If there is one thing I hope to never lose, it’s the capacity for intellectual surprise. It seems to diminish with time. After all, when did you last hear an middle-aged person joyfully say “That was mind-blowing!”? It doesn’t happen very often. Most the adults I meet seem to instead have all the answers and are quicker than ever at sharing them with me. Unsolicited.

That’s a sweeping generalization and it’s probably only 60% true but you get the idea. Something happens to all of us as we age. We become more and more certain about the world around us, more “experienced”, and we fit everything we see into this one contorted box of interpretations. At some stage or another, we declare we’ve seen it all. No more surprises.

But a lot more cynicism. In the wake of the curiosity, people who develop a rigid way of viewing the world also develop this hard shell of quick judgments, snap decisions, and stubborn refusals. It pervades everything, starting with our ways of thinking and leading to our ways of doing things. I hear some version of this occasionally: “I’ve been doing X for twenty years and you expect me to change now?”

I don’t want to assign judgement to this sort of calcified way of thinking and doing. In some cases, it’s a strength. In other cases, it’s a weakness. Understanding how and when is the focus of this week’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Written by Daniel Kahneman in 2011, this is one of those books that continues to “blow me away” every time I read it. I think it’s the best book for learning how to think. That line probably sounds funny when you read it (learn how to think?) and it’s certainly a bit recursive, too. All the same, it really does help me understand what this gray matter is doing in our heads.

So about that … what is happening with our friends and neighbors who, with age, become less prone to surprise and more judgmental, stubborn, and rigid?

It’s the surefire sign of an overdeveloped System 1.

System 1 and 2

In what is perhaps the best mental model of the early 21st century, Daniel Kahneman introduced the concept of System 1 and 2 thinking with his fantastic book. True to the title, System 1 is “thinking fast” and System 2 is “thinking slow”. This is a profoundly-useful idea that I have found applicable in so many ways. Whether it’s child development, adult development, organizational development, social movements, social media … you name it. The phenomena of System 1 and 2 thinking permeates it all.

A definition or two might help explain why. From the author:  

The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it. The model is constructed by associations that link ideas of circumstances, events, actions, and outcomes that co-occur with some regularity, either at the same time or within a relatively short interval. As these links are formed and strengthened, the pattern of associated ideas comes to represent the structure of events in your life, and it determines your interpretation of the present as well as your expectations of the future.

System 1 is your quick-witted intuition. When you conduct word associations around the holiday season, System 1 is the way your brain hears “Jingle” and quickly says “Bells”. It’s also the way your brain quickly assumes that someone wearing pantyhose over their head is a burglar. The cues and signals garner some kind of reaction built on years of exposure to all manner of information.

System 2, as you can already imagine via System 1, is different.

Uncertainty and doubt are the domain of System 2. It requires maintaining incompatible interpretations in mind at the same time.  

Note the key phrase “incompatible interpretations”. This is something System 2 actually enjoys. Rich paradoxes and conflicting viewpoints heighten doubt and uncertainty and allow System 2 to engage. Think of this method as the armchair academic of your mind who ponders the mysteries of life in their cramped, cluttered study.

System 1 doesn’t do that. Doesn’t even like it. Imagine it as a breathless, sweaty day-trader on the stock exchange floor, moving fast and loving the action. There is no time for paradox. No patience for it, either.

When Certitude Kills Curiosity

Our balance of System 1 and System 2 thinking changes with the circumstances and conditions of life. I think you can tell by the level of exposure we face to new things and the level of surprise we feel for it. As Kahneman puts it:

A capacity for surprise is an essential aspect of our mental life and surprise itself is the most sensitive indication of how we understand our world.

This makes sense to me. Especially when compared to the Kahneman’s first quote on System 1 and the specific mention of how our lens of System 1 thinking becomes the “interpretation of the present as well as your expectations of the future”. With time and experience, we steadily calibrate our assumptions, expectations, and mental models for work and life until they become hard boxes into which we stuff everything—even the stuff that doesn’t fit.

This kills the ability to experience surprise. So when we hear someone say “I’ve seen everything”, they literally think they have because their System 1 has overtaken System 2 to such a degree that no paradox, no uncertainty, no doubt, no open-mindedness can exist.

It’s not always this way. A child has a very weak System 1. They are surprised by many things. All things, in fact. System 2 carries them with a strong “sense of wonder”. Over time, System 1 takes over as doubt is soon replaced with fact, experience, and rote information. If System 2 isn’t maintained somehow, System 1 just grows and grows until the loose, malleable curiosity is eventually tempered and honed down into a sharp point of “expertise”. Suddenly, the child is an adult, an expert, a know-it-all, and you can’t change their minds.

Hold On Loosely But Don’t Let Go

There is much to build from this but I think the big lesson of System 1 and System 2 thinking is that we must occupy both states of mind with equal measure. This explains my habit of reading (and rereading) so many books. To some extent, I do it so that I can continue to be surprised.

These surprises broaden my mind and expand my cognitive ability. It often makes me less of a “know-it-all” and gives me more ability to be a “learn-it-all”. Finally, it has a legitimate tactical benefit for decisiveness. Today’s surprise in System 2 is tomorrow’s new mental model for System 1.

There are many other ways to engage System 2 on a regular basis. The key is to do it deliberately.

When you do it deliberately, you can recognize the transfer of new information from System 2 to System 1. This means you  can have a firm but loose grip on knowledge. I hold onto my System 1 intuition. I never let it go. In the name of Common Sense. But I also don’t hold too tightly. I hold it firm but loose so that there is room for more discovery through System 2.

With such an approach, we can see our work as continual improvement. For example, when I change my mind on a topic or approach, I think of it as an upgrade a’la software. From Norm 1.0 to Norm 1.1. The mission, of course, is to get to Norm 2.0 and that occasionally happens when a new source of information “blows me away”.

Thinking Fast and Slow is one of those sources. This book definitely helped me level up. It still does. I hope it can do the same for you.

Photo by Sean Stratton on Unsplash