Elena Kagan: Tell Your Gut to Please Shut Up!

Michael Schrage, an MIT research fellow, just published a blog on the foibles of intuition from which I’ve created the above title.  Unlike your author, Schrage also puts Malcolm Gladwell on notice, making it rather clear that Blink, Gladwell’s book on intuition is bad stuff.  (But, I still love Gladwell’s writing.)  If you’re one of my regular readers, you know that I’ve addressed the issue in two earlier blogs.  In the first, I introduced my writers to the scientifically informed writing of Michael Mauboussin (Trust Your Gut?  Not Too Fast.) and said that your gut can’t usually be trusted.  In the second blog, I wrote about Why Your Intution Fails,  and took careful potshots at Marcus Buckingham and Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist, both of whom are purveyers of some very bad career advice.My impatience about this intestinal mindset (I stole those two words) regarding things personal and things career occasionally gets the best of me, especially when it comes from the mouth of someone whom our president has chosen to be on the Supreme Court, and who, in my mind happens to be a wise choice.  Yet there Elena Kagan was, and out of her mouth came this: “I like to think that one of the good things about me is that I know what I don’t know and that I figure out how to learn it when I need to learn it.”Not in a thousand years is that a reason for rejecting anyone.  I’d be rejecting myself because I have my own share of dumbass statements.  I can still blush when I think of a few of them.  And, I also know that I’m doomed to make a few more of them before I wander off God’s green acre.  What first crossed my mind, though, was what my wife would say to that comment: “She needs a husband to occasionally straighten her out.”  That comes from years of my wife and I straightening each other out.  Yeah, I’ve been at a party where after one of my comments, I got rolled eyes from the better half and knew I’d overstepped the bounds.  She’d say I don’t roll my eyes at her when she screws up (far less than I), but I’d usually respond by quoting her and, in true Minnesota fashion, adding a questioning uplift at the end of the quote.  Both of Kagan’s conclusions are dead wrong.  She really doesn’t know what she doesn’t know (except maybe about some of the law), and often as not she won’t know how to learn what she needs to learn.  What Daniel Kahneman (the Nobel prize winner) and his sidekick, Amos Tversky, proved years ago is that experts tend to be remarkably overconfident about their abilities to make accurate predictions or quickly solve problems.  Chris Argyris also steps into that issue with his finding that the really smart people have more difficulty learning than the ordinary Joe or Jill like you and me.  (The summary of his research is found in Teaching Smart People to Learn.) On occasion, I remind clients about the vocation that has the best predictors.  You’ll probably never guess, but the answer is weather forecasters.  Why is that?  They’ve always got someone listening or watching them, and they get feedback on their predictions within a day or two.  That means they develop a realistic attitude toward their prediction, are always forced to learn, and are continually searching for better decision processes.  So, if weather forecasters have been proven to be the best predictors in study after study, what does that say about the rest of us?  A lot of humility is in order.So, lest there be any doubt, I say to hell with intuition and how well we think we know ourselves.  There’s a lot of nonsense in that notion, including what Ms. Kagan said about herself.  In his blog, Michael Schrage refers to this very astute statement from Gary Wolf’s, The Data-Driven Life: Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions. But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever. So, if you really want to check your intuition, there’s one very easy way to check its accuracy.  Every time you make an important decision, keep a record of what you expected when you made your major decision.  Then compare the actual results to your expectations, and consider what lessons you should learn.And, oh yeah, as I wrote earlier, don’t hold it against Elena Kagan.  It’s just an example of the inevitable and occasional shit you always get from great narcissistic leaders.  It’s perfectly normal stuff.A warning: The truth shall set your free, but first it may infuriate you.Michael Schrage’s blog: Tell Your Gut to Please Shut Up
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