Benefits of outsourcing
Outsourcing is generally a good thing – you gain leverage from another’s expertise.
Most of us outsource milk production to dairy farmers and conveniently buy it at the grocery store. We also outsource our piping problems to a plumber. We can outsource our knowledge too: most of us believe the world is round even though we haven’t proved it ourselves. And, of course, when we are around friends, we subsume their thoughts, tastes, and values as our own (sometimes called homophily). This too is generally a positive trend since it allows us to gain knowledge and learn from their experiences quickly.
In fact, if we never outsourced ANY of our thinking, we would be paralyzed by the simplest decisions and would essentially become useless in society (or become the Unabomber).
But it is easy – and intellectually irresponsible – to outsource too much of our thinking. These days, it seems like people can too easily adopt the opinions of the people in their lives: their professor, downstairs neighbor, pastor, boss, community, or favorite talk show host.
Dangers of largely outsourced thinking
The biggest problem with over-outsourced thinking is that we can become homogeneous, resistant to change, and lose our ability to think of new ideas. Instead of being independently-minded, we are in danger of becoming walking phonographs that repeat what we have heard. Given that so much of our economic and technological progress to date has been from our ability to think fresh for ourselves, outsourcing too much thinking can stifle continued advancement.
A light-hearted yet sad example of outsourced thinking: In September 2008, one comedian interviewed Obama supporters and asked them what they thought of “Obama’s Vice President pick, Sarah Palin.” The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Outsourcing your decisions is very different than outsourcing your thinking. We cannot decide everything. We are in a representational democracy where we elect others to make decisions for us. But outsourcing who you are going to elect (or hire) to make these decisions can potentially be disastrous.
Not only can outsourced thinking stifle creativity, it can also impact your career. In business it can be a red flag during interviews with people who cannot display that they think for themselves. When someone always thinks like the majority it generally means that they will have trouble going against the grain or coming up with anything revolutionary. One of my favorite interview questions is “what is a belief that you have that most of your friends think is crazy.” I’ve heard some really interesting responses but I have also heard some things that are utterly conventional.
How not to outsource your thinking
Here are some simple steps to start repossessing your own values and beliefs.
• Seek out opposite opinions
One way to start developing your own values and thoughts is by talking with people who subscribe to different values. This will force you to identify what matters to you and speak your mind. For example, if everyone you know voted for McCain in 2008, you should seek out 1-2 people you respect who voted for Obama. You might still vote for McCain, but you can try to understand the other side and see why they differ from your beliefs. The same is true on contentious issues like abortion or drug legalization. And if you don’t respect anyone who holds a different view from you, you should spend a lot of time looking at yourself.
• Guard against bubbles
People who play into bubbles generally have trouble thinking for themselves.
In 2006, it was obvious to everyone we were in a real estate bubble. During that year, I couldn’t find anyone who did NOT think we were in a bubble. When the crash came, it wasn’t really a shock to anyone (though few predicted how fast the bubble would burst). However, almost all investors kept betting that real estate would continue to rise.
Why? Because they outsourced their thinking to others.
People who kept investing money in real estate despite recognizing the bubble were riding an unsustainable wave of outsourced. If they had thought for themselves, they would have made fewer investing mistakes.
• Strive to be wrong
To be true to yourself, you need to be wrong sometimes. You need to be ok with being wrong and you should be ok when others around you are wrong. That means going against the grain and speaking your mind, especially when it’s different from what those around you are thinking.
Striving to be wrong forces you to be a more creative thinker, someone who is not tied down by the status quo and how things are typically done. These are the people who, ask the “why’s” and ask the “why nots.”
Additionally, the process and conversations needed to understand why you are wrong is itself an exercise is un-outsourcing your thinking since it makes you explain your thoughts and values.
People who fear being wrong generally end up adopting group mentality and outsourcing their thinking because they are afraid to voice contrary opinions or to have their ideas shot down. In contrast, people who are ok with being wrong tend to have a freedom around creativity and less impeded by herd mentality.
Special thanks to Michael Hsu for his help and edits.