Ambition vs. aspiration with philosopher Agnes Callard (Transcript)

ReThinking with Adam Grant
Ambition vs. aspiration with philosopher Agnes Callard
June 13, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is Agnes Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago. She's known for hosting public debates on anything and everything and has a podcast, Minds Almost Meeting, with economist Robin Hansen. Agnes was recently profiled in the New Yorker for her radical openness to rethinking her life.

I'm especially fascinated by her work on ambition versus aspiration, which challenges how many of us think about our goals. We're gonna do a deep dive into what drives us, but don't worry, we’re also gonna talk about board games.

I've been fascinated by your work for a long time and I, I would love to start by asking how you became a philosopher.

[00:00:59] Agnes Callard:
I was a high school debater and in order to try to improve my pretty abysmal track record of mostly losing every debate I was in, I did a summer program of, like, high school debate training, and there I learned there was such a thing called philosophy. And I found it very exciting and I thought maybe if I put some of this into my speeches, I'll start winning debates.

So I went to Barnes and Noble and I got one of each book from the philosophy shelf. It did not lead to my success in debate. I continue to lose. But that was my first introduction to philosophy. I wasn't a philosophy major as an undergraduate in college. I went to classics graduate school, to Greek and Latin, and then I ended up switching at some point to philosophy already in my graduate career.

[00:01:50] Adam Grant:
Were you disappointed that studying philosophy did not improve your debate skills?

[00:01:55] Agnes Callard:
I felt it did improve my skills. It just didn't improve my success. I thought I was winning. I was just not considered by the judges to be winning. So I didn't feel there was much I could do to persuade the outside world that I had produced the better argument, but I did in fact think my arguments had gotten better.

[00:02:12] Adam Grant:
Well, I quite enjoy all the philosophy you intersperse into your arguments, so —

[00:02:16] Agnes Callard:
I've, I've improved at it.

[00:02:17] Adam Grant:
Either you've improved or you found your audience. I'm not sure which.

[00:02:20] Agnes Callard:
Maybe both.

[00:02:21] Adam Grant:
Maybe both. So, when did you first start thinking about ambition as a topic?

[00:02:24] Agnes Callard:
Well, I thought about it because I was trying to get clear on aspiration, and whenever you think about any new concept, you look at what's close to it to try to distinguish it from its sibling concepts.

[00:02:42] Adam Grant:
Walk us through the distinction between ambition and aspiration.

[00:02:45] Agnes Callard:
Both ambition and aspiration can fuel big changes in your life, or at least changes that are gonna look big to the people around you. In the case of ambition, an example might be wanting to get a certain kind of high-powered job or wanting to make a lot of money, or wanting to impress a certain group of people. You can know in advance before you've even got through with the process what you're gonna get out of it at the end.

So it's a big change in your life that doesn't involve requiring yourself, over the course of the process of the change, to come to learn to appreciate the values you're gonna get at the end of the change. You don't have those values yet, but you think you already know why you want them.

In the case of aspiration, aspiration is the much weirder thing. It's where you want to appreciate a certain kind of music, or you want to see the world the way that a doctor does and care for patients the way a doctor does. But you don't know what that is like. You don't know what's good about it, and you don't have the distinctive vision of value that you will have at the end of that process.

And so you're not just trying to get the satisfaction of your desires, you're actually trying to get the desires themselves. You're trying to learn how to want the things that that sort of person wants.

[00:03:59] Adam Grant:
Agnes, I'm tempted to link intrinsic motivation with aspiration and extrinsic motivation with ambition. Is that fair?

[00:04:07] Agnes Callard:
Ambition can be intrinsic. We might not like the picture of the world where the ambitious person just intrinsically wants money or respect or power, but I think people can want those things, and they can want those things for no other reason. We might think it's pathological when they want those things, but they are things people can want.

I think that what's distinctive about aspiration is that it's a motivational change. And it's a change of your core motivations. So you're actually trying to acquire a new motivation. So you're not trying to be true to yourself, who you are. ‘Cause the whole point is that you don't like who you are. You're trying to be true to the future you who's the better version of you. It's a kind of value learning. It's an attempt to, to expand your horizons or to change in the arena of value, in the arena of what you care about.

Now, I think people who are miserable, they might be miserable because they're unable to get what they want. Or they might be miserable because what they want is kind of paltry, that their wants themselves are defective. And if they're miserable for that second reason, then aspiration would help them. Because aspiration is the process by which you acquire new wants and new wants of a kind of fundamental and big kind.

I think it's correct to say that it's a change in your identity. And it's funny because this is the part of my book that gets the most pushback from philosophers, though everyone outside philosophy finds it intuitive, that aspiration is in some way self-concerned. It's directed at the person that you are, right?

So it's self-involved. You could even say it's narcissistic, that when you're trying to acquire a new value you are attending to and attuned to yourself as the future haver of that value.

[00:05:54] Adam Grant:
Okay, so as a psychologist, my response to that is to say I don't think it's inherently narcissistic. I think it depends on the content of the value that you're pursuing.

So, if you want to become a kind person, for example, or you want to become a person of integrity, right? Those are other regarding pro-social values. I guess if you were to take either a utilitarian or a deontological framework, you could say that that's in service of a greater good, right? And so that's not inherently narcissistic, is it?

[00:06:22] Agnes Callard:
I, I think it is. Not at the end, but along the way it is. And what I'm really talking about is the character of your attention. Say I am a kind person being kind to you. What am I attending to? I'm attending to you and to your needs. But say I'm aspiring to be kind. Then there's a little voice in the back of my head saying, “Is this me being kind? Am I succeeding it? Am I improving? Am I doing it better than I did it last time? Am I failing?” That is, I'm attending to myself.

Now, I don't think that's bad. Maybe narcissistic is just a word we use for attending to yourself when we wanna say we don't like it or something, and so then no, it's attending to yourself in a good way. But I think it, it's an interesting feature of aspiration that the self comes into view, and I think once you're done aspiring, the self is less in view because you're able to attend more directly to the value that you already understand.

[00:07:12] Adam Grant:
I think this may just be semantics, but I would call that more introspection than narcissism. In psychology, my read of, of why we look at things this way as value change is relatively rare. People are pretty comfortable with their principles. They know what's important to them, and where we start to see dissonance is when, when their behaviors or their lives fall out of line with those principles.

And yeah, there are times when people realize, “Oh, there's a value that's important to me that I want to incorporate into my life,” but it's much more likely that they're, they're trying to close the gap between the values and the actions than they are to change their values themselves. So what do you think of all that?

[00:07:48] Agnes Callard:
I think value change is ubiquitous and like every single—

[00:07:51] Adam Grant:

[00:07:51] Agnes Callard:
—human being has endured a massive amount of it. And all you have to do is compare a one-year-old to a 20-year-old. I think the thing is that when you say people, you're talking about older people; those people had to get where they are, and aspiration is the story of that process. I agree with you that people, like in their thirties, forties, fifties, and older, don't tend to be that aspirational. They, they tend to have already acquired a bunch of values.

But if you think about the things those people value, what are some things they value? They value their careers. Did they always value that career? No. They value their spouse. Did they always value that person? No. They had to meet them at some point, right? All the things they value are basically things they had to learn to come to value, except maybe, like, their life and like pleasure or whatever.

Like, there's certain things we've valued ever since we were babies, but that's a really small list compared to the stuff we come to value.

[00:08:39] Adam Grant:
So interesting. Okay, so you think aspiration, then, is something that's a lot more common early developmentally?

[00:08:46] Agnes Callard:

[00:08:46] Adam Grant:
In our teens and twenties, let's say.

[00:08:48] Agnes Callard:

[00:08:48] Adam Grant:
I’m 41. If I am reasonably happy with my values, but I'm setting higher and more challenging goals about who I wanna become, I care deeply about trying to contribute knowledge and make connections. I'm not trying to acquire new values, but I am trying to get better at those. I'm trying to add more value to other people's lives. Am I no longer aspiring?

[00:09:10] Agnes Callard:
It depends. So it depends on how fixed your conception of helping others and adding value to other people's lives are; do you feel like you have a pretty good sense of what that means? You have kind of a schema for that and then you just kind of need to bring it about, or do you feel like you're still in the process of learning what it would mean to add value to other people's lives or to help others? The more you think that your project dividing value to other people's lives is also a project of figuring out what it would be to add value to people's lives, the more that's, I would count as aspirational.

[00:09:40] Adam Grant:
I'm somewhat aspiring, I guess is the answer. Based on that. I, I think I have some clear ideas about specific ways I can be helpful, but I'm always eager to find out if there's something I'm missing, if there's a better way for me to contribute to other people.

When you think about these ideas as applied to our lives as adults, what do you think is sort of the ideal balance of ambition and aspiration? When I read your book, I thought, I don't know that we need less ambition per se, I do feel like we need more aspiration.

[00:10:12] Agnes Callard:
I was actually just writing about this. There's a weird feature of public speech. What, by public speech, what I mean is when you're talking to people who can't talk back. In public speech, we're always, like, telling people what to do, and we'll be like, “Here's what you need to do more of. Here's what you need to pay attention to.” And it's weird because we wouldn't really do that interpersonally to another person, except under very specific sort of circumstances where we, like, know the person pretty well.

But like at a bus stop, if I was sitting next to someone, I wouldn't be like, “Here's what you need to do more of: aspiration. Here's what you need to pay more attention to.” And I, I'm just very struck by this.

[00:10:46] Adam Grant:
I tend not to approach people at bus stops and say, “I think you should aspire more.”

[00:10:49] Agnes Callard:
Exactly, right? So I'm very struck by the kind of liberties we take in public address. I guess I'm inclined to think I really don't know what the world needs more of. Like that's the truth of the matter, is that I don't know, and that's a really hard thing to know. But I am torn between two visions. So, and this, but these two visions lie in the background of the book, but they're not articulated.

One of them is a platonic vision. So Plato's idea is that everyone should spend their whole life aspiring and that it's just infinite aspiration. And look, when you die, the soul is immortal. You'll get reincarnated. Keep aspiring. Maybe if you're lucky eventually you can get fully removed from your body and go to the isles of the blessed. Keep aspiring. You know, aspire until you're perfect. Basically, that's when you stop. When you’re perfect.

[00:11:35] Adam Grant:
Wow. Plato sounds exhausting, but keep going.

[00:11:37] Agnes Callard:
Exactly, right? So that's like infinite aspiration. Other option is Aristotle. Aristotle, it's like “Aspire till you're about 30, 40.” And then you know, your whole life's not about making you perfect. You're good enough. Now help other people. From an Aristotelian point of view, the idea that your whole life should be about perfecting yourself is just a little too self-involved.

Even if part of perfecting yourself is gonna involve helping other people, you're never gonna fully attend to those other people if at least with one eye, you're looking back saying, “Am I improving enough?” From Aristotle's point of view, at a certain point, it's enough already. You're just gonna be good enough. There is no afterlife. This life is all you've got, and so you've gotta at some point, just like live it, whole hog and not be trying to perfect yourself. I am torn between those two visions.

[00:12:27] Adam Grant:
I always like to do a lightning round to get you to react to a few things rapidly. First question: what is your favorite book about philosophical ideas for nonphilosophers?

[00:12:36] Agnes Callard:
I think Plato's Dialogues. They’re not written for philosophers. They're written to introduce the world to philosophy in some way, and there's just nothing better. Especially the early dialogues.

[00:12:50] Adam Grant:
I feel like Plato had me at the idea that no one who wanted to rule should ever be allowed to govern?

[00:12:56] Agnes Callard:
Yes, Republic I.

[00:12:57] Adam Grant:
Philosopher-Kings for the win. Did you watch The Good Place?

[00:13:00] Agnes Callard:
Yes, I did a long time ago, but yes.

[00:13:01] Adam Grant:
I felt like that show, more than anything else, I've seen got people excited about philosophy. Any notes?

[00:13:09] Agnes Callard:
The thing I've taken with me from that show is this thought that, um, heaven would have to be hell. It's sort of impossible to imagine some place that's going to be this perfect utopia, and it's kind of inevitable that the concrete realization of it, when presented to us, would look hellish.

[00:13:30] Adam Grant:
If you could pick one value that you think is important to instill in children early on, what would you choose?

[00:13:37] Agnes Callard:
I might pick a value to instill in parents. And it would be something like the thought that it's sort of your child's job to teach you how to parent. If you wanted to instill something like inquisitiveness or learning in your child, the only way to do it would be if you had an inquisitive approach to it. Expect to learn from your chill what values you're supposed to be instilling in them.

[00:14:02] Adam Grant:
I, I think this is such a beautiful idea. It reminds me of a conversation my wife and I had with our kids recently where we asked them how we could be better parents and what they wanted us to work on, and for me, that was just modeling being open to growing, right? And trying to become a stronger family unit. But as you say this, I'm realizing that was in part us asking them, “Teach us how to parent you.” I love that.

[00:14:30] Agnes Callard:
Yeah, exactly.

[00:14:32] Adam Grant:
Okay, I know what our next dinner table conversation is gonna be. Agnes, what's the worst advice you've ever gotten?

[00:14:38] Agnes Callard:
I was in grad school, and I was like about to have a kid and I was not far along. I was like maybe halfway through philosophy grad school, and like, the person who I was talking to was like, “Look, you just have to decide. Which, which matters more to you: your child or the papers that you're gonna write?” And it turns out you really don't have to decide. You really never have to ask yourself that question.

[00:14:59] Adam Grant:
It's a question that people encourage women to ask much more than men, which is grossly unfair.

[00:15:05] Agnes Callard:
And I think the person who was telling me this actually thought of themselves as doing it from a feminist point of view. They actually, their implied answer that they wanted me to give was the papers. It was sort of like, “Keep an eye on what's really important: the papers you're gonna write,” but it's really hard to tell yourself that, you know, when you've got, like, a human being and some non-existent papers, but it turns out you really just don't have to frame it that way, I think.

[00:15:30] Adam Grant:
Why not?

[00:15:32] Agnes Callard:
I think with most of the things in life that you value, you do not end up having to consciously try to articulate a choice between them, and I don't think there's much of a benefit in asking yourself that if you don't have to. And I think the same thing is true for most choices that would be really hard choices.

You just do your best to pursue all the things that you value. And I think it is true that quite often you do them worse because you're doing more of them. And so there are costs, but those costs don't actually require you to ask yourself which of the two things is more important.

[00:16:03] Adam Grant:
I, I know of plenty of research that would tell the opposite story. There was a, a neat paper by economists showing that the most productive people in the economics field, on average, were women with two children. Which at some level follows the, the adage, if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

[00:16:21] Agnes Callard:

[00:16:23] Adam Grant:
Okay. So you are a fellow podcaster?

[00:16:25] Agnes Callard:

[00:16:25] Adam Grant:
You’re in the habit of asking lots of questions. I'm gonna give you the mic for a second. Is there a question you have for me?

[00:16:30] Agnes Callard:
I was just reading this book about games, and the book had lots of examples of games. Almost all the examples in the book involve more than two people, and I was like, “Oh, I guess it makes sense.” You know, board games and things like that, they tend to work better if they're more than two people. But I, I tend to think conversations work better with two people, and I'm just puzzled by this. Why is it the case that games are better with more than two people, but conversations are better with two people?

[00:16:55] Adam Grant:
How do you define better?

[00:16:57] Agnes Callard:
Right now, it’s like two of us talking. We chose not to have three or four people in this conversation. Right? Presumably there was some reason for that. We thought it would be better.

[00:17:05] Adam Grant:
You're assuming a lot of forethought.

[00:17:08] Agnes Callard:
Well, most podcasts are two people!

[00:17:10] Adam Grant:
It’s true. Off the top of my head, my first thought is that a huge part of what's enjoyable about any social interaction is a sense of burstiness. The feeling that, you know, the, the conversation is literally bursting with energy and ideas. And I think that when you get into a group setting in a conversation, burstiness gets disrupted because we start to have some people self-censoring, maybe biting their tongues because they're afraid of being judged. We have other people who might be too assertive or, uh, dominating the conversation. We have also just a factorial increase in the number of relationships we have to manage with every additional person in the conversation.
So I think what's different about a board game is there's a structure and there are roles that basically allow for coordination to happen, and so the burstiness is built into the rules of the game as opposed to requiring a lot of improvisation in spontaneity and trying to read social cues and figure out whose turn it is to do what when. What do you think?

[00:18:07] Agnes Callard:
I think that's a really good answer. In particular, the part that I liked was the thought that if only you are hearing what I have to say and you have to respond, right? Like only so much of your brain could be devoted to judging me or criticizing me because you're busy thinking about what you're gonna say next. Whereas if there was, like, a bunch of people there, right, then there's all this room for people to be, like, sitting back and not contemplating their next statement and just thinking, “What are they thinking of what I'm saying?” And then that's gonna induce me to self-censor. And so, that hadn't occurred to me that in effect, if it's more than two people, then there are potentially these pure spectators who are at leisure to judge you in a way that you're interlocutor never is.

[00:18:49] Adam Grant:
Yeah, in brainstorming research that's called evaluation apprehension. It's especially real for high self-monitors, the kinds of people who are constantly wanting to be accepted and liked and maintain social approval, and the curse of being a high self-monitor in a group setting is if different people have different preferences, you can't please them all. Whereas in a dyadic interaction, you can figure out what the other person is going to find compelling and cater to that.

[00:19:18] Agnes Callard:
Can I ask you one more question?

[00:19:19] Adam Grant:

[00:19:20] Agnes Callard:
I have this, like, pet theory that in addition to all of the parameters along which people can differ from one another, there is one that strikes me a lot and shows up a lot in my life, which is some people are more stress avoidant and some people are more boredom avoidant.

Now everyone wants to avoid both stress and boredom. But the point is when you have to trade off, some people, like, really, really, really wanna avoid stress, and they're willing to have some boredom if they can avoid stress. And some people really wanna avoid boredom. They're willing to have stress. And the reason why this shows up to me is like the thing you said about Plato seeming exhausting.

Like, people often have the response to me like, “You seem exhausting.” And I think it's that they're stress avoidant, and I'm boredom avoidant. I'm willing to deal with a lot of stress as long as I won't be bored. This is just a thing I made up. What does a psychologist think of it?

[00:20:03] Adam Grant:
I'm definitely in your camp there, Agnes, but I think your distinction is, is really interesting. I think it's maybe an unobserved personality effect. In the research that caught a lot of press a couple years ago about how many people would rather give themselves a mildly painful electric shock than do nothing, and you're like, “Well, which people? Not all of us.” Some of us would rather have an interesting experience and take the risk of being stressed, than be bored outta their minds, listening to their own thoughts.

Like almost everything in life, this is actually a two-by-two rather than opposite ends of one continuum. Boredom avoidance is supposed to be driven by extroversion, which is sort of an activation of dopaminergic pathways in the brain, and so you're highly reward-seeking. And that's what leads you to both feel bored and not want to be bored.

Whereas stress avoidance seems to be driven by an independent system, which would be more the punishment system and comes from emotional reactivity. And so I think that your prototypical stress avoiders would be reactive introverts and your prototypical boredom avoiders would probably be emotionally stable extroverts.

[00:21:15] Agnes Callard:
That makes a lot of sense to me ‘cause I'm an extrovert. So there you go.

[00:21:19] Adam Grant:
Okay, I'm stealing the mic back because I want to talk about how you think and especially how you rethink. So, my most recent book was about the importance of thinking again and questioning our assumptions, and part of the reason I thought this would be a fun, broad theme for the show is it would be a chance to explore new thoughts and also new ways of thinking.

And when I read the profile of you that came out now, what a month or maybe a little longer ago, I don't think I've ever encountered such a committed and enthusiastic rethinker. Like it, it seems like you find joy in questioning anything and everything that you believe.

[00:21:55] Agnes Callard:
I find myself actually totally incapable of rethinking things unless I have help from other people, and I think rethinking is a lot harder than it seems. Our minds just tend to repeat themselves and go down the same tracks even when we think we're rethinking. I'm very aware of that. I'm very aware of and terrified by the thought of being trapped in my own world. So whenever I have the opportunity to make use of someone for the purpose of thinking, I, I'm like, we're totally ruthless and mercenary about it.

[00:22:29] Adam Grant:
That's so interesting. So for you, it's a social process

[00:22:32] Agnes Callard:

[00:22:32] Adam Grant:
Rather than a process in your head.

[00:22:34] Agnes Callard:

[00:22:35] Adam Grant:
And this is why you seek out so many of these interesting conversations.

[00:22:39] Agnes Callard:
Yes, exactly.

[00:22:40] Adam Grant:
Okay, got it. There's a quote that really stuck out at me, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. I'm just gonna read it to you. Quote, “It’s not that she lacks interiority, it's that she has a low view of the significance of that interiority.” This was one of those moments when, like, every once in a while you read something you're like, “Yes, yes.” That articulated something that so many people struggle with and that I'm always trying to explain and I don't have the language to explain and that nailed it.

I think one of my biggest frustrations with, I, I was gonna say with people, but I actually want to say humanity, is that people treat their thoughts and their beliefs as gospel. I can't stand it when people reify their feelings. I'm like, “That's just an emotion. It's a rough draft. If you're an artist or a writer, you would never frame your rough draft.”

So, like, let's figure out: does that emotion make sense? Is it one you want to keep? Is it one that you want to revisit and reevaluate? My colleague Phil Tetlock captured this to some extent when he said that we should treat our beliefs not as treasures to be guarded, but as hypotheses to be tested. And it seems that you have an incredibly healthy relationship with your mental states that when thoughts and emotions enter your head, you don't attach that much weight to them, and that makes it a lot easier for you to let the ones go that no longer make sense or that don't serve you well. I just found that incredibly interesting and would love to hear you riff on it.

[00:24:12] Agnes Callard:
It's very related to the other thing about social nature of thinking. I just think that the stuff going through my head is not thinking. It’s sort of masquerading as thinking, but it's just like stream of consciousness, and the test of whether it's worth anything is trying to say it out loud to someone.

And I have the benefit of being able to do that test a lot and seeing how many times it fails and what I thought was a thought isn't one. But I also, I guess, disagree with your description of humanity, though I think that is often how humanity describes itself, as being very stubborn and dogmatic and inclined to hold on to beliefs and emotions, and I think people are, in fact, incredibly variable, and they waver constantly.

And I mean, emotions are a perfect example. We don't tend to stay in an emotional state for very long, rarely for longer than a few hours. Even someone who's in a, a very deep grief or mourning that will, there'll be a variation there, right? Our, our lives are like both, both cognitive and emotional roller coasters, and I think we hide this from ourselves because there's certain sentences we repeat.

We're on a constant kind of fluctuation, and nobody's thoughts can stay in one place for very long, and we've created a mirage to cover this up. And the mirages that people are dogmatic. If only they were dogmatic, if only they were able to be.

[00:25:35] Adam Grant:
Okay. So just back to your sort of pension for rethinking in your process for doing it, is there anything you would never rethink?

[00:25:43] Agnes Callard:
It's all the things that I'll never have the occasion to have a conversation about. But I, I dunno in advance, because you require a positive opportunity to rethink something. And my, and my way of doing it, that is, you need a person who will have the conversation with you. Most people won't talk about almost anything. It's really hard to get people to have conversations. I count myself lucky for the ones I can have, rather than trying to enumerate the ones I can't.

[00:26:06] Adam Grant:
It's so foreign to me to think that there are people in the world who are not excited to talk about most things and question most things. I think you're onto something. Say, say more.

[00:26:16] Agnes Callard:
It's really hard to actually question something. There are different levels and kinds of conversations, but in some of them, you have this feeling that something is at stake and that whether or not you're gonna hold on to this particular view or claim or whatever is a function of how this conversation goes.

Most conversations are not like that, but some are. But it's hard to engineer those, I find it's quite hard. It's quite hard to get myself into those. One of your goals is you wanna help people. And you think it's important to help others? That makes a lot of sense to me. And I think that too, but that's the kind of goal where in order to have it, you have to think, you have quite a lot of an idea of what it is to help others.

And you think you know stuff, and you don't wanna admit you don't know that stuff because how are you gonna help others if you don't even know, right? So you have all sorts of barriers and boundaries to rethinking how to help people, that it would take a special person to get you to explore. And the question is just, are you ever gonna run into that person?

[00:27:21] Adam Grant:
I try to run into that person every day. Several of those people, in fact, because I'm like, okay, you know, over the course of my career I've gotten feedback that there are certain things I do that are often helpful. And so then I tried to repeat those things, and then one day I found out it wasn't helpful.

I'm like, “Okay, well, what was different about this interaction or this person or this situation, and how do I then be more thoughtful about when I express this value as opposed to just defaulting to it in every interaction I have?” That, I think is a process of refining how to live the value as opposed to, you know, just radically rethinking and that's maybe a little bit easier to tolerate, right?

[00:27:58] Agnes Callard:
Yes. Yes, that's right. But you might, I mean, don't close the door.

[00:28:01] Adam Grant:

[00:28:01] Agnes Callard:
You might radically rethink it. It's just like, it's just a question of are you gonna find yourself in the relevant conversation? And you know, you might radically rethink it and just come to say, “No, it was right.” It's not like radically rethinking always leads you to the opposite of what you thought before, because then you're not thinking, then you're just flip-flopping. Right?

[00:28:19] Adam Grant:
That's exactly right. That actually expresses it much more clearly than, than how I've tried to capture it, which is to say at some level people say, “Okay, I'm gonna rethink something. That means I have to change my mind.” I'm like, “No, you have to open your mind.”

But you might end up actually finding compelling reasons for the view you already held. And that's okay as long as you were trying to get to the truth as opposed to just, you know, validate your preexisting belief and trap yourself in a world of confirmation bias and desirability bias.

[00:28:50] Agnes Callard:
Right. Like I think the question is do you now find yourself in a situation where you're exposed to a new set of objections to what you think or not? Rethinking means you're exposed to a new set of objections. It doesn't mean you won't be able to answer them.

[00:29:06] Adam Grant:
You used the term objection earlier too when you were talking about job talks and I was thinking to myself at the time, “I don't think about the audience raising objections so much as questions and complications.” Objections sound so adversarial.

[00:29:21] Agnes Callard:

[00:29:22] Adam Grant:
Is this a, is this philosopher-speak?

[00:29:24] Agnes Callard:
It is a little, but even philosophers try to talk around it, you know? Like in a job talk that the way they would raise the objection is, “Oh, I just have a worry.” Or, “Oh, I'm confused about this part.” Or, “Oh, I'm just curious about…”

[00:29:34] Adam Grant:

[00:29:34] Agnes Callard:
So in general, people will rarely say “I object”, but that's what they're doing.

[00:29:38] Adam Grant:
Sustained, your Honor.

[00:29:40] Agnes Callard:
Yeah, exactly. We really don't like adversarial language or the whiff of adversarialness, and so, we kind of cover it up. And, which is fine ‘cause if that's what we need to do to get the inquiry to happen, I don't mind. But, I think that when somebody raises a question, their question amounts to “Is what you're saying actually true?”

And unless they can give you some reason for thinking it's not true, they haven't really asked you a question yet. I suppose those are the people I seek out, are the people who are willing to give me objections, whether they're formulated as such or not.

[00:30:16] Adam Grant:
Those are people that I would consider part of your challenge network, people who aren't just there to support you, but actually wanna hold up a mirror so you can see your blind spots more clearly, which is of course a way of helping you.

[00:30:28] Agnes Callard:

[00:30:28] Adam Grant:
But a little bit more confrontational than you know, just cheerleading for you.

[00:30:33] Agnes Callard:
It's from a platonic dialogue, the idea that another person is a kind of mirror, it's from the Alcibiades. What Socrates says is that you look in the dark part of their eye, and it's like you can see your reflection, and so another person serves as that. They're showing you all your faults because you can't see your own faults. When you look at yourself reflected in another person, that's when you see your faults.

[00:30:54] Adam Grant:
That is a great place to land this conversation. Agnes, there's so much more I could ask you about. Your way of thinking is endlessly fascinating.

[00:31:01] Agnes Callard:
With even more pleasure than I said it last time.

[00:31:04] Adam Grant:
I don't know that I wanted you to enjoy it. I wanted our audience to enjoy it. And if you had fun, then that's kind of, I don't know, it's like a, a byproduct, a secondary goal.

[00:31:15] Agnes Callard:
A useful indication.

[00:31:17] Adam Grant:
You're off the hook. Thank you, Agnes.

One of the things that I think Agnes is offering us is a way around one of the big paradoxes of our minds. So, I thought for a long time that the whole point of reasoning was to think and make decisions. Then I read a paper that turned my thinking upside down. Mercier and Sperber argued that, in fact, reasoning evolved not to think and decide but to persuade. That we do our most sophisticated reasoning in arguments with other people.

And I think that's why thinking in our own heads is not always that coherent or compelling. However, there's a wrinkle. When we reason to argue, we're not pursuing the truth. We're trying to get other people to believe our version of the truth, and so we end up marshaling our most sophisticated reasoning skills for a purpose that is not about doing our best reasoning,

Agnes's solution to this conundrum is to change how we argue: to stop arguing to win and start arguing to learn. So if you can take the skills you normally use to persuade in arguments, and instead apply them to pressure testing your own thinking, it's possible that you get a lot smarter.

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.

Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

My kids were actually just making fun of me because instead of going to parties in college, my roommates and I had board game nights, so you can tell I was destined to become an academic. Right? So…

[00:33:20] Agnes Callard:
We played the game Imperial at home last night, so…

[00:33:24] Adam Grant:
Oh, that's amazing.