There’s a funny paradox when it comes to highly successful people: They have a strong commitment to action but are willing to question what they believe to be true. On one hand, hard tasks take your full effort to accomplish. But on the other, your experience may prove the world quite a bit different than how you imagined it before getting started.
This flexibility doesn’t always come naturally. When we have a deeply held belief, our cognitive systems tend to act in ways that preserve it. We focus on information consistent with our beliefs and interpret ambiguous information in ways that correspond with it, too. Most of us are more comfortable interacting with people who share the same convictions we do.
All this being true, here’s how the most successful people manage to question their core beliefs in order to stay open to new ideas and opportunities.
It is all too easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. After all, it’s simply no fun to have your fundamental beliefs questioned all the time. But at the very least, it’s helpful to have people around you who don’t share your beliefs as strongly as you do, even if they don’t outright disagree.
So find a few trusted advisers who are willing to argue with you. It’s useful to have to justify yourself to others in order to make sure you aren’t missing something fundamental. For one thing, circumstances might have changed since the time you formed a given belief. Getting other people’s perspectives can make you aware of new situations that may warrant changing your mind.
The advantage of being around people who question your assumptions all the time is that it makes you more aware of the pitfalls of acting right away on what you believe to be true. This way, you can take those potential objections into account from the beginning, rather than getting deep into a project before someone raises a crucial question late in the game.
After all, while it’s helpful to have people around who can tell the emperor that he has no clothes, you have to wonder how he was able to walk around naked for so long in the first place.
It can be difficult to recognize just how much your interpretation of the world reflects your tendency to see things consistently with your beliefs. The best way to look through fresh eyes is to try on a new set of beliefs, even if that doesn’t mean adopting them completely.
Spend a few hours looking at your plans based on a different set of assumptions about the way the world works. Does that cause you to see things in a new light? You may find that a set of facts that you thought led clearly to one conclusion can support very different conclusions as well.
This plays out in organizations just as much as it does among individuals. For example, Blockbuster and Netflix took very different views of the movie-rental business. Blockbuster made a commitment to renting physical media to customers. It built a business model around having well-stocked stores in every neighborhood. When Netflix rose up to challenge Blockbuster’s dominance, it started by renting out DVDs. But the company was also willing to ask whether that was the only way to offer a movie experience at home.
This alternative view of the world led Netflix to move toward digital streaming. From there, new ideas opened up. Not content just to supply other people’s content, Netflix contemplated what it would be like to produce its own. This willingness to continually rethink core assumptions has made Netflix a nimble player in media, while Blockbuster is just a memory.
Because your psychology is going to push you back toward your existing beliefs, it’s useful to have an idea of what would be required for you to change your mind.
Think about science. Scientists have strongly held beliefs about the way the world works, based on observable evidence. However, they also agree that they’ll allow their beliefs to be changed if the data changes–hence the scientific method. So scientists set up experiments that will test their theories. In fact, the best experiments are ones that provide an opportunity for the data to demonstrate clearly that a particular theory is wrong.
When the data fail to support a hypothesis, researchers need to change their beliefs–no matter how much they might have wanted their original theory to prove true.
You don’t necessarily need to treat your business or personal convictions like a science. But you should think about what it would actually take for you to change your mind. No matter how much you may think you’re right, you should always have a sense of what circumstances might need to arise in order for you to reconsider.
Successful people may know what they believe, but they also know why they do–and what could change that.