How to Be More Rational This Year: Follow This Harvard Professor’s Simple ‘Be Right/Get It Right’ Rule

It’s been a hard couple of years, so maybe 2022 isn’t the year for grand, difficult goals. Many of us are simply too worn down from uncertainty and loss to dream of big business plays, complete personal transformations, or radical physical makeovers. 

If that sounds like you, then Harvard linguist (and one of Bill Gates’ favorite authors) Steven Pinker would like to suggest a smaller, more manageable, but still hugely impactful goal for this year — why not just aim to be a bit more rational? 

If the pandemic has proven one thing, it’s that there is a lot of irrationality in America these days. The news is filled with fact-free screaming matches, childish temper tantrums, and emotionally driven attacks. The world, and our collective sanity, would clearly benefit if we would all calm down and think a bit more clearly. 

Which may be why Pinker penned a piece for the BBC this month offering suggestions to help us all be a bit more rational this year. Among them was one simple rule of thumb entrepreneurs (and everyone else really) can apply to make every discussion they enter into less confrontational and more enlightening. 

Don’t aim to be right. Aim to get it right instead. 

In an ideal world, we discuss our differences with others in order to get closer to the truth and understand each other better. But we all know how often that goes off the rails and conversations descend into screaming, posturing, or mutual incomprehension. That’s natural enough, Pinker explains, because “humans are primates – and often the goal is to become the alpha debater.”

What should be an exercise in exploration and learning instead becomes a status game where both parties are trying to “beat” the other. People glare, intimidate, interrupt, or twist the other person’s argument to cow them into submission rather than engaging in a useful exchange of ideas. They behave as if they want to win more than want to get to the truth. 

This can be entertaining (and identity affirming), but it’s almost never illuminating. So Pinker suggests we all vow this year to follow a simple rule: whenever a discussion starts getting heated, adversarial, or overly personal, remind yourself that your aim isn’t to “be right” but to “get it right” instead. 

“We can all promote reason by changing the mores of intellectual discussion, so people treat their beliefs as hypotheses to be tested rather than slogans to be defended,” he writes. 

Save our democracy and be more successful at the same time. 

He’s not the only celebrated thinker pleading with people to be more open to thoughtful debate. Wharton professor Adam Grant in his recent book, Think Again, urges readers to spend less time thinking like preachers (who want to convert others to their cause), prosecutors (who want to prove someone wrong) and politicians (who want to win friends), and instead to think more often like scientists (who wants to find out the truth). 

Like Pinker’s ‘Be Right/ Get It Right’ Rule, Grant’s advice to ‘think like a scientist’ stresses the value of advancing understanding and being open to new ideas over the short-term ego boost of “winning” the conversation.

This approach isn’t just good for avoiding noisy, pointless arguments on social media. It’s not even just about strengthening the health of our democracy through better quality debate (though that’s clearly an urgent goal). Grant points out that being more rational helps you see the world more clearly, which results in better decisions and more success. 

In one study, Grant points out, “entrepreneurs that we taught to think like scientists brought in more than 40 times the revenue of the control group.” Which is a pretty incredible payoff for a mere shift in mindset.

So if you’re looking for a manageable but hugely impactful goal for 2022, take Grant and Pinker’s advice and pledge to remind yourself that getting it right is far more important than being right in your conversations this year.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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