Strong Opinions, Loosely Held

The truth is there even when we do not know it and cannot see it. But in order to find it, we must first accept that it is there, and in order to see that it is there we need to consider that maybe there is something that we do not know.


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The first time I recall hearing the saying “Strong Opinions, Loosely Held” was a few years ago. A friend of mine, lets call her Grace, was considering a move to a different job and had the opportunity to interview with one of the senior people in the company. This person had the reputation of being incredibly intelligent in terms of processing speed, world class in terms of their understanding of the financial numbers, and in possession of the narrowest emotional spectrum that it is possible. They were not an emotional void, but they had one emotion that was always on display.

My friends experience of the interview was extremely positive because she operates in effectively the same way. While he was more skilled with the numbers part of it, Grace was much more emotionally fluent. Both were very bright and capable of making very good decisions with limited amounts of information. But it was a job interview and there were question to be answered, and he ruthlessly asked them.

Facts are facts, and it was clear to him that some of the answers were only just scratching the surface of some critical things, so he re-asked them and made it clear that he knew there was a lot more going on that he needed to surface in order to make an informed decision. This was an inflection point for her, she could play it safe by answering the questions in a way that was politically harmless or she could answer them with the whole truth and see how the cards fell. She went the complete disclosure route because at the end of the day being politically safe creates a career that is essentially an act of subjugation in terms of what is viewed to be the best way to play the game “corporation.” There is very little chance that you will reach the top by playing safe and there is no chance that you will stay there if you then decide to fundamentally change how you play the game. The notion that once you become the top leader in the company you will suddenly be free to do righteous work is false because your reputation will stay with you and people will have a very difficult time trusting and being led by you because of the lack of consistency. People notice the lack of authenticity that these actions indicate.

So she answered with the truth and he liked it. The fact was that he knew the answers already because her actions had revealed the answers. You do not get to be remarkable by doing average things and the fact that she was sitting across from him was a statement as much about her achievements as it was about her dogmatic commitment to doing world class work in a way that makes things better as well as more profitable.

She wasn’t sure if it was a test to see if she was self-aware enough to understand why she took the actions she did or if she was secure enough with her decision making process to say it out loud, or if it was for some other reason entirely. All she knew was that there wasn’t a political cost to answering completely and that there would have been if she had continued to keep things purely surface level.

It was a great conversation, a fantastic interview, and she left it feeling very good about everything she had done from the start of her career to that moment. As they shook hands he left her with a final thought – “always have have strong opinions that are loosely held” – and that was that.

When she shared this with me I was a little taken back. I consider myself to be fairly righteous and practically obsessed with the truth. Playing politics isn’t one of my strong traits and, in general, I’m going be honest even when lying would seem to benefit me more in the long run. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts. Facts do not belong to people, they are not dictated by the most powerful or the winners of wars in spite of the tendency for a lot of history to be captured this way. Facts are independent, completely objective, and unchanging. If my upward mobility within a company is hurt by my expression of the truth, I will free up my own future and move on to somewhere else. It is easier to be authentic than to try and be what you think other people are looking for, and you will be so much better at it.

Consider how doing the opposite will manifest itself. It leads to a person being remarkably thin skinned because they do not have a solid foundation of belief. They will be highly sensitive to criticism and will come across as dogmatically committed to maintaining their point of view. There will be a noticeable incongruence in their efforts to try to bend the world to conform to their perceived needs and wants while maintaining their reality distortion field at all costs. This makes things harder for other people because they will not share the same reality.

It wasn’t her being completely truthful that put me on my heals, it was that he wanted to hear the truth and was willing to keep asking until he got it as opposed to just accepting the first answer and moving on. It was also shocking that he gave her some parting advice, advice which is remarkably good leadership advice.

There is no denying that he is very effective at the job he was doing, which is why she got to meet with him. He has a reputation of seeing through BS and fearlessly going after the truth because it is the only way the company is going to know what actions need to be taken and in what direction it needs to go. Being honest IS an act of kindness, even when it leaves people feeling bad. It makes sense that someone who has no diversity of emotion would approach life like this.

He knew her numbers before she walked into the room and that is the ONLY reason why the meeting ever took place – if her numbers were average or the result of anything other than the beautiful marriage of pragmatism and talent there would have been no meeting. His job was to know who the top talent was in terms of generating results and then to find out if they had the self-awareness to actually know what was going on. Her safe answer, when paired with her results, indicate that she gets it. But that would not be enough if playing it safe was a habit and not a tactic used when needed. By pressing the issue, he forced her to size him up, make a decision and then commit to it.

He is at a distinct advantage when it comes to processing information, as is anyone who doesn’t get wrapped around the axle with negative emotion or the fear of looking bad. The truth is just the truth when all is said and done. It isn’t good or bad so long as it is accepted, processed, and factored into decision making. The moment it is ignored, withheld, or denied, it morphs into something very different; generally it becomes a weapon that is used to inflict harm upon the person who is not accepting it although it may not initially appear that way.

I believe that this was a key part of the wisdom he was trying to impart to her at the end of the meeting when he referenced strong opinions being loosely held, and particularly when you are a leader of other people.

It is the essence of pragmatic leadership, both in terms of leading others and in leading yourself. You need to be sure of yourself, confident that what you know is true, and based on enough evidence that allows it to be a strong foundation on which to base all of the related decisions. But it cannot be so firmly rooted within your mind as to be unchanging, even in the face of absolute proof that isn’t correct. Leaders are right in their views and their actions. This means that when their views are shown to be incorrect, they act correctly and change them.

Life is very complicated, things are much more complicated than they seem at first glance and the more we learn about something, the more complicated it gets and the less we seem to know about it. Of course it just seems that way. The more we learn the more we know regardless of how this newly acquired information expands the map of what there is to know. The truth is there even when we do not know it and cannot see it. But in order to find it, we must first accept that it is there, and in order to see that it is there we need to consider that maybe there is something that we do not know.

This can be very hard for a lot of people. Not knowing is a very different experience than knowing with certainty. Knowing and not knowing are not the opposite of one another, not knowing is way bigger than knowing. The magnitude of the emotional of not knowing is disproportionately larger than the positive emotional experience of knowing with certainty. If knowing is a +1, not knowing would be a -10. The third option, of not knowing that there is something to know, therefore something that you do not know, is for all experiential purposes, neutral. It is not a quantity of something that can be either positive or negative, it is so much less than that. It is, in essence, nothing at all.

If knowledge was a house and specific subjects were rooms, “knowing” would be an open door leading into a room that was filled, “not knowing” would be an open door leading into a room that was empty. Not knowing that there is something to know would be a secret room that was empty and behind a perfectly finished wall. There’s no way in, but that doesn’t matter, because you have no awareness that there is somewhere to go into that you cannot go into.

The process of knowledge acquisition is the linear movement from “not knowing there is something to know” to “not knowing that which we know can be known” to “knowing that which we know can be known.” The transition between the first and second step is the creation of a door in the perfectly finished wall that leads into the empty room. Making this door requires effort and it moves a person from a neutral state to a negative state, a state that will remain until they learn the information, which is a positive state. This shifting of psychological states, from neutral to negative and from negative to positive, is what forms the narrative framework of an disincentive / incentive model to opening one’s self up to new information and then learning this information.

Logically we can understand the truth of the statement that ignorance is bliss. Being completely clueless is a lot less painful than knowing that we do not know. Even when a person enters the knowing state, the positive emotion is only temporary given the evolving nature of things and the almost complete certainty that they do not know everything about the subject.

All of this is to say that we need to be willing to endure the negative that is associated with not knowing if we are to ever learn something. This fact doesn’t matter to young people (those younger than six or seven) because their relationship with emotions that have a negative or positively valence is not very refined. They are not inhibited by the notion of having to admit that they do not know something because they have spend all of their life not knowing things and are remarkably tolerant to the sensations associated with it. But this changes as they learn more about costs of not knowing and the benefits of knowing. In fact, their relationship to these things is conditioned to be as large or as small as it is through social learning and the systems of reward and punishment that their caregivers and teachers use.

Of course, the person running the interview was not concerned with the facts of all of this. They were concerned only with the outcome, and with particular reference to my friends ability to remain open to the reality that accepting that they do not know something is painful and a critical step in moving forward. They need to act with decisiveness fueled by what they know, but remain willing to endure whatever negative comes from accepting that there is something that they do not know because there is always something that they do not know. Once they accept that there is something that they need to learn, they should do whatever is needed to gather this information, learn it, adjust their opinion and quickly get back to making good decisions based on knowing the truth.

Consider the counter positions of “strong opinions, loosely held” as a matrix of four squares – the combinations are “strong opinions, loosely held,” “strong opinions, tightly held,” “weak opinions, loosely held,” and “weak opinions, strongly held” – and the unworkable of these other options will be evident.

Those who hold opinions tightly will not learn from their own experience or from the experiences of other people. They will be impervious to the truth and everything that occurs will either be aligned with their point of view or simply be wrong and of no significance or value. Their knowledge will become dated very quickly and they will remain locked in the past, at the very moment in which their opinion was solidified and they became completely rigid. The only win in this situation is when the person is actually correct, in which case the holder of a strong opinion will direct the decisions to the correct end. The holder of a tightly held weak opinion will not present the opinion with enough force to overcome the resistance of others, rending what they know to be of no significance. In fact, this person is effectively useless to the team as the only time their decisions matter is when no one else has an opinion and they actually have the correct answer.

Someone who holds weak opinions, loosely will be viewed as lacking maturity and the experience that is required to more forcefully engage the world. This is kind of how we want young people to act, to have ideas about the world and the openness to accept new information and to allow it to update their world view very quickly. While they cannot be counted on to forcefully state their point of view, they will not drain other people with the requirement to be proven wrong before they are open to education / information.

There are two main types of people who find themselves in the middle leadership ranks of a company, those with strong opinions that are tightly held and those with strong opinions that are loosely held, because these people tend to be more vocal or forceful than everyone else, which is often taken as a sign of certainty. They are not the same leaders though. The tightly held leader will always be right, even when they are wrong, and they will rely on their forcefulness to dominate others with their opinion. When they are correct, this is fine, it can be a little unpleasant but right is right. When they are incorrect, things go off the rails as they hammer on others in an effort to break them down and get them to conform to their will. They will fight everything that they do not agree with and will take steps to sabotage others to make sure the movement forward is what they recommend. Wrong is wrong though, and since they won’t learn from it, everyone else will be at fault. Good people will disengage and the top talent will move on to different opportunities. The aim of strong opinion tightly held leaders is to control other people.

The strong opinion loosely held leader will show up in very much the same way as their tightly held counterpart, except they will be more collaborative when it comes to solving problems and planning actions. When things are happening that do not make sense their first impulse will be that there is some information that they are missing and NOT that someone else is wrong. This is fundamentally different because it allows for other opinions to exist and for the temporary existences of parallel truths. It is based on the assumption that people have the opinions their information supports so when two people differ, person A needs to know what person B knows and person B needs to know what person A knows. The moment this information is shared, both parties advance their understanding and the appropriate solution will be uncovered. The aim of strong opinion loosely held is mutual improvement and the cultivation of a shared understanding that is an accurate representation of the truth.

At the upper levels, the strong opinion tightly held leaders will all but disappear, having removed themselves from consideration due to their lack of collaboration with others and their inability to admit to and learn from their mistakes. This can make a little bit of room for weak opinion loosely held people; people who are naturally this way or through the conversion of strong opinion loosely held into weak opinion loosely held. Regardless of which, the reason is the same, people need leaders who will learn from their mistakes and from other people, and who have the humility to accept that they cannot know everything about the company. They will need to defer to the experts on their team and should not do anything that will alter the messaging from these experts. Being very aware of the impact their title can have on the members of the team will reduce the impact they have on the strategies and tactic used to accomplish achieve their vision. This cannot happen when a leader has strong opinions but is incapable of learning, of keeping their mouth shut, or of allowing what they view as wrong to occur.

The advice he gave was not specific to any role Grace might have been considering, nor was it a warning about how she was operating. It was just general advice for someone who is intelligent, highly talented, and very effective at generating positive results. These things can easily go to someones head leading to a false certainty about all of their decision making and lead to them deliberately surrounding themselves with sycophants.

Strong opinions, loosely held is good advice for everyone.

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