Chapter 2 encourages us to say the three magic words, “I don’t know.” Most big problems in this world are “multidimensional cause-and-effect questions, which means their outcomes are both distant and nuanced. With complex issues it can be ridiculously hard to pin a particular cause on a given effect.” Don’t give too much credit to the guy who predicts something right, nor too much blame to the guy who predicts something wrong. Be willing to create experiments in your own life that give you feedback.
Chapter 3 goes on to say, not only do we not know the answer, but sometimes we also don’t even know the right question. They give the example of our educational system. Many people believe it to be broken, but is “What is wrong with our educational system” the right question? They say no: “a mountain of recent evidence suggests that…how much kids have learned from their parents, how much they work at home, and whether the parents have instilled an appetite for education” are far more important factors. So, the real question is how to get parents to do these things. If you want to solve a big problem, start by redefining the question.
The main premise of Chapter 4 is that even if you find out the right question, sometimes the “root causes are often not so nearby, or obvious, or palatable,” so politicians often spend billions of problems addressing the symptoms rather than admitting the root cause. For example, up until recently the stomach ulcer was thought to be caused by stress and spicy foods, and an $8 billion industry built up around treating the symptoms with antacids. But one researcher found bacteria in the stomach (where it was previously thought to be unable to live) and developed a cure for the “incurable” stomach ulcer. Because of this researcher’s breakthrough we now know that the “gut” is rich with bacteria that control many aspects of our health.
Chapter 5 is entitled “Think Like a Child”, and encourages us to have a childlike mentality when it comes to asking questions, have fun solving problems, and do not be afraid of the obvious. Children are “relentlessly curious and relatively unbiased”; strive to be like that. The authors go on to recommend sticking to small questions and trying to solve small problems: don’t try to solve worldwide poverty all by yourself. There’s already a ton of people way smarter and more powerful than you or me or the authors trying to do that. But maybe you can solve a small slice of an interconnected problem that will help incrementally in solving the big problem. Also have fun with what you’re doing. If it’s not fun for you, you probably won’t stick with it. Finally, don’t fear the obvious solution. People tend to want complex solutions to complex problems, but often the answer is simple. The book quotes a famous magician who says it’s much harder to fool children than adults with magic tricks. Why? Adults typically look for a more intricate explanation than the actual explanation. We overcomplicate. Children tend to look for the most obvious solution.
Chapter 6 tells us to “be a master of incentives.” So many incentives politicians think up backfire because they don’t think about the unintended consequences. The United Nations created an incentive program to pay Chinese and Indian companies to properly dispose of pollution. So what happened? Companies started purposefully creating pollution in order to get paid to destroy it. Further, people’s “declared [stated] preferences” often don’t match their “revealed [actual] preferences”. They found that very few people claim to be influenced by herd mentality / peer pressure / “what everyone else is doing”, but in many areas of life research shows that this is in fact the strongest incentive. If you’re trying to get someone to quit a particular behavior (say eating unhealthily), don’t talk about what a “big problem it is” because “so many people are doing it”. You will unintentionally create the wrong incentive.
In Chapter 7 the authors discuss a concept they call “Teach Your Garden to Weed Itself.” They use the company Zappos as an example of this. Zappos upon hiring call center employees offers them $2000 to quit right then and there. By doing this Zappos gets only the most dedicated employees, creating very little turnover, which in turn saves them the approximately $4000 it costs to find a new employee when one quits. In another example they discuss how the terribly written ALL CAPS emails you get from Nigeria asking you to send over your SSN and bank account information are actually genius (in a bad way). By making the e-mails so bad, they only end up hearing back from the most gullible people who most likely have never heard of the scam before. So rather than trying to temp your average person, who may wise up before the gig is up and cause them to spend countless hours for nothing, they only hit the people most likely to go all the way. That’s obviously a negative example, but the same principle can be used in many situations.
Chapter 8 is all about persuasion. They list three keys to persuasion: 1) don’t pretend your argument is perfect, 2) acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s argument, and 3) tell stories. People understand that the world is complex. If you act like your argument is completely airtight, you will turn them off even if they can’t see the flaws themselves. Similarly, if you act like your opponent’s argument has no merit, they will be personally offended, and it’s nearly impossible to persuade someone you’ve offended. Finally, by stories, they don’t mean anecdotes. Don’t tell the one story about the one guy you know who disproves the common logic. They’ll assume that’s just an outlier. Rather, tell the story of the data, backed by anecdotes that support the point you are trying to make.
Lastly, they encourage quitting in Chapter 9. We’re taught all our lives that “quitters never win, and winners never quit”, but often we need to quit projects to get on to bigger better ones. People are afraid of quitting because quitting is often admitting failure, but “failing cheap and failing fast” is a good thing. You’ve eliminated a solution and you can move on to the next thing that will perhaps be a winner.