Think for Yourself: Mindfully Manage Focus

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Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. Copyright 2020 Vikram Mansharamani. All rights reserved.

You may not realize it, but you’ve lost your mind. We all have. In fact, we lose our minds all the time, often several times a day. We do this when we blindly outsource our thinking to technologies, experts, and rules.

The domains in which this occurs vary from everyday decisions such as what we buy (recommendations related to our prior purchases) to the life- or- death choices we make about our health (advice given by medical professionals). Stop and think about the last few decisions you made: Why did you make them? Is it possible that you were influenced by technologies, experts, or rules?

Perhaps your doctor notes your high cholesterol levels suggest you should begin taking a statin. She highlights almost every cardiologist she knows is taking a statin, as its effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated in lots of research. She’s younger than you are and shares that she herself recently started taking a statin. Do you begin taking the medication?

What about when you’re driving to a new destination? Your navigation app suggests you take a route that, on first glance, seems counterintuitive. Even though schools were closed due to an overnight snowstorm, the electronic map shows lots of traffic near the elementary school and your app suggests a longer, more circuitous course which it claims will be faster. Do you follow its recommended path?

Or what about when you log in to your retirement savings account and it asks you a handful of questions before recommending you update your asset allocation? It notes that your risk profile (as determined by your answers to a few questions) indicates you should have a higher allocation to equities. But the markets have recently run up a fair amount, and financial market commentators have been highlighting the risk of a correction. Do you change your investment strategy?

In each of these situations, you’re being asked to defer to the advice of an expert or a technology. In some cases it’s overt. In others, it’s less obvious and subtle. To a certain extent in all of these cases, however, you’re outsourcing your thinking.  You’re letting someone or something else guide you.

Managing the influence of experts and technologies on our thinking is one of the most important and vexing challenges of our time. Navigating the complexity of modern life is daunting. But we have been increasingly conditioned to defer our decision making to experts, technology, and rules.

Experts and technologies are useful— indeed essential— but it is the mindless and blind outsourcing to them that must be guarded against, that generates unnecessary risks to our well- being, and that limits opportunities to realize our true potential.

Focus Managers

One of the most critical practices we can adopt in thinking for ourselves is to become aware of the focus managers that constantly exert their influence upon our lives. Who is framing our decision choices? What options may be left in the shadows of the spotlight’s others are shining on our behalf? We need to mindfully manage where our focus is channeled and the topics that merit our attention.

The fundamental problem with employing help to make decisions— regardless of whether it is from focused experts, algorithms embedded in technology, or bureaucratic rules—is that we tend to mindlessly adhere to the guidance of these focus managers. This is a subtle and often hidden way through which we stop thinking for ourselves. Managing focus is a critical role that should be done with intention and full awareness of the constraints facing those upon whom you may be dependent.

Imagine you find yourself on the street in the pitch black and completely lost. Along come experts and technologies wielding a much-needed flashlight, but a light that only they operate. By looking at the spots where they shine the light, we gain a view of the terrain and may even find our way. But by controlling the spotlight, they’re controlling where we focus— which is not by itself bad. It has the potential to mislead, however, if we blindly assume the spotlight is shining in the optimal spot.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Are you focused on the right topics?
    Think about your focus and how technologies and experts may be influencing where you pay attention. Is where you focus actually an expression of your interests?
  2. What might you see if you moved the spotlight elsewhere?
    Are there options to consider beyond the ones you’ve been offered? Remember that attention is limited and the very act of focusing is also an act of filtering and ignoring. Use caution to not filter out the most useful potential options.
  3. What is it that experts and technologies do not (or cannot) know about the context that may change your focus?
    Recall that experts and technologies, by nature, are only looking within their area of focus and fail to see the complete picture that you are facing. How might these constraints bias their well-intentioned guidance?
  4. Do you have the right level of zoom?
    Often our level of zoom may not reflect the optimal degree of focus. Consider zooming out to see a bigger view, and then determine the correct level of analysis to help you address the challenge at hand.

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