What are the Benefits of a Learning Orientation?

When Adam Bryant, a reporter for the New York Times, distilled lessons he learned from interviewing hundreds of C.E.O.’s, being intensely curious with a desire to learn from others was at the top of his list. As he states:

“The C.E.O.’s are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students—the letters could just as easily stand for “chief education officer.” “You learn from everybody,” said Alan R. Mulally, the [former] chief executive of the Ford Motor Company. “I’ve always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around—why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn’t work” (Bryant, 2011).

As the noted leadership scholar John W. Gardner succinctly states: “Don’t set out in life to be an interesting person; set out to be an interested person” (Gardner as quoted in Collins, 1997).

In organizational psychology, the desire to be an “interested person” is most commonly labeled having a “learning orientation.” A high learning orientation is approaching any situation with the motivating question: What can I learn? It is having an active exploratory mind and seeking to learn from others. This is often contrasted with a performance orientation, which is concerned with the question: How can I demonstrate my competence (i.e. be “interesting”)? While demonstrating competence is often important, it can crowd out a willingness to ask questions and learn from others because asking question demonstrates you don’t already have all the answers.(1)

One impressive study illustrates how a learning orientation helps us adapt and, ironically, how a high performance orientation can decrease our performance. Michael Ahearne and colleagues followed 400 salespeople from a major U.S. pharmaceutical company over the course of a year as they implemented a new sales technology platform. They first assessed individuals on their learning and performance orientations. They measured one’s learning orientation with seven questions, including statements such as “It is important for me to learn from each selling experience.” In assessing one’s performance orientation, they asked questions such as, “It is very important to me that my supervisor sees me as a good salesperson” (Sujan, Weitz, & Kumar, 1994).(2)

The researchers wanted to know how one’s learning and performance orientations would impact a salesperson’s willingness to learn the new sales technology system and ultimately their performance. Would there be any difference among individuals based on their learning orientation?

Prior to the technology implementation, the 400 individual’s average sales was 4 percent above their quota. After sixth months with the new sales technology system there was a reduction of sales across the board, with all individuals now ~4 percent below their sales quota. What would happen over the next six months? As Ahearne and colleagues found, those in the top quartile of learning orientation rebounded and by the end of twelve months they were back to being 4-5 percent above quota levels. In contrast, those in the bottom quartile of learning orientation never recovered to pre-change levels and just slightly rebounding to be 3 percent below quota levels.

Ahearne and colleagues also looked at individuals solely on the performance orientation scale and their results mirror those regarding learning orientation. Those who were very high on a performance orientation never rebounded back to pre-change levels.

Why, exactly, did this happen? The researcher suggest that a high performance-orientation makes one more fearful of any performance decline and thus an individual takes a “short-term-oriented strategy to adapt to change.” With this orientation, you don’t actually take the time to learn a new system and how it can help you. This impulse is understandable. It’s not efficient to proactively learn a new sales technology system instead of focusing on your performance, but this approach backfires in the long-term as you are stuck in older, inefficient routines.

Changing your learning orientation is possible by being intentional about what you can learn in any situation versus being concerned with superficially demonstrating competence. In fact, workshops have been used as interventions to facilitate a learning or performance orientation among job seekers. In one study, 8-weeks after a learning goal orientation workshop, individuals were more likely to be employed (33 percent) compared to those who were in a workshop that facilitated performance goals (9 percent) (van Hooft & Noordzij, 2009). A learning orientation—by shaping what you pay attention to—helps with effort, persistence, and interpreting situations in a way that is more productive.

Thus, just like Gardner’s injunction to be “interested,” try in the next situation you’re in to set an intention to see what you can learn—opening yourself up to new ways of seeing and understanding. It can help you adapt to change and expand your ability to reach your goals.


Ahearne, M., Lam, S. K., Mathieu, J. E., Bolander, W. (2010). Why are some salespeople better at adapting to organizational change? Journal of Marketing, 74, 65–79.

Bryant, A. (2011, April 16). Distilling the wisdom of C.E.O.s. The New York Times. p. BU1.

Collins, J. (1997). The learning executive. Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.jimcollins.com

Sujan, H., Weitz, B. A., Kumar, N. (1994). Learning orientation, working smart, and effective selling. Journal of Marketing, 58(3), 39-52.

van Hooft, E. A .J., & Noordzij, G. (2009). The effects of goal orientation on job search and reemployment: a field experiment among unemployed job seekers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1581–90.

Vandewalle, D. (1997). Development and validation of a work domain goal orientation instrument. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 57(6), 995-1015.

Vandewalle, D., Nerstad, C. G. L., & Dysvik, A. (2019). Goal orientation: A review of the miles traveled and the miles to go. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 6, 115-144.


(1) One might reasonably ask what the difference is between a growth mindset and learning orientation. While the two constructs are highly correlated (see Vandewalle, Nerstad, & Dysvik, 2019), a growth mindset is measured as one’s implicit assumption about the malleability of intelligence. It is often revealed retrospectively in situations as you seek to understand failures. A learning orientation benefits from a growth mindset, but highlights the cognitive intention of proactively seeking to learn from any situation.

(2) The scale they used was specific to sales. For a more general scale of learning and performance orientations, see Vandewalle, 1997.

Photo Source: athree23/Pixabay

What Generational Differences (if any) Impact Learning at Work?

What generational differences should you understand as you think about learning and development? I’ll cover two of them in this post, but please also add your thoughts and comments below as well.


In examining generational differences, I’ll admit that by and large, I am a skeptic. Most differences seem overblown and are more likely an impact of age rather than generation (e.g. most people in their 20s tend to be more idealistic, rather than those in their 20s right now being part of the “idealistic generation.”) Nevertheless, social norms do change over time and it’s hard not to see how the Great Depression and World War II shaped the dispositions of a large portion of the population in recognizable ways.

Skepticism about generational differences is fairly easy to voice, but it can be like wielding a machete that chops down the whole jungle without discriminating what plants (ideas) might have some merit. It can close us off from seeking to understand how our culture is shifting, however difficult this might be to pinpoint. This is difficult terrain to examine scientifically, as it requires longitudinal research far beyond the time horizon of most research agendas.

In addition to pinpointing exactly what generational differences exist, it is difficult to know why. Differences are often stated in descriptive terms without any theoretical rationale. It is not hard to understand why the generation that grew-up in the Great Depression would be thriftier, but many differences are presented without any explanation (e.g. “Millennials prefer extrinsic rewards”). These complications are well-understood and tempt one to take a machete to dismiss the entire jungle.

Furthermore, in asking about generational differences and learning and development, if you primarily view the mind as a biological entity, then the question is ludicrous. The biological make-up of our mind wouldn’t evolve in any perceivable way over the course of a few decades. Of course, however, the mind is both a product of our biological heritage and the culture we are enmeshed in. Thus, the question becomes, have cultural values (and technology) shifted in some distinguishable way that impacts how we might engage in learning and development?

It was into this jungle that I went searching for some credible evidence that might shed light on this question.

First, it helps to know what are generally perceived as generational cohorts.

  • Silent Generation (born 1925-1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965-1979)
  • Millennials (also known as GenMe or GenY, born 1980-1994)
  • iGen (born after ~1995)

Of course, as Jean Twenge (2017) aptly argues in her book iGen, there is no drastic difference between individuals born on either side of these cutoffs. However, individuals born ~10 years apart in these cohorts would have had a different cultural experience.

From the evidence I reviewed (mostly peer-reviewed articles and Jean Twenge’s book iGen, but also data from the Monitoring the Future study of high school seniors that began in 1975), there are two considerations that I could discern to understand generational differences with regard to learning and development at work.

Psychological Safety

By many metrics, there is a greater concern with safety among those in the most recent generational cohort, in particular around avoiding risk. This may be the result of well-intentioned parenting practices that help children and teenagers avoid risky behavior. Twenge (2017) reports that in a nationally representative sample of individuals in 8th and 10th grade, 50% of them in the 1990s agreed with the statement “I like to test myself every now and then by doing something a little risky,” but by 2015 that number had reduced to 40% (p. 153). This, along with reducing number of teenagers getting a driver’s license (around a 15% drop of high school seniors over the last 40 years, Twenge, 2017, p. 26), and parents who always know where their kids are, leads to a portrait of a generation that is more accustomed to being kept safe.

If I had to bet, this is connected (and will continue to be so) with a greater focus on “psychological safety” at work. Psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (Edmondson, 1999). It is measured by asking whether mistakes will be held against you and whether team members are able to bring up problems and tough issues. Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School has completed highly-regarded research about psychological safety and how it impacts team learning. In a recent book, I advocated for psychological safety as a means to foster great transparency and organizational learning.

The term also gained more widespread attention after Charles Duhigg published an article in the New York Times Magazine in February of 2016 titled “What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” In the article, Duhigg discusses Google’s extensive research of itself to uncover the essentials of great teams. The punch line, as you might guess, is psychological safety.

How can you increase psychological safety at work? In efforts where psychological safety was central to a change initiative, the results have been mixed (Edmonson, 2004). In a comprehensive initiative at Prudential Financial that was aimed at making individuals feel safe to speak up (partly because of prior ethical infractions), Edmondson (2004) concludes, “Psychological safety is not created by telling people to feel safe: it is a byproduct of leadership action and example occurring in the context of doing real work” (p. 11, emphasis in original). Thus, psychological safety is best seen as a means to an end, as a way to facilitate idea sharing in the pursuit of “real work,” not as a pursuit in itself.

Thus, to the extent that you are managing a team, or developing learning programs for those just entering the workforce, you’ll want to have some recognition of psychological safety; not as a central focus, but through modeling some acceptance of what can be learned from mistakes. Of course, this is open to lots of critiques about “coddling a generation” (see Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018), which is fair, but it’s helpful to have a better contextual understanding of subtle generational shifts that may be occurring.

Smartphones, Distractions, and Limitless Content Choices

Central to any understanding of generational differences is how the smartphone impacts one’s development. This is central to Jean Twenge’s thesis in iGen, and owning a smartphone understandably shifts how we experience the world. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and Twenge cites a 2015 marketing survey that 2 out of 3 U.S. teens own an iPhone (p. 2). If the statistic was that teen smartphone ownership was closer to 100 percent, I wouldn’t doubt it. The question becomes how does smartphone usage impact a generation entering the workforce? A full treatment of this question is beyond the scope of this post, and longitudinal evidence has not been established (for an excellent review, see Wilmer, Sherman, & Chein, 2017), but one obvious influence of the smartphone on our cognition is that it scatters our attention. It can do so exogenously—by text alerts, etc.—but also endogenously, as Wilmer et al. (2017) state:

“Endogenous interruptions occur when the user’s own thoughts drift toward a smartphone-related activity, and thereby evince an otherwise unsolicited drive to begin interacting with the device. These endogenously driven drifts of attention might arise from a desire for more immediate gratification when ongoing goal-directed activities are not perceived as rewarding” (p. 4).

There have been correlational studies that link high “media multitasking” and an ability to sustain attention (for a review see van der Schuur et al., 2015), but no longitudinal studies that can determine causality (to my knowledge). Whether smartphone usage throughout early adolescence has a unique impact during that developmental period compared to impacting individuals of all ages equally remains to be seen.

A potential decline in sustain attention may be evident in the decline of reading. As Twenge (2017) cites, among high school seniors in 1976, 10% of students said they did not read for pleasure the prior year, but by 2015 that number increased to 30% (p. 61). Additionally, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, over 50% of high school seniors “read a book or magazine nearly every day.” That number has steadily declined over the years, and by 2015, now only 16% of high school seniors agree with this statement. As Twenge states, “For a generation raised to click on the next link or scroll to the next page within seconds, books just don’t hold their attention.” As one 12-year old she interviewed states, “I’m not really a big reading person. It’s hard for me to read the same book for such a long time. I just can’t sit still and be superquiet” (p. 61).

Of course, the cause of the decline of reading books would be multifarious, however, the smartphone and our access to limitless content has to be acknowledged. By and large, it is an experience of life where one is less accustomed to focused concentration or engaging in what Cal Newport (2016) calls “deep work,” which he defines as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (p. 3).

Given the greater difficulties of sustaining attention—a difficulty that may be more pronounced for iGen, all of this ramps up the standards it takes to engage individuals, and suggests the obvious tactic of frequent breaks for any training event as well as setting the friendly ground rule of “being present.” It also suggests taking proactive measures to create less distraction in the workplace (counter to the open-office movement). Given we are already dealing with an internally-driven desire to shift our attention, we can at least make an effort to combat distractions in our environment.


In sum, pinpointing precise generational differences and how they impact work is complex, especially disentangling what are the natural inclinations of age and career stage compared to generation shifts that are unlike anything that has occurred before. In addition, we are dealing with subtle shifts in cultural norms over decades. While I have outlined two things to consider that may be generational, please comment below on your own experiences as well.

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Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

Edmondson, A. (2004). Teaching Note: Safe to Say at Prudential Financial. 5-604-021. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York: Penguin Press.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy—and completely unprepared for adulthood—and what that means for the rest of us. New York: Atria Books.

van der Schuur, W., Baumgartner, S. E., Sumter, S. R., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2015). The consequences of media multitasking for youth: A review. Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 204-215.

Wilmer, H. H., Sherman, L. E., Chein, J. M. (2017). Smartphones and cognition: A review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1-16.

Photo Source: geralt/Pixabay

What Does It Mean to Be Authentic?

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, often speaks of climbing the corporate ladder early in his career at Honeywell and becoming disillusioned with himself. He mentions wearing cufflinks to try and impress the Board of Directors, but “one day I’m driving home. It’s a beautiful day. I looked in the mirror and I’m miserable. I don’t like the businesses I’m in. I’m not passionate about that but most importantly I don’t like myself” (George, 2009). George was acting inauthentically to impress others and had a personal transformation which led him to switch industries and begin acting in a way that felt more congruent with his “true self.” Notably, in George’s retelling of the transformation, it was sparked by looking in a mirror, which presumably heightens one’s consciousness of the self. George would eventually move on to Medtronic and write several books about authentic leadership (e.g. Craig, George, & Snook, 2015). He would also help develop the course “Authentic Leadership” which is a central course on leadership at Harvard Business School.

While authenticity is gaining traction in the field of leadership, what does it mean to be authentic? Authenticity is about congruence between our deeper values and beliefs (i.e. a “true self”) and our actions. When there is a lack of congruence, this leads to an emotional force that seeks reduction. This posits a scientifically elusive but recognizable concept—the notion that there is an “authentic” or “true self” from which this lack of congruence is being generated (Harter, 2002; Sheldon, 2004; Strohminger, Knobe, & Newman, 2017). While an “authentic self” is recognizable from our everyday experience, it is not a concept incorporated into much of psychology. As Ken Sheldon, Distinguished Professor of psychology at the University of Missouri states, “Although many of us would agree with the folk wisdom that we should try to be ourselves, social-cognitive theories have no way of making sense of this statement” (2004, p. 252).

Thus, the notion of authenticity has a skeptical hill to climb, in particular because many psychological approaches—most obviously social psychology with its emphasis on contextual determinants of behavior—have little ability to “make sense” of authenticity. Nevertheless, the notion of an “authentic self” accords with much of our experience. We can readily recall experiences when we were acting inauthentically—in a way that felt at odds with deeper values of who we believe ourselves to be (see Lenton, Bruder, Slabu, & Sedikides, 2013). We can also recall instances of being our “authentic self,” when we shared openly our opinions and perspectives and felt validated in doing so.

While plausible, however, the notion of an authentic self doesn’t seem like it can coexist as we play various roles in our lives—as an employee, spouse, friend, and family member. If we all play various roles, which one is the “real me?” Although we shift roles based on our context, we can still have a sense of a “true self.” Researchers have found that adolescents come to be concerned with what is their “true self” (Harter, 2002). They have explored this concern by having individuals list attributes of the self in different relational contexts (e.g. with friends, at school, with our mother or father), and then having individuals identify which attributes conflict—for example being “outgoing” with friends but “depressed” when around parents (Harter, 2002). Individuals vary in the number of attributes that conflict, ranging anywhere from 1 to 15 or 20 (Harter, 2002). When faced with these conflicts, Harter explains that some individuals “spontaneously agonized over which of these conflicting attributes represent true-self behavior, and which seemed false” (2002, p. 385). Nevertheless, when there are conflicts among these attributes, individuals can identify “true self” behavior, using descriptions such as “the ‘real me inside,’ ‘saying what you really think,’ ‘expressing your opinion.’ In contrast, false self-behaviors are defined as ‘being phony,’ ‘not stating your true opinion,’ and ‘saying what you think others want to hear” (Harter, Bresnick, Bouchey, & Whitesell, 1997, p. 844).

Ultimately, whether we are a “multiplicity of selves” or have a “true self” calls for a both/and. Rather than a debate over whether we either have a multiplicity of selves or only one true self, we both shift ourselves given the context and have a sense of a true self. Thus, if we have a sense of a true self, we can be more or less authentic to it, and individuals vary in their authenticity. In measuring individual differences in this regard, Wood et al. (2008) ask questions such as “I always stand by what I believe in,” and “I am true to myself in most situations” (p. 399). They also ask questions about whether you feel alienated from the self, with questions such as “I feel out of touch with the ‘real me’”—much like the experience described by Bill George as he was driving home that afternoon.

In sum, authenticity is not as ephemeral as it might appear. It has an emerging body of research (most recently see Gan, Heller, & Chen, 2018), and like Bill George we can recall instances of being inauthentic, often due to a desire to conform and impress others. In addition, as you might guess, researchers have found a large number of correlations between authenticity and well-being (Wood, et al, 2008). Thus, it is worth engaging in the question of authenticity, and making it a more salient experience to strive for throughout many contexts, even, and perhaps most importantly, at work.

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Craig, N., George, B., & Snook, S. (2015). The discover your true north fieldbook: A personal guide to finding your authentic leadership. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Harter, S. (2002). Authenticity. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 382-394). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Harter, S., Bresnick, S., Bouchey, H. A., & Whitesell, N. R. (1997). The development of multiple role-related selves during adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 835-853.

Gan, M., Heller, D., & Chen, S. (2018). The power of being yourself: Feeling authentic enhances the sense of power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(10), 1460-1472.

George, B. (2009). Good leaders are authentic leaders. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/r6FdIVZJfzg

Lenton, A. P., Bruder, M., Slabu, L., & Sedikides, C. (2013). How does “being real” feel? The experience of state authenticity. Journal of Personality, 81(3), 276-289.

Sheldon, K. M. (2004). Integrity [Authenticity, Honesty]. In C. Peterson & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Character strengths and virtues (pp. 249-271). New York: Oxford University Press.

Strohminger, N., Knobe, J., & Newman, G. (2017). The true self: A psychological concept distinct from the self. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(4), 551-560.

Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the authenticity scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 385-399.

Ryan Smerek is an associate professor and assistant director of the MS in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. He is the author of Organizational Learning and Performance: The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture.

Photo Source: Michael Podger/Unsplash

What is Talent?

Talent is an oft-used word, and when it’s evoked we often nod in agreement that we know what someone means. In many cases, it might be a synonym for “intelligence” or in other domains it might mean “athleticism.” You can get away without pinpointing a precise definition for talent unless you are a scientist that is trying to explain performance. Then you want to know what precisely differentiates a world-class athlete, chess grandmaster, or anyone else at the pinnacle of their field.

I recently heard an excellent definition of talent, however, by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, who says:

“Talent—when I use the word, I mean it as the rate at which you get better with effort. The rate at which you get better at soccer is your soccer talent. The rate at which you get better at math is your math talent. You know, given that you are putting forth a certain amount of effort. And I absolutely believe—and not everyone does, but I think most people do—that there are differences in talent among us: that we are not all equally talented” (Duckworth, 2016).

What I like about this definition of talent is that it allows us to see improvement as a product of both innateness and effort. We may be improving at a slower rate, but we can still improve with effort.

This definition of talent also helps us persist. For example, if we are trying to improve in some domain and have high aspirations, we are continually reaching the edge of our current skills. Whenever we sense we are at this “edge,” and our performance is judged relative to others, we can interpret the relative feedback as evidence for a lack of talent or as talent being our rate of improvement. The latter interpretation helps us persist, while still allowing for talent differences. It is the classic tortoise and the hare story—others may be speeding rabbits in our domain, but given we aspire to excel, we may plod along like the tortoise, eventually reaching our goals with deliberate effort.

This is the story told of numerous experts in Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In domain after domain, Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist at Florida State University, finds those who engaged in persistent practice eventually reach the pinnacle of their field.

For Ericsson, whether it is learning to memorize hundreds of digits (a task he describes at the beginning of the book), practice and effort are at center stage. As he summarizes, “In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent” (p. 233). Ericsson, a preeminent figure in the study of expertise and original researcher of the famed 10,000 rule (i.e. that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert*) is on the side that Duckworth mentions above that we are more equal than we assume. This can make for frustrating reading, as in almost every instance, Ericsson dismisses talent for any individual, even Einstein. He describes how neuroscientists found that Einstein had a “significantly larger than average inferior parietal lobule,” which is thought to play a role in mathematical thinking. In response, Ericsson asks:

“Could it be that people like Einstein are simply born with beefier-than-usual inferior parietal lobules and thus have some innate capacity to be good at mathematical thinking? You might think so, but the researchers who carried out the study on the size of that part of the brain in mathematicians and nonmathematicians found that the longer someone had worked as a mathematician, the more gray matter he or she had in the right inferior parietal lobule—which would suggest that the increased size was a product of extended mathematical thinking, not something the person was born with” (p. 44).

As the book continues, however, the extremism begins to moderate, and Ericsson begins to allow for aspects of innate differences to play a role, but only as a second-fiddle to practice. As he summarizes:

“I suspect that such genetic differences—if they exist—are most likely to manifest themselves through the necessary practice and efforts that go into developing a skill. Perhaps, for example, some children are born with a suite of genes that cause them to get more pleasure from drawing or from making music” (p. 237).

Ericsson’s firm position on the value of practice has been the result of working to pinpoint exactly the differences between elite performers and average performers, with explanations of innate differences being elusive in most domains. With the definition of talent offered by Duckworth, however, we don’t have to choose between innateness or effort—both are important—and, if Ericsson’s countless studies of elite experts are any indication, effort is more importance than we often assume.

*For an excellent overview of why this is not a “rule” exactly, and the many caveats needed after its popularization by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, see Ericsson & Poole, 2016, pp. 109-114.

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Duckworth, A. (2016, July 25). Angela Duckworth on grit. EconTalk [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.econtalk.org/angela-duckworth-on-grit/

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Photo Source: geralt/Pixabay

Do I Really Have to Be Actively Open-Minded?

Jason Fried, the co-founder of Basecamp, a project management software company, describes being at a conference and engaging with a fellow speaker. Fried had disagreed with the speaker and as he says:

“While he was making his points on stage, I was taking an inventory of the things I didn’t agree with. And when presented with an opportunity to speak with him, I quickly pushed back at some of his ideas” (2012).

In response, to Fried’s criticism, the speaker replied, “Man, give it five minutes.”

Fried says, “I asked him what he meant by that? He said, it’s fine to disagree, it’s fine to push back, it’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give my ideas some time to set in before you’re sure you want to argue against them. ‘Five minutes’ represented ‘think,’ not react” (2012).

Alan Jacobs, in his book How to Think (2017) calls this entering “Refutation Mode—and in Refutation Mode there is no listening” (p. 18). In Refutation Mode you may even miss additional arguments and nuances that a speaker might give. Your emotional response and refutation of an early point shuts off additional incoming information. This is why, if someone has entered Refutation Mode, you might be surprised they didn’t hear that you’ve already addressed their point. You may have experienced this yourself in raising your hand in a seminar or class—once you do so you are fixated on what you will say to the point that your attention narrows and you stop listening to the conversation that is still occurring.

So what is the antidote to entering Refutation Mode? In Keith Stanovich’s impressive catalog of how to assess “good thinking” in his book The Rationality Quotient (with Richard West and Maggie Toplak), what emerges again and again is Actively Open-Minded Thinking.

Stanovich et al. (2016) measure Actively Open-Minded Thinking with a 30-item scale drawn from numerous sources, including items from a flexible thinking scale, Big 5’s openness to experience, and being able to resist dogmatism, among others (see also Stanovich & West, 1997). I won’t go into specifics on each dimension, but a few items should help see how Actively Open-Minded Thinking is assessed. These include:

1) “Beliefs should always be revised in response to new information or evidence.”

2) “I like to gather many different types of evidence before I decide what to do.”

3) “It is important to persevere in your beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them.” (R)

(R) indicates item is reverse scored (for additional items, see Stanovich, et al., 2016, p. 366).

The willingness to be open-minded, assess evidence, and update our beliefs takes cognitive effort. We need to override our initial impulses. This is further complicated when beliefs are central to us (Haidt, 2012). Nevertheless, it can serve as a cognitive aspiration. We will certainly fall short of being actively open-minded, but when we sense we are in Refutation Mode, we can try to momentarily recalibrate and see if being actively open-minded may serve us in the situation.

For example, in making billion-dollar investments, Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s largest hedge-fund, places the dictate to be “Radically Open-Minded” as one of his key management principles. As he states:

“Radical open-mindedness is the ability to effectively explore different points of view and different possibilities…It requires you to replace your attachment to always being right with the joy of learning what’s true” (2017, p. 187).

But, you may argue, what are the limits to being Actively Open-Minded? Should I listen and engage in every opposing point of view? As Stanovich et al. (2016) describe, being Actively Open-Minded is not a disposition to maximize. However, we tend to be deficient in this disposition such that more is better. Thus, in being open-minded we obviously do not forgo having a point-of-view, but instead “practice being open-minded and assertive at the same time” (Dalio, 2017, p. 541).

So, the next time you see yourself in Refutation Mode—much like Jason Fried—see if you can stop yourself and be Actively Open-Minded. It won’t be easy, you may need “five minutes,” and you may not change your mind, but you’re likely to learn more in the process.


Dalio, R. (2017). Principles: Life and work. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fried, J. (2012, March 1). Give it five minutes. Retrieved from https://signalvnoise.com/posts/3124-give-it-five-minutes

Jacobs, A. (2017). How to think: A survival guide for a world at odds. New York: Currency.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (1997). Reasoning independently of prior belief and individual differences in actively open-minded thinking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(2), 342-357.

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (2016). The rationality quotient: Toward a test of rational thinking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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