Are You Really Open Minded?

If you asked 1000 people if they were open or closed-minded, my guess is that more than 90% would claim to be open minded. But are they really open-minded?

Nobody wants to admit they are closed-minded. In fact, it likely doesn’t even occur to a closed-minded person that they are closed-minded. This blind spot makes the situation even worse.

How do you tell the difference between open and closed-mindedness? Ray Dalio, founder of investment firm Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, suggests some simple ways in his book Principles.

Protect vs Challenge Beliefs

Closed-minded people hold onto their beliefs strongly and ignore any contrary evidence. They are more interested in being right than getting to the right answer. They don’t want others to ask questions that might challenge their beliefs.

Open-minded people actively look for opinions and information that challenge their beliefs. When a disagreement happens, they are curious about the underlying reasons. In Dalio’s words,

Rather than thinking, ‘I’m right.’ I started to ask myself, ‘How do I know I’m right?’”

Statements vs Questions

Closed-minded people prefer statements rather than questions. They frequently offer opinions (often disguised as facts). They rarely ask others to explain their ideas but focus on information that refutes others.

Open-minded people actively seek out opinions from others by asking open-ended questions. When making decisions, they seek out others with diverse backgrounds who might have contrary point of views. As my first boss taught me,

Decide what information might change your mind and then try to find someone who has that information.

Understanding vs Empathy

Closed-minded people spend their time trying to be understood by others. When someone disagrees with them, they are quick to rephrase – or even repeat – their point of view. They use phrases like “you might not have understood me” or “I might not have explained myself well.”

Open-minded people are empathetic and want to hear others’ points of view. If you disagree with an open-minded person, they focus on understanding you rather than explaining themselves.

Dalio urges us to practice Radical Open-Mindedness. Here are two ideas:

  • Remember that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.
  • Be clear on whether you are arguing or seeking to understand, and think about which is most appropriate based on your and others’ believability.

I’m intrigued by radical open-mindedness and think it could support a goal of lifetime learning. Just remember: it’s important to keep an open mind but not so open that your brain falls out.

Just Say No To Goals

People are obsessed with goals. You could fill a large library with books describing how to create and accomplish goals. But they don’t seem to be effective:

Even the highly-touted SMART goals can be stupid.

So, what’s the problem with goals?

Goals have a specific ending time. Once you accomplish a goal, it’s no longer there to motivate you and you might fall back to your previous behavior. If you set a goal to run a marathon, you likely will train hard until the day of the race. If you finish the marathon, you may not keep training afterwards. After accomplishing one goal, you’re forced to create another.

Goals rely on uncontrollable factors. While goals may seem achievable when they are set, circumstances change over time and Murphy’s Law strikes without warning. An injury might interrupt your marathon training, or an unexpected expense might keep you from reaching a financial goal.

Goals focus on the future instead of the current. A goal can seem unattainable, especially when it is in the distant future. When you compare where you are against where you want to be, you might get demotivated. If you want to save $5000 in a year, you probably will be discouraged if you’ve only saved $500 after 3 months. One recommendation is to set multiple targets along the way.

In The Power of Habit, New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg argues that habits are more powerful and more reliable than goals. Habits make difficult tasks easier to accomplish by converting them from conscious decisions to background, almost automatic, processes. Here are two examples:

  • The challenge of saving $5000 forces you to exert self-discipline every time you want to purchase something. These daily challenges add up and can wear down your resolve over time. An alternative approach would be automatically deposit $200 into a savings account every pay period. Once set up, there is no effort and it becomes a habit – one that extends beyond the initial $5000.
  • Many years ago, I decided to read more books. One benefit would be more ideas for this blog. Rather than setting a goal of reading 25 books per year or even two books per month, I decided to make sure I always have books around me. I kept a pile on both my home and work desks, and always brought one with me on trips. Pretty soon it became a habit to read on planes.

Duhigg generalizes the benefits as follows:

  • Habits are easier to complete than goals since they are smaller and repetitive.
  • Habits allow us to overshoot our goals rather than focusing on a fixed objective.
  • Habits, once established, are perpetual and can last our whole lives.

According to Duhigg, we are truly creatures of habit; habits make up more than 40% of our lives. Some of these – those Duhigg calls keystone habits – have compounding effects on our lives. When people start exercising, they often end up eating better or drinking less alcohol. One good habit creates others. In a similar vein, breaking a bad habit often leads to a good one as a replacement.

So, the next time you want to accomplish something, don’t set yourself a goal. Instead, create a habit.

Even Dilbert agrees.