Lessons from 5 Years of Thinking about Thinking


What do you know now that you didn’t know five years ago? It may be difficult to put your finger on specific areas of growth, but just by being alive you have gained new insights into how the world (and people) works.


Five years ago I was a professional magician but I wanted to deliver more than just entertainment. I decided to use the knowledge that magic had taught me about illusions and the mind and from there I developed a speaking platform.


I dove into learning more about the subconscious mind - specifically how it is irrational and easily fooled. I wanted to know and help others learn to improve our individual performance, thinking and decision making by understanding how our thoughts, ideas, and attention are diverted, influenced, and manipulated.


What have I learned in those five years? More than I will ever remember, but here are what I consider the most important “a-ha!” moment insights. (Readers familiar with my articles will recognize many of these.)


Embrace uncertainty

We crave the feeling of certainty more than almost anything else. Knowing we know something. We want to feel like we understand concepts, ideas, and people so that we can plan and make decisions and act with confidence.


The truth is that we FEEL we have much more certainty than we really do and that can lead to mistakes in judgment and decision making. Uncertainty is not a comfortable feeling so rather than accept the uncertainty, we look for information that confirms the conclusion we have already and that feels good.


As decision making expert Annie Duke says, “Give uncertainty a big bear hug.” Think in terms of probabilities and allow that in most situations you don’t have all of the relevant information. Knowing that you don’t know is the key to the next insight…


Intellectual Humility

People with the most knowledge tend to also be the most accurate in assessing how much they don’t know. Those of us who know the least think we know a lot more than we really do. We have an “illusory superiority” and fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence.


A useful habit to develop is to assume you don’t know as much as you think you do. Don’t be afraid of saying “I think...”, “It’s my opinion that…” or simply, “I don’t know.” Always be in learner mode. This applies to beliefs as well. Be willing to change your beliefs when evidence suggests your prior beliefs were inaccurate.


Restraint from Judgment

This value formed through my life experiences but solidified as I learned about the brain and behavior. I am convinced that judging others - including making assumptions about how they think and what motivates them - is detrimental to your own performance, decision making, and relationships.


Judging behavior is necessary for a society to function, but judging an act as good or bad is different from judging the person.


Our behavior is a result of a complex mix of ingredients that includes: our DNA, experience, education, childhood stability, chemicals, nutrition, stress, location, and many others. Our behavior is based on our decisions which are often influenced by those ingredients as well as illusions and irrational impulses that we are not even aware of.


People have little or no control over most of these ingredients. While that does not absolve someone of their responsibility to behave well, it should encourage us to reserve judgment of that person.


When you see someone behaving badly, keep this in mind: Perhaps if you had that person’s ingredients you would have done the same thing you condemned them for.


Fundamental Attribution Error

This surprised me when I first heard about it, but the fundamental attribution error is another reason we need to be careful not to judge others - because we usually get it wrong.


When you make a bad decision or do or say something stupid, you tend to look at the outside factors that affected your decision rather than looking inward. However, when we see someone else do something regrettable, we assume it’s due to a personality flaw and are less likely to notice the environmental influences.


It’s like this: I behaved like a jerk because I was under a lot of stress. You behaved like a jerk because you’re a jerk.


Understanding the Value of Trust

We all know that trust is better than distrust and that trust is essential for strong relationships. However, most people underestimate how big of a difference having high-trust relationships and a high-trust environment can make in our work, our friendships, and our happiness. It even improves your personal income and your organization’s profitability.


In my keynote programs I often quote Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust. Covey says: “Trust truly is the one thing that changes everything. Increasing trust will make an enormous difference in every aspect of your life.”


Don’t believe it? Read the book. I also recommend David Horsager’s The Trust Edge.


One Step Beyond

The underlying theme to most of the useful knowledge I have gained over the past five years is that to be successful in improving our performance we need to go “one step beyond.”


Take one more step further than:

where you normally stop

what other people do

what is expected of you

where you feel like stopping


Take one more thinking step before acting, deciding, or expressing. Think about why you may be considering a certain course of action. Think more about the validity of your information and assumptions. Think about some of the illusions and cognitive biases that may be feeding you false information.


Even more importantly, when you are forming an opinion or making a negative assumption about someone - take an extra step to think about why you may be wrong before expressing it. That alone will make you exceptional because most people can’t be bothered.


More to learn

I have learned much more, of course, and I am grateful for the people who share their work and insights with the world so that we can grow, improve, and make positive changes in our lives and the lives of others.


The exciting part is that there is so much more to learn!


Think well and be well.


- Steve Haffner


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