Four Ways to Develop Learning Agility and Improve Perspective

There is a method to the way you learn, and it is personal to you.  If you’re not paying close attention, you won’t have thought about the assumptions you make and behavioral patterns you rely upon when you make decisions, think, and act.  Approximately 30 to 50% of executives experience some kind of executive or management derailment in the course of their careers.  Research suggests that this stagnation and underperformance can be attributed to a person’s failure to update his or her mental frameworks in the wake of new experience.

In other words, you can and should be learning from the breadth of your personal and professional experiences to develop systematic thinking.  Monique Valcour in Harvard Business Review describes this skill as “learning agility,” or “the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience.”

Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.

Develop a desire to improve

How do you develop learning agility?  Its foundation is a desire to improve through (1) the development of new skills and (2) succeeding in new situations.

Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from  challenging developmental experiences.

By finding internal value in the process of learning through new experiences, agile learners “don’t get defensive” and are more “willing to take risks.”  The benefit to this mindset becomes clear when you consider being confronted with a new, uncomfortable, scary experience.  Instead of fearing moving outside of their comfort zone or risking public critique through open discussion, an agile learner broadens experience and improves his or her mental toolkit by taking advantage of the opportunity to learn in a new environment.

Four Mental Tools You Can Use to Sharpen Your Learning Agility

There are discrete practical tools you can use to improve your ability to learn from experience in meaningful ways.

1.      Ask for feedback.

Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.

This practice depends on your mindset, and will not work if you cling to defensiveness.  Google’s Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership, David Peterson simplifies this into a retrievable motto: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”

The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.

2.     Test Out New Mental Models and Approaches

Expanding your mental toolkit requires you to test and retest different perspectives, models, and approaches.

To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” You can also conduct thought experiments, unearthing possibilities from trying out a different point of view. For example, one of my clients was concerned about leading the first team development offsite with her new team of highly talented country managers. With some reflection, she realized that she had gotten stuck in the perspective that in order to be seen as credible, she had to know more than they did. Since she was new, this was impossible. Holding on to that perspective would have caused her stress and undermined her credibility. By letting go of the assumption that she had to be the subject-matter expert and adopting the perspective that she could add greater value as a facilitator, she was able to design and carry out a meeting at which creative ideas flowed freely. The team, which had previously suffered from poor coordination, developed more collaborative relationships.

We all have biases in our decision-making, many of them hidden from our own view.  This is why developing a broad set of mental models is so important — they cause you to shift perspective and unroot hidden traps in your thinking.  Checking your assumptions and testing new approaches to familiar scenarios will allow you to explore effectiveness of these ideas.

3.     Understand cross-disciplinary connections

This is a key to reaping value from new experiences.  Studying and reading broadly provides you with little value if you do not let new ideas cross-pollenate and fertilize your other areas of knowledge.

Peterson has systematically applied principles he’s used to learn about wine to the domain of leadership development. Oenologists develop expertise by trying many different wines, comparing them, and discussing them with fellow experts. Borrowing these principles, Peterson realized that he could extend his mastery of leadership development by seeking out a wide variety of leaders to coach, comparing leaders to each other on various qualities, and discussing leaders with other experts.

You must have an area of expertise that on its face, has nothing to do with your profession.  But think harder and more deeply to see the connections.  How can you apply the lessons you learned during one area to the other.  This is one benefit of reading broadly across a wide variety of subjects – an understanding of seemingly unrelated areas of study will, upon reflection, turn into a network of mental models that help you approach and solve problems in new ways.

4.   Review and reflect.

To understand the lessons learned from new experience, you need to systematically reflect on those experiences.

A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly.  To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.

Make time to do this.  Put it on your calendar, and don’t let anything get in the way.  In my experience, review provides the most value if you do it regularly and purposefully.  My weekly reviews let me focus on details, tasks, and short-term goals.  Monthly reviews let me think about bigger lessons learned from projects and check progress towards annual goals. Quarterly and annual reviews let me take stock on my alignment with long-term and life goals.

Go and Seek out the New

Once you have built a desire for improvement and understand these practices, go and seek out new experiences, people, and information.  Valcour highlights the difference you can expect between career development and career stagnation by pointing to examples:

Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information. Two senior management professors I’ve encountered at academic conferences over the years exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum. Professor A has a voracious appetite for new ideas. Despite his lofty academic stature, he converses just as enthusiastically with graduate students and junior faculty from little-known universities as he does with fellow academic stars, and he collaborates with a wide variety of scholars. Well into his 70s, he’s vibrant, energetic, and recognized as an active leader in his research domain. Professor B, by contrast, shows little interest in scholars outside of his familiar circle of followers. His presentations generally rehash old ideas; it’s been a long time since he produced anything new. Although he made many important contributions earlier in his career, the low level of learning agility he exhibits now accompanies his fading reputation. He’s fallen into the exact career trap the CEO is seeking to avoid.

artwork: By Peter Pöml [CC BY-SA 1.0 (

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Thinking Through the Financial Risks of 2016

Essayist, scholar, statistician, risk analyst, and author of The Black Swan
and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers advice on investment decisions in 2016, via the WSJ:

Asking “How should we think about financial risks in 2016,” Taleb points to (1) increased stability in banking institutions; (2) declining values in asset categories in which low interest rates encouraged speculation; (3) potential negative impact of low commodity prices in certain sectors; (4) poor recognition of emergent physical risks such as epidemic; and (5) acute nonlinear risks associated with climate change:

First, worry less about the banking system. Financial institutions today are less fragile than they were a few years ago. This isn’t because they got better at understanding risk (they didn’t) but because, since 2009, banks have been shedding their exposures to extreme events. Hedge funds, which are much more adept at risk-taking, now function as reinsurers of sorts. Because hedge-fund owners have skin in the game, they are less prone to hiding risks than are bankers.

This isn’t to say that the financial system has healed: Monetary policy made itself ineffective with low interest rates, which were seen as a cure rather than a transitory painkiller. Zero interest rates turn monetary policy into a massive weapon that has no ammunition. There’s no evidence that “zero” interest rates are better than, say, 2% or 3%, as the Federal Reserve may be realizing.

I worry about asset values that have swelled in response to easy money. Low interest rates invite speculation in assets such as junk bonds, real estate and emerging market securities. The effect of tightening in 1994 was disproportionately felt with Italian, Mexican and Thai securities. The rule is: Investments with micro-Ponzi attributes (i.e., a need to borrow to repay) will be hit.

Taleb identifies risk in commodity prices and consequential effects in other energy sectors:

Dubai is more threatened by oil prices than Islamic State. Commodity people have been shouting, “We’ve hit bottom,” which leads me to believe that they still have inventory to liquidate. Long-term agricultural commodity prices might be threatened by improvement in the storage of solar energy, which could prompt some governments to cancel ethanol programs as a mandatory use of land for “clean” energy.

Most interesting to me was Taleb’s concern about areas of concern outside of the financial markets, specifically the physical risks of disease and climate change:

We also need to focus on risks in the physical world. Terrorism is a problem we’re managing, but epidemics such as Ebola are patently not. The most worrisome fact of 2015 was the reaction to the threat of Ebola, with the media confusing a multiplicative disease with an ordinary one and shaming people for overreacting. Cancer rates cannot quadruple from one month to the next; epidemics can. We are clearly unprepared to deal with such threats.

Finally, climate volatility will produce some nonlinear effects, and these will be compounded in our interconnected world, in which disruptions are more acute. The East Coast blackout of August 2003 was nothing compared with what may come.

photo:     Balon Greyjoy (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Make Better Resolutions by Understanding Your True Goals

With the turn of the calendar year, it’s resolution time for many people. The New Year feels like a clean slate, a world of opportunities, a chance for new successes that have eluded us.  An unknowable number of resolutions are made come January 1st, many of them falling into the familiar and repeated: to lose weight, to get more sleep, to eat more healthily, to exercise more, to spend less time at the office and more time with family.

Plan for Better Resolutions

Will you succeed?  The University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology reports that just a measly 8% of Americans are successful in making and implementing their annual resolutions. Why is this?  Presumably a person chooses a resolution that is important to her life, that she wants for herself, and which she believes would represent a positive change.  Why such a poor success rate?

1.     Know Your True Objectives

Buster Benson offers a mental framework to use to make and keep better resolutions.  Benson starts by encouraging us to know our true objectives. Success in sticking to your resolutions requires an understanding not only of what you think you want to change in your life, but why you want to make the change.  In other words, what is your real objective?

The traditional resolutions I listed above appear at face value to be positive changes.  Who doesn’t want to improve their health?  Who wouldn’t want a more fulfilling work-life relationship?  Who can argue with spending more time with family?  Standing in a vacuum, however, these resolutions are actions without objectives.  The objective is the “why” of the resolution.

In making your resolutions, spend some time thinking about your objectives.  If you have a practice of a weekly, monthly, or annual review, where you reflect on past performance and set future goals, you should already have a good sense of these.  Think about the objective behind the resolution.  If it is not a goal that you are committed to, that will fuel your days, weeks, and year, you’re probably not going to get very far with the resolution.  Picking resolutions that align with your goals is the task here.

2.     Understand your personal environment

Your life is like no one else’s.  Your familial, professional, physical, mental, emotional, financial, and geographic situations combine to form a unique environment in which you operate.  That environment will influence your ability to change or alter certain aspects of your life and routines.  Understanding your personal environment will provide you with a much greater insight into what resolutions you actually have a chance of sticking to.

This is the point that so much self-improvement and productivity systems literature ignores, as Benson adeptly notes:

This is why goal-achievement is so difficult to prescribe from afar. The goal-achievement self-help industry cannot create personalized instructions for them to grow in 7 billion different environments, and so the instructions often ignore the environmental conditions entirely saying simply:

  1. Take goal out of box
  2. Water at the goal every day for 21 days
  3. Make sure it doesn’t die
  4. Success!

Step 3 is usually left purposefully vague — just commit yourself, they say. Go ahead and throw out any how-to manuals that you have (including this one). Growing a goal requires that you put on your own gardening hat and gloves and pay attention to the soil that you and you alone have to work with.

Figure out the details, advantages, and hurdles of your environment.  If you are single, you will have distinct time advantages in your environment than someone with many small children in the house.  Note your work schedules, your family commitments, your responses to stress (eating? drinking alcohol? skipping the gym?), your commute time, and anything else that stands as a contour that you must navigate in your daily life.  Once you’ve done this, you might revisit your resolution choice.

Consider swapping your original resolution with one focused on changing the environmental condition that has the most potential to prevent the success of your original resolution.

As an example, two of my objectives this year are to increase the number of posts on this blog to at least three per week, and to read at least 100 books.  My personal environment includes family commitments to two young children, who wake up early and require a lot of attention during their waking hours.  I could have simply “resolved” to write and read more.  But this wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere, as it is conclusory and doesn’t detail an actionable step given my environment.  Thinking about the details of my life, a more focused resolution is to get up earlier.  So I’m going to try to move my wakeup time from 5:45AM to 5:00AM this year.  If I’m successful, that will give me nearly an entire hour additionally to myself in the morning, before the kids get up, to read and to write. Hopefully, it will give me more time to reach my objectives.

3.     Remember, review, and revisit your resolutions.

If you’re going to successfully make some change in routine or habit, you can’t rely on just blind memory to help.  You need to use tools and reminders to check in and remind yourself of your objectives.  First, you need to identify your goals for the year as part of a reflection and planning process.  Then, you need to revisit those goals on a regular basis.

Pick a review interval that makes sense for your life.  You might consider doing different types of reviews at different intervals.  For example, I start each day with a morning ritual that consists of a workout, a short journal entry making notes of opportunities and gratitudes (similar to this), a short mindfulness meditation, and a review of my to do list for the day.  On a weekly basis, I block out about two hours on my Friday afternoon for a weekly review, where I gather all loose information and to-dos from all the places they collect over the week, and review the status and to-dos for all projects, both personal and professional.  I check my progress against my goals for the week.  Then I set three goals for the following week.

I do the same thing on a monthly and annual basis on a higher level.  Monthly reviews allow for a review of goals and targets, including the resolutions and habit changes I’ve set for goals.  There’s no magic to this pattern, and you might find that a completely different review process works better for you.  You must make the time, whatever method you choose.   It is only through regular review of progress against goals that you will understand whether you are on or off course, and be able to identify any needed changes in course.

4.     The Point of Any Resolution Is to Increase Your Quality of Life

There is no secret universal blueprint for great resolutions that will work for everyone.  Remember that the point is to increase the amount of time in your life that you consider to be high quality.  That may be family time, it may be more time for yourself, it may be more time focused on a new project or business endeavor or hobby.  Whatever it is, spending the time to identify your goals and priorities will allow you to understand what it is that really makes you happy.  Once you know that, you’ll be able to think about discrete, meaningful changes you can make in life that will help you take small steps every day toward those goals.

Good luck!  Have a great 2016.

photo credit:Mike Peel ( [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Monty Hall Problem: Improve Your Predictions with Bayes’ Rule

We predict outcomes and infer conclusions based on information that comes to us many times each day.  Doctors call this diagnosis; financial planners call this investment advice; attorneys call this counsel; executives call this strategic planning.  Good decision-making requires that we use as accurate a baseline as the available data will allow.  If we operate in dynamic and shifting environments, however, probabilities and outcomes are in flux and will change as new events occur and new data becomes available.  Is there a responsible way for us to update our predictions with the availability of new data?

I should start with a very necessary caveat: I am not a mathematician.  I have never taken a statistics or probability course.  I often do work in the legal field, though, where making a probabilistic (even if imperfect) assessment of many potential outcomes in my cases is necessary to my advising clients.  Recently, I have begun to investigate whether there are lessons contained in the concrete world of mathematics and statistics that I might apply even to non-scientific questions.

Bayes’ Rule is one such lesson.  Bayes’ Rule is named after Rev. Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) and demonstrates how to update beliefs or predictions based on the occurrence of a new event or the availability of new data.  Here is the theorem in its mathematical form:


Defining terms, p(A) is the probability of event A occurring, and p(B) is the probability of event B occurring.  p(B|A) is the probability of event B occurring assuming that event A has occurred, while p(A|B) represents the probability that event A will occur assuming that event B has occurred.  What does this mean?  Bayes’ idea was to represent mathematical changes in the probability of an event based on conditions related to that event.  In other words, if a doctor is interested in determining whether a patient has cancer, and cancer is known to have some relationship to the age of a patient, Bayes’ rule sets out to predict the change in the probability that the patient has cancer if she is of a certain age.

Let’s look at another classic example, known as the Monty Hall Problem.  On the classic game show Let’s Make a Deal, host Monty Hall often gave contestants a chance to win a car by picking from one of three doors.  One door hid a car, the other two doors had no cars.  At this point, the contestant has a one in three chance to win.  Once the contestant picked a door, Hall opened one of the other two doors, but never a door with a car.  Hall then gave the contestant a final choice: stick with his original door or switch to the remaining door.  What is the right move for the contestant?  Bayes’ rule provides an answer that is not immediately obvious: the contestant actually doubles his chances to win by switching doors, from 33% to 66%.

How can this be?  The answer lies in updating our prediction based on new information.  Assume the contestant first picks Door 1.  He has a 33% chance that he has picked correctly.  There is a corresponding 67% chance that the car is behind Door 2 or Door 3.  Hall will then open Door 2 or 3, but will not open a door with a car behind it.  If Hall opens Door 2, the 66% chance lies entirely with Door 3.  The probability that the car is behind Door 1 is still 33%, but the probability that it lies behind Door 3 is doubled.  Switching is the smart move here.

Notice here how the increase in probability from the new information of Hall opening Door 2 comes only after the contestant has already picked Door 1.  Suppose instead, that the contestant was kept off stage, unaware of what Hall was doing onstage.  In this alternate scenario, before the contestant was invited to join the game, Hall opens Door 2 and shows the audience that no car lay behind it.  Hall then brings out the contestant and tells him he can win a car if he correctly guesses whether the car lies behind Door 1 or 3.  What are his odds?  In this scenario, he has a 50% chance of winning – his choice makes no difference.  His probability does not change because he has only one one data point – that the car is behind one of two doors, instead of the two data points in the other scenario – that the car is behind one of three doors, but not the door that Hall then opens.  It is in the cumulative collection of data over time that the wise contestant can observe a change in probability and leverage that to his advantage in the game.

This theorem has application beyond game shows, of course.  Consider a doctor who is called to see a sick child in a rural area without sophisticated diagnostic equipment. The doctor knows based on word of mouth that 90% of sick children in that neighborhood have the flu, while the other 10% are sick with measles.  Based on this, one would assume that there is a 90% chance that the child has the flu, and 10% chance that she has the measles.

Assume that the child also has a rash, which the doctor knows shows up in 95 percent of measles patients, but only 8% of flu patients.  Does this change the doctor’s assessment.  Is the chance that the girl has measles now 95%?

No.  The probabilities of these events influence one another and must be considered together.

Let F stand for an event of a child being sick with flu and M stand for an event of a child being sick with measles. Assume for simplicity that there no other maladies in that neighborhood.


Using the formula above, the probability of the girl having measles, given her rash, is equal to p(R|M)p(M) / (p(R|M)P(M) + p(R|F)p(F)), or .95 x .10 / (.95 x .10 + .08 x .90), or 0.57.  So the girl has a 57% chance of having measles, a far cry from the 95% likelihood that her rash might first suggest, but substantially more than the 10% chance predicted by the doctor’s initial data.

Stripped of the equations and technical analysis, the point here is a simple and elegant one: adjust your predictions based on new information.  Do not fall into the trap of an anchoring bias, the all-t00-human tendency to focus on one piece of information in making a decision.

Broadly viewed, Bayes’ rule will affect how you view and relate to new information in your life, and can change your decision-making process.  Our beliefs grow out of our experiences and the information we process day-to-day.  We should continue to test, update, and, if necessary, adjust our personal views?  Julia Galef makes a great case for this type of growth in this Big Think video that I’ll leave you with.

What Kind of Thinker Are You?

I love this piece from the Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchak and Elisa Steele on different modes of thinking within an organization.  Separating individuals on continuums of both focus and orientation, Bonchak and Steele propose that to be most effective, individuals should have thinking roles that complement or coordinate with their doing roles.

Depending on whether individuals orient themselves to “big picture” or “details,” and whether they focus on “ideas,” “process,” “action,” or “relationships,” the authors identify eight thinking personality archetypes.

When you know your thinking style, you know what naturally energizes you, why certain types of problems are challenging or boring, and what you can do to improve in areas that are important to reaching your goals.

Trying this exercise will provide some insight into your own methods of thinking.  Trying it with your team will hopefully allow you to gain a better understanding of each member’s role within your organization, and to refine those roles to enhance satisfaction and productivity.

Detecting Bias in Your Decision-Making

Warren Buffett is regarded as one of the most successful investors in history.  He and his partner, Charlie Munger, attribute a large part of the success of Berkshire Hathaway to the partnership’s ability to make investment decisions without the influence of cognitive bias that risk every human decision.

Whether it’s about investments, business strategy, political candidates, or personal matters, we all try to make good decisions. Unfortunately, emotion and bias is part of human psychology.  While we can’t eliminate bias completely, we can each develop our own toolkit for detecting and mitigating against those unhelpful mental quirks that can lead us down the wrong path if we’re not careful.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator has written a thoughtful essay describing an elegant but subtle method of detecting bias in the evaluation of applicant pools.  The interesting idea in Graham’s observation is that it allows third-parties to detect bias in an organization’s decision-making, even if that organization makes efforts to screen certain details of its process.

Graham suggests that bias can be detected whenever “(a) you have at least a random sample of the applicants that were selected, (b) their subsequent performance is measured, and (c) the groups of applicants you’re comparing have roughly equal distribution of ability.”  Graham explains that in these circumstances, bias can be measured by comparing the back-end success of different groups of applicants, even if you cannot view the applicant pool itself:

How does it work? Think about what it means to be biased. What it means for a selection process to be biased against applicants of type x is that it’s harder for them to make it through. Which means applicants of type x have to be better to get selected than applicants not of type x. Which means applicants of type x who do make it through the selection process will outperform other successful applicants. And if the performance of all the successful applicants is measured, you’ll know if they do.

Graham provides a helpful example of detecting gender bias in the venture capital world:

For example, many suspect that venture capital firms are biased against female founders. This would be easy to detect: among their portfolio companies, do startups with female founders outperform those without? A couple months ago, one VC firm (almost certainly unintentionally) published a study showing bias of this type. First Round Capital found that among its portfolio companies, startups with female founders outperformed those without by 63%.

Graham’s idea seems applicable to any process through which various individuals or opportunities are screened for participation or selection through some pre-defined criteria.  This could include hiring decisions, investment decisions, account or client decisions, or media or networking opportunities, just to name a few.  If you find that a certain group of applicants, or investments, or account type is outperforming the average of the total selected pool, you may have revealed some cognitive bias in your process disposed against the higher-performing group.

Improving decision-making requires a constant eye scanning your processes for places where bias might hide, and from which it might rise up to influence a decision.  Couple Graham’s idea with Shane Parrish’s The Work Required to Have an Opinion and Musashi’s tactics for understanding the strength and weakness in your position.

Musashi Miyamoto on Training to Proper Perspective

Are there ways to prepare for and deal with conflict that will allow you to maximize your chances for positive outcomes?  In both business and personal interactions, we often enjoy finding collaborative and cooperative resolutions to disputes.  Nonetheless, conflict is inevitable.  How do you respond in tense moments?  Do you find yourself overcome with anger, emotion, and anxiety?  Does your judgment cloud and your decision-making suffer?  Why are some people able to stay grounded, maintain a clear, calm view, and make good decisions in the midst of the most chaotic disputes?

Musashi Miyamoto explores this fundamental challenge in The Book of Five Rings.  Musashi was an expert Japanese swordsman and ronin who lived from 1584 to 1645.  After developing an unparalleled skill in swordsmanship and winning 60 duels, he developed the Niten-ryu school of swordsmanship and authored The Book of Five Rings.  On its face, the book is a technical manual of swordsmanship, but read more broadly, it is a masterful piece on strategy, tactics, and philosophy that is relevant today.

Musashi believes that victory in conflict is dependent upon the ability to perceive the entire adversarial situation from multiple perspectives.  By observing clearly the situation from your own point of view, your opponent’s point of view, and a neutral point of view, you place yourself in the best position to act with clear intent and with good judgment.

Statue of Musashi Miyamoto fighting against his rival Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi defeated Kojiro.

According to Musashi, success in battle begins with your own ability to maintain clear vision and perspective in difficult times.  Clear vision will allow you to clearly view your position, your opponent’s position, and where relative advantages may lie on your battlefield.  Musashi instructs:

Where you hold your sword depends on your relationship to the opponent, depends on the place, and must conform to the situation; wherever you hold it, the idea is to hold it so that it will be easy to kill the opponent.

Understanding your best position of advantage requires not only knowledge of your own potential attack, but also the place and the position of your opponent.  Musashi advises us to conceive of our attack in relation to the condition of the environment around us: “Position yourself with the sun at your back.”  In other words, advance your argument or your negotiating position only after you understand the external factors that may impact the correctness or effectiveness of that position is unwise.  This is sometimes easier said than done:

“Observation and perception are two separate things; the observing eye is stronger; the perceiving eye is weaker.  A specialty of martial arts is to see that which is far away closely and to see that which is nearby from a distance.”

Musashi’s lesson is that in every moment, we have blind spots.  In a dispute, we take positions and make arguments.  We believe that those positions and arguments are based on facts.  If our opponent disagrees, we conclude that it is because he or she has misunderstood the facts.  This may or may not be true; we cannot truly understand the strength of our position and the best path for attack unless we challenge ourselves to view our own perspective from afar and the distant perspective from up close.

Become the opponent.”

Good strategic decisions during conflict require an understanding not only of the strengths and weaknesses of your own position, but of your opponent’s position as well. Musashi advises, “The way to win in a battle…is to know the rhythms of the specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect.”  He continues to counsel, “Whenever opponents try to attack you, let them go ahead and do anything that is useless, while preventing them from doing anything useful.”  This is intuitive – to attack in ways that your opponent may not expect, and encourage your opponent to waste energy on fruitless efforts.  It will be impossible, however, to truly understand to succeed in that effort, until you fully understand your opponent’s position.  That takes study.

Shane Parrish, at Farnam Street, wrote a truly excellent piece called “The Work Required to Have an Opinion.”  In his piece, Parrish quotes Charlie Munger as saying, I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”  Munger’s comment echoes Musashi’s points on tactics.  You cannot have confidence in your position until you know its strengths and weaknesses.  This requires you to do the work to question your own position, to attack it, to test it, and to scrutinize it, just as your opponent will.  By doing this work, you will develop an understanding of the perspective of your opponent.  You will learn what your opponent likely believes his or her strengths to be, and what your opponent’s goals are.  From that effort, your own position and plan of strategy will become more clear.

Musashi provides nine specific suggestions for developing this complete strategic perspective:

  1. Think of what is right and true (i.e., check your assumptions).
  2. Practice and cultivate these methods (i.e., train).
  3. Become acquainted with the arts (i.e., learn a wide variety of techniques).
  4. Know the principles of all professions. (i.e., cross-disciplinary learning)
  5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything (i.e., cost-benefit analysis).
  6. Learn to see everything accurately.
  7. Become aware of what is not obvious (i.e., refine your techniques).
  8. Be careful even in small matters (i.e., details matter).
  9. Do not do anything useless.

The ultimate goal, according to Musashi, is to develop an unbiased mental framework, based on practice and repetition, that will allow you to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of all arguments at play in a dispute:

In the science of martial arts, the state of mind should remain the same as normal … let there be no change at all – with the mind open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so that there is no imbalance, calmly relax your mind, and savor this moment of ease thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relation for even an instant.

This flexible framework and detached perspective will allow you the best strategic opportunity to reach your goals, with a robust tactical toolbox.  Perhaps more than any other risk in conflict, Musashi warns of the dangers of inflexibility:  “Fixation is the way to death, fluidity is the way to life.”