The Job of Your Life with Karen Schaffer

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Posts Tagged ‘testing assumptions’

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

Posted by Karen on February 21, 2009

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”

Read a very interesting article interviewing a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Philip Tetlock who did a study on the predictive ability of “experts”.

He delineates two different kinds of “experts”:

Foxes: who are self-critical and self-aware, who are open to new evidence and changing their beliefs and who put their assumptions in check even as they give them

Hedgehogs:who fall in love with one big idea (“It’s the Great Depression all over again!” is Tetlock’s example) and stretch the facts and evidence to fit their theory – and have a hard time letting go of it even in the face of contrary evidence.

I like when the interview asks: How can we non-experts test our own hunches?

Tetlock responds….“Listen to yourself talk to yourself. If you’re being swept away with enthusiasm for some particular course of action, take a deep breath and ask: Can I see anything wrong with this? And if you can’t, start worrying; you are about to go over a cliff”.

Check in with yourself – and with others

What he’s saying isn’t “don’t follow your enthusiasm” but “take the time to test your theory and leave space for the inevitable questions and counter-arguments before making big decisions”.

Sometimes we can become afraid of the devil’s advocate, particularly when we’re afraid of second-guessing ourselves too much to go anywhere. And yet the ability to set aside the enthusiasm and emotion and see what the other side might look like doesn’t mean it won’t happen or it’s not a good idea. It’s a check in to see that you aren’t just running on gut or assumption, but have deeply considered it at all levels and given yourself space to decide in a coherent way.

There Was A Time I Avoided The “Testing” Stage At All Costs

I often didn’t want to know what was out there. I didn’t want to get scared off my enthusiasm for something by hearing what might go wrong or by any sense that people were going to challenge my decision with some negatives. It’s important to allow those negatives in…without sinking your enthusiasm.

I remember when I had a great idea for a newspaper column called “Is this you?” (you can find some of them on my current home website and hopefully eventually at this blog, going forward). In order to pitch the column, I had to really listen to what people were telling me about how to approach newspapers.

In the past, I would have avoided talking to people about it because I didn’t want to be exposed to negatives – I didn’t want anyone to challenge my amazing idea. I often wrote it off as “Well, that might be true for SOME people but they don’t understand it’s ME”. It kept me “confident” but not really grounded in reality. Meaning that I could be easily “knocked off my feet” if something negative got in, or if things didn’t work out quite the way I pictured.

But this time around, with this column I allowed myself to interact with all kinds of viewpoints. It meant I got some Negative Nancy/Norman Rain on my Parade types (i.e. the newspaper guy who morosely said “I don’t know why you’d want to write for a paper, it’s really hard to break in” and the well-meaning freelancer who practically patted me on the head and told me to start small with local community papers). I stuck in, even though I had some up and down moments about the idea.

But by allowing my initial ideas of what was needed for a pitch and how to reach people to be tested, I did get great coaching and advice that I believe lead to getting the articles published as a regular feature in one newspaper – and getting hired to do other freelance work for another paper.

It Feels Vulnerable to Put It Out There

It was scary to put my enthusiasm on the line like that, but I gave myself permission to listen to everything and sort out afterwards what felt true to me and what didn’t. This gave me leave to really listen without reacting to whatever they were saying and not come to any grand conclusions. On my own, I would test out how I felt.

Was I repulsed? Disappointed? Tempted to throw out what they were saying?

Did I like their energy? Did I understand the context of their experience with writing and newspapers? How well did I know or trust them?

Having moved through those layers, I could then start to sense what of their contribution was useful to me and what I wanted to let go. It made me feel much more grounded and certain of my direction. I didn’t have to rely on bravado when talking to people about my decisions.

So by the time I was being told to start small (despite my established writing background on the topic) and send my pitch to community papers first, I just smiled, thanked her, got the contact information I needed. Then I merrily went on my way, knowing I’d already run it by someone I respected far more, who was an editor as well as a writer, and who’d taken the time to coach me on my pitch. In the past her comment might have sunk me. Instead I could keep it at bay.

So bringing some of that fox-like quality into your exploration might allow you to really get to the heart of something important for you. It’s not about grabbing one idea that makes you enthusiastic and going full tilt without checking in or allowing yourself to change course (hedgehog).

Nor is it about exposing your dream to the devil’s advocates and getting so deflated you give it up.

It’s about continuing to follow your enthusiasm, tempered with gathering real world information from a variety of sources, and then creating space to digest everything and allowing a deeper, more certain sense of direction appear.

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