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How to Restore Common Sense During These Troubling Times

In an age where expertise is lauded and generalization looked down upon, author Vikram Mansharamani challenges us to see the bigger picture.

Photo by Ekaterina Z. via Unsplash

In these overwhelming and uncertain times, thinking for yourself has never been more important. While this may sound like pretty obvious advice, in actuality, it’s not as simple as it seems. In his latest book, Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence, author and Harvard lecturer Vikram Mansharamani argues that we’ve fallen victim to acute tunnel vision due to the specialization and siloization of society. Today’s deluge of data and choices lead us to believe the “perfect” choice is out there, while polarized media reinforces prevailing echo chambers, and, in turn, we’ve outsourced our thinking to rules and protocols, experts and technology—a potentially dangerous path when done so blindly.

Mansharamani’s book—part compelling case study, part indispensable guide—quickly tears down many of the preconceived notions around how we think and the choices we make. From health and wellness to business and investments, society has become overly reliant on the advice of experts, algorithms and narrow task-oriented approaches—outsourcing too much of our thinking and relinquishing our autonomy. In other words, basic common sense has flown out the window.

In an age where expertise is lauded and generalization looked down upon, Mansharamani challenges us to see the bigger picture and highlights how balancing depth with breadth is ultimately a win-win for us all.

“Life in the 21st century is not about eliminating our dependence on those with deep and narrow expertise. That’s simply unrealistic,” Mansharamani writes. “But we can balance that depth with breadth of perspective that understands the limitations of expert guidance. That means using experts and technologies strategically. They may have a narrow focus, but we can combine their guidance with our broad perspective. What may make sense from their perspective may not be best for our ultimate objectives.”

“Outsourcing decisions is not itself a problem, it’s the automatic, unconscious default of doing so without thought that concerns me,” he adds.

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Broken down into four easily digestible parts, Think for Yourself begins by providing context on how we lost control—explaining how and why we have landed in our current predicament. Technological advancements and scientific progress have created a never-ending stream of information and choices, ever-increasing expectations and a fear of missing out—thus, we’ve come to rely on experts, technology and rules to make “optimal” decisions.  Mansharamani then moves on to explore the ramifications of these developments.

“In the course of our now-habituated blind obedience to the people, technology and systems, we’ve developed a learned dependency on them,” he states. “Our intellectual self-reliance skills have withered.”

The second half of the book explores how to reclaim your autonomy and what the path forward should look like.

First, ask questions. Not only is this one of the easiest and best ways to regain command, but it is also a critical skill and capability that we should all develop. Blind obedience to expertise has become a default condition, but experts can’t see the full picture, especially when it comes to you—only you have that specific perspective. So, don’t’ be afraid to question authority; in fact, it can save lives. Mansharamani’s book is filled with anecdotes and studies about how blind obedience can lead people astray, while asking questions and bucking authority can save lives. Of course, disobedience for the sake of disobedience is not the answer, but integrated thinking and being cognizant of experts’ limitations often leads to better choices and outcomes.

Managing our focus and becoming aware of how others manipulate our focus is another key lesson. Don’t get so focused on the issue at hand that you lose sight of the bigger picture. “We need to mindfully manage where our focus is channeled and topics that merit our attention,” Mansharamani writes. By maintaining a mission-oriented state-of-mind, keeping our attention on our objective and not getting distracted, we can learn to think independently and reach our goals.

Of course, expertise is unavoidable in this day and age, but we can’t outsource all of our problems. “Keep experts on tap, not on top,” Mansharamani repeats throughout the book. Every perspective is biased and incomplete, so triangulating multiple perspectives and being able to connect the dots is not only invaluable but crucial.

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“Self-reliance in the 21st century is not about doing everything by yourself; it’s about staying in charge and tapping into expertise as and when needed, always mindful of the limitations of the guidance you receive,” the author concludes. “But it’s also about learning to navigate the omnipresent uncertainty by imagining multiple futures and balancing breadth with depth. Embracing ambiguity and ignorance as positives, it turns out, can help us identify unique opportunities. Ultimately, restoring common sense requires we think for ourselves.”

Interested in learning more about Mansharamani’s book? Check out our conversation between the author and Techonomy founder and editor-in-chief David Kirkpatrick below.

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