People Who Change Their Opinion "Too Much" Are More Likely To Succeed, According To Research
Staking out an opinion and holding on to it no matter what is celebrated—so much so that it has its own slogans:
“Stay the course.”
“Defy the critics.”
“Prove them wrong.”
Conversely, individuals who share a nuanced opinion and then later change it are often criticized:
“You have no backbone.”
“You’re a flip-flopper.”
“You’re playing both sides.”
“Don’t be wishy-washy. No one wants equivocation.”
This dichotomy has always been hard for me.
Therefore, I felt like something was wrong with me growing up.
Why don’t I have strong beliefs that I fight for like everyone else?
On the one hand, I didn’t understand how other people could have such strong opinions while I was constantly changing mine. On the other hand, it didn’t make sense to stand so strongly behind any one opinion if I knew that I would likely find holes in it later on as I learned more.
For example, I remember the first debate I participated in at elementary school. The idea of staking out one side and only looking for the pros of my side and the cons of the other side felt really odd. I didn’t see how being close-minded would help anyone become more open-minded. But, I didn’t have the where-with-all to explain dissonance at the time.
I thought that if I kept learning about the world, I would eventually find an issue that I could confidently claim forever. But as I learned more, I became more and more unsure. Certainty felt like a mirage that I would chase but never catch.
As I got older, I continued to feel this inadequacy.
Many successful media personalities had strong opinions they became known for and defended. I wasn’t sure that I could stand out without copying that approach and being purposefully controversial.
Also, as I started to understand politics more, I noticed that seeing both sides without taking a side was often looked down upon. At times it was even considered unpatriotic. The message was clear…
You’re either with us or against us.
For example, I’ve often felt odd seeing friends post on social media on a polarizing topic and say…
If you don’t agree with me on issue [x], then unfriend me.
Fortunately, I started to feel differently when…
I Studied Patterns Of Great Leaders, Innovators, And Creatives Throughout Time
Again and again, I saw that many top performers had turned this perceived “weakness” of wish-washiness into a strength. This made me feel less alone.
For example, the scientific method is in large part based on the idea that all theories are fallible and that we progress when we actively:
Search for anomalous data that disproves existing theories
Come up with more expansive theories that also explain the counter-evidence
I also came across fascinating, in-depth research studies that independently came to the same conclusion. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, business professor Roger Martin, researcher and author Jim Collins, luminary investor Ray Dalio, and developmental psychologist Robert Kegan all found that top performers have more “Integrative Complexity”—the ability to see and synthesize more perspectives, particularly ones that are polarized. I wrote about this in Studies Show That People Who Have High “Integrative Complexity” Are More Likely To Be Successful.
As I embraced this strength, I shifted from being passively open-minded to being actively open-minded. In other words, I started actively looking for surprises, paradoxes, counterintuitives, and counter-arguments that would force me to reconsider my most deeply held beliefs. As I did this more and more, I started to see Perspectiving as a skill that could be developed rather than just a trait we’re born with.
But, before we jump into the skill of Perspectiving, it’s essential to recap…
Why Perspectiving Is Central To Thought Leadership
In my last article, I made two big points:
The core asset that a thought leader builds over their career is Trademark Ideas
One of the most effective and proven ways to become an idea machine is via the skill of Perspectiving, which is collecting and synthesizing different perspectives
Let me illustrate visually. Let’s say you have one person who looks at an object from one perspective and sees a circle:
Next, let’s say you have another person who looks at the same object and sees a square:
Unfortunately, in many cases, these two individuals fight over who is right and who is wrong.
Thought leaders are different.
They synthesize the two perspectives.
As a result, they observe a higher-level object, a cylinder, which is invisible to the other two perspectives.
Not only that, the thought leader realizes that all of the perspectives have some truth in them:
It’s just that some truths include more of reality.
This simple example illustrates what a thought leader does compared to pundits:
A thought leader synthesizes different perspectives in order to see an emergent idea that is rare and valuable.
A pundit provides a take and does everything they can to defend it.
This difference between the two is a big deal...
Why We Need More Thought Leaders
By having more perspectives, thought leaders:
Gain the ability to have more open and diverse networks because they can empathize with more types of people. According to eight studies by network scientist Ron Burt, having an open network is the #1 predictor of career success.
Create more value by seeing emergent ideas that others can’t and then sharing them with others.
Avoid conflict by seeing the truth in different perspectives. This is becoming more and more important as polarization is increasing at each level of society, not just politics.
Experience reality in an increasingly awe-inspiring, holistic way. Ideas aren’t just cognitive. They allow us to experience and talk about more of reality. To hear and play more musical notes in the symphony of life. To have more colors in a palette.
Now that we understand a little more about the role of Perspectiving in the thought leadership journey, let’s go a level deeper on understanding it so that you can become better at it.
To do this, I provide you with a deeper understanding of how Perspectiving evolves throughout our lives…
The Stages Of Perspectiving In The Life Cycle
20th-century psychologist Jean Piaget famously studied childhood development and discovered that children go through predictable stages of cognitive development:
These stages are ALWAYS in the same order because they each build upon each other in the same way that understanding math operators (multiplication / division / addition / subtraction) builds on understanding numbers, and understanding algebra builds on understanding operators.
The table below explains each of the stages of childhood development in a little more detail:
The four videos below provide even more granularity on specific developmental changes:
Second person perspective
These changes are important to understand because they help shine a light on how our perspective impacts what we see and don’t see, our logic, and our morality.
What I invite you to keep in mind as you watch these short clips is that we as adults make the same sorts of mistakes. And that some adults are better at seeing higher-level perspectives that are not obvious to the average adult. More on this later in the article.
#1. Object permanence
Summary: In this video, we see how when a child can’t physically see something, in their mind, it disappears. It doesn’t yet have object permanence where they assume it exists even if they can’t see it or see all of it.
Takeaway: As adults, our sense of object constancy can start to become an obstacle. For example, other people aren’t constantly changing. Our longtime friends and family are always evolving on many levels. But, it can be easy to assume that someone is the same as they have always been. The same can be true of facts constantly changing.
#2. Conservation tasks
Summary: In this video, the child confuses the width of the stack of quarters with the quantity.
Takeaway: I found this video interesting because the child was easily able to correct the error by taking a different perspective on counting the coins rather than going with their intuition. Similarly, we adults have many biases that cause us to make predictable errors. Buster Benson created an amazing visual that captures the sheer magnitude of these biases.
Summary: In this video, the child judges the fair division of graham crackers among friends based on the quantity of graham crackers rather with the volume. Thus, she thinks it’s fair that one friend gets more graham crackers if they’re split into an equal quantity.
Takeaway: Our perspectives don’t just influence our perceptions. They influence our sense of morality. Therefore, as we evolve developmentally, so too does our sense of fairness. This causes one to think of fairness as something more fluid throughout one’s life.
#4. Second-person perspective
Summary: This child has difficulty taking a second-person perspective and understanding what the other person is seeing.
Takeaway: Culturally, most adults are good at seeing second and third-person perspectives. That is, unless they are triggered by someone. In that case, we often revert back to the first-person perspective and have trouble taking the other person’s perspective. Adults who develop their Perspectiving can start to see more in 4th, 5th, and beyond perspectives (more on this below).
Adult Perspective Is More Similar To Child Perspectives Than You Might Think
For many years when I used to watch videos like this, I thought it was kids making silly mistakes that adults don’t. I thought that we adults had figured out everything there is to understand with perspective.
Societally, we used to think this too—that kids go through stages of development and then freeze as adults:
This understanding was later turned on its head by the adult development field, where longitudinal studies showed that similar to children, adults go through a series of universal and predictable phases of development as shown in the model below, created by Robert Kegan…
A whole cadre of other researchers have shown how our different parts develop over time:
Identity Development (Terri O’Fallon, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Jane Loevinger)
Psychosocial (Daniel Levinson, Erik Erickson, Sigmund Freud)
Faith (James Fowler)
Morality (Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan)
Worldview (Don Beck, Christopher Cowan, Clare W. Graves, Jean Gebser)
Universal (Michael Commons)
Skills (Theo Dawson, Kurt Fischer)
What this means is that in every area of life, we have a limited perspective. And some people have developed an ability to have more perspectives and cancel out errors that more limited perspectives aren’t able to reveal.
We Can See Past Three Perspectives As We Evolve
Culturally, we are only taught and mostly think from three points of view.
Or, shown from the perspective of a computer game:
But, Harvard-trained adult development researcher Susanne Cook-Greuter shows that the perspectives we can take go much deeper. In her research, which is a synthesis of 10,000+ developmental assessments, she shows how we can take more perspectives as we develop…
Also, it’s interesting to note that as we take perspectives that are less common, there are often no words to describe some of these new perspectives.
For example, we have pronouns like I, you, and we/us for different perspectives, but not widely known words for 4th and 5th person perspectives.
Recap: So far we’ve talked about how:
Perspectiving is important for thought leaders
It is a skill that can be developed
Our perspectives evolve as we grow developmentally as children
One major implication that we can take away that isn’t widely considered is that one of the best ways to become a better thought leader is to grow developmentally in order to gain more perspectives.
In other words, being a successful thought leader isn’t just about growing horizontally. It’s about growing vertically…
How To: Here’s How Growing Developmentally Can Help You Become A Better Thought Leader (Paid Subscribers)
As we evolve, development researchers have tracked that people generally start to perceive the world differently. For example…
The meaning of words evolves.
Determining what is a problem and what isn’t changes based on perspective.
Cons turn into pros and pros turn into cons.
New objects of perception emerge as you evolve.
Certain objects lose relevance, meaning, or value as we evolve.
In each of these five sections, I provide you with a takeaway you can use to improve your thought leadership…