education matters, for sure, but education funding is tied (at least in America) to local real estate taxes.  

So wealthy towns get more resources for education, enabling their students to do well and eventually get well-paying jobs.  Likewise, towns with less expensive real estate might have schools with fewer resources and students who never realize their potential.  

To even begin to address inequality, we need an approach that integrates these (and other) dynamics into an understanding of the entire system.  

InfoQ: Why do people outsource their thinking to experts? 

Mansharamani: I think people outsource their thinking to experts because it’s easy to do so. There’s a cost-benefit analysis that often leads to letting others think for you.  

Our world today is complex. We have many options, and, more importantly, we are aware of just how many options we have. When we choose between options, there is a human instinct—the one that economics as a field relies upon—to try to choose the best one. But attempting to optimize in the face of uncertainty and interconnectedness is challenging and doesn’t always happen. 

Analysis paralysis is more common by the day. A horde of choices overloads our focus systems, leading to anxiety. But the risks have been rising as more and more experts are increasingly narrower and narrower. 

It’s much more difficult to think for yourself, ask questions, and challenge assumptions, but there are also rewards for doing so.  Those who do can expect to feel more in control and over time, will likely be more successful in navigating uncertainty.  Greater autonomy and hopefully better outcomes might also be expected. 

InfoQ: Do experts help or hinder our thinking?

Mansharamani: It’s as problematic to completely dismiss experts as it is to blindly defer to them.  The key, as I say in my book, is to keep them on tap, not on top. If we do so, we can extract the real value of their expertise without the costs of blind reliance. Sometimes, asking questions is the best way to gain insight into their thinking process and assumptions. 

Another way is to triangulate multiple perspectives through the use of more than one expert. This may require more effort as it takes time and effort to seek guidance from several authorities, but think of it as a puzzle, with experts providing pieces.  One piece of a puzzle won’t show you the whole picture, but as you add more pieces, a picture emerges. 

InfoQ: People are often told that they need to focus. What are the drawbacks of being focused?

Mansharamani: The drawback of being too focused is that we don’t see the big picture. While everyone has been told to specialize, the future may belong to those who are skilled not only at generating the proverbial dots of specialized information, but also at connecting them. Those who see the big picture and tap into appropriate expertise when needed would likely rule the future. 

InfoQ: What benefits can zooming out bring?

Mansharamani: By zooming out, one is able to see the context in which expert silos reside. It allows us to gain a better understanding of how parts fit together. By focusing, we filter, and thus ignore. In focusing mindlessly, we blind ourselves to risks and opportunities. By zooming out, we are better able to navigate and in doing so, see unique insights and take advantage of them.  For example, it’s easy to think of the US-China tensions as something that will pass as the trade war subsides.  But if you were to zoom out and look beyond the business perspective to think about the technology race, space race, currency war, and arms race as part of the narrative of US China rivalry, you might conclude the tensions will persist for some time and take advantage of that reality.  

InfoQ: How can having a devil's advocate improve the quality of our decisions?

Mansharamani: Every decision has pros and cons.  We far too often underweight the cons of our decisions.  Forcing the perspective of how the choice you’re about to make is a bad selection is a healthy exercise to enable a better understanding of the decision and its possible ramifications. Doing so also provides the psychological safety to enable a rigorous discussion about the downsides of a big decision, without the naysayer fearing punitive politics. 

InfoQ: What skills should we develop to navigate through uncertainty?

Mansharamani: I believe it is critically important to think in terms of multiple futures. Uncertain domains are those in which the range of possible outcomes is wide. As such, we should encourage creativity and imagination in those charged with helping us navigate through uncertainty.  We need to ask about what might be seen as unlikely outcomes and think about how unlikely but high impact developments can impact us. And we can all bolster our imagination skills by reading fiction, watching movies, and studying various scenarios. 

InfoQ: How can we balance the depth of expertise with the breadth of perspective?

Mansharamani:  Depth of expertise is prevalent and many of us have been guided towards it.  The key is to add more breadth of perspective so we might be more balanced. 

This can be seen in our recent focus on a skills-based education, which sometimes comes at the expense of a liberal arts education. While it may not be possible to spend four years in school, one simple way to do so is to change how we consume information.  Rather than following algorithmically derived news feeds, I suggest reading curated sources broadly.  

Actually flip through an entire physical newspaper or an entire magazine.  It will force you to see headlines outside of your area(s) of focus and hopefully help you to develop a greater breadth of perspective. 

About the Book Author

Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer at Harvard University and teaches a course entitled “Humanity and Its Challenges: Systems Thinking Approaches.”  He is the author of THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence (HBR Press, 2020) and BOOMBUSTOLOGY: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst (Wiley, 2019).  Linkedin has listed him as one of their top voices for money, finance and economics and Worth profiled him as one of the 100 most powerful people in global finance.  He has a PhD and MS from the MIT Sloan School of Management, an MS from the MIT Political Science Department, and a BA from Yale University.  He can be followed on twitter @mansharamani.

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