How assumptions skew your decisions (and what you can do about it)

One of the best ways to keep your ego in check is to see for yourself in just how many ways our own mind tricks us - with our contribution or without it.

Whenever I discover a new mental distortion, a flaw in one of the most fundamental ways we operate as humans, it puts me in the student mindset. 

Isn’t it almost silly how we think we make decisions based on facts when we’re actually using assumptions?

Matthew Woordward, my latest podcast guest, triggered this reflection when he said this:

“I never ever assume I know the answer to anything, even if I already know the answer.”

Even after taking a business from zero to a million dollars, Matthew still focuses on the basics. 

I felt I wanted to dig deeper. 

Not just because of Matt’s success story but because he has an incredibly joyful way of living*, because he shared all of his journey, and because he seems to have found a way of making decisions that benefit him in the long run.  

That’s something I’m also trying to learn. Maybe you’re trying to do the same. 

*You’ll know exactly what I mean when you listen to him talk about ALL of it.

Learning how to make decisions in contexts of high uncertainty is one of essential skills for the future and I hope to contribute to that through this newsletter. 

So how do assumptions skew our decisions?

When dealing with a lot of ambiguity, our sense of insecurity presses us to find something to hang onto - a belief, a story we tell ourselves, or an assumption we end up mistaking for a fact (because we really, really need it to be true). 

As a result, we often base our decisions on perception rather than reality, a perception of our making that sometimes gets in the way of making wise choices that benefit us in the long run.  

So how can we test our assumptions to reach a clearer, more objective version of reality to rely on?

I found a potential answer in this excellent Fortune article:

“The antidote to this lies in adopting what I’ve called a discovery-driven approach to investing and making decisions in an uncertain context.

The core idea is to peel back layers of uncertainty at minimal possible cost, planning to the next checkpoint or milestone rather than creating a grand plan that may take you to places you really don’t want to go.

It starts by recognizing that you really don’t know what is going to happen when you don’t have a good grasp of cause and effect—yet.

Thus, what you want is a plan to learn, rather than a plan to prove that you were right when you made your choices.”

Make a list of assumptions. 
Test them one by one. 
See which one is true/works. 
Learn from both failures and successes. 

This is actually part of the lean startup model, a framework I’ve found as useful in my work as well as other areas of my life. 

This incremental approach helps you avoid this situation we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives. 

"What was I thinking?"

When we have a “what was I thinking?!” moment, we have a chance to trigger the four stages of competence

The way I see it, this translates into 3 steps we can make towards stronger decision-making: 

  • Keep in mind that most of what we consider facts are actually assumptions. 
  • Test to (in)validate them.
  • Learn and repeat. 

This approach can prove especially useful because it’s a daily occurrence. We keep mistaking assumptions for facts because, as humans, we have some limitations we may otherwise neglect to take into account. 

“The conscious mind is limited to energy-intensive serial processing, and consequently seeks to relegate as much thinking as possible to the more powerful unconscious mind. It does so by subconsciously comparing incoming data with known objects. In its search for patterns and congruence, the brain will generalize, distort, or even delete incoming signals.”

The more entrenched we are in our ways of thinking, the likelier we are to confuse assumptions and facts. 

That’s why cultivating an unassuming approach to life is a major advantage!  

Matthew Woodward learned it through practice. 

“Where I actually gain a lot of advantage over my competitors is I stay connected to the human part [...].”

That connection translates to things like going into a conversation with genuine curiosity or listening with intent to a person without trying to steer the dialogue.

“Don't assume based on how someone looks, how they present themselves or anything like that. Quite often, the most intelligent person in the room is a person you don't even look at twice.”

And on that note, as Jeremy Clarkson would say, I want to leave you with this question: 

Choose a belief you've had all your life. 

How can you test if it's (still) true or not?

This is just one of the things Matt made me think of. You may find others that fit your current challenges. Give it a listen:

Dig deeper into the unassuming mindset

Make the most of your decisions this week, 

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