There’s a lot of wisdom out there in the world about how it’s hard to see what you’re not looking for, and the importance of the eye of the beholder, etc. I give those ideas some time because I think there’s something to them, especially in a world where big data is constantly trying to customize your experience to surround you with things you like. You’re more likely to be friends with people who share your beliefs, and if you think you don’t agree on a certain subject, you might very carefully avoid it. It creates an interesting reality for each of us, doesn’t it? Here’s something we thought you’d like, and if you don’t, swipe, scroll, or say “no thanks.” It makes you more frequently comfortable, and lines a lot of pockets along the way (while potentially emptying yours).
Along these lines, I’ve been reading a bit lately about confirmation bias, which is defined in psychology as the tendency of a person to give more credence to information that reinforces beliefs they already have, and less emphasis on evidence that would seem to counter those beliefs. So, for example, if you hold the belief that red-haired people are extra spunky (ahem), then every time you meet a red-haired person with a little extra in the personality department, you’re going to see that as strong evidence in support of your belief. You will likely perceive red-haired people who are wallflowers as exceptions to the rule, and spunky people with other shades of hair – well, you’re probably not even noticing them because you’re busy looking for spunkiness amidst those red-haired folks.
So, you’ve got this one phenomenon where it’s hard to change someone’s mind, even with data, and then you’ve got roughly half of the decisions you have to make per day when trying to figure out your life, especially in the business school environment. When it comes to those, wouldn’t you love to have yourself just a dose of the confidence that comes with confirmation bias? Where should I apply? Where should I go? Which concentration should I choose? Which companies should I recruit with? What is it that I want to be when I grow up again? An investment banker? No wait, a brand strategist. No, actually, I want to found a fintech startup. That’s it…wait, what are you all doing? Well hold on, then….
Yeah, it’s like that, all day every day over some decision or another. And you know, no big deal, it’s just your life’s path and ultimate meaning of your existence, right? Just flip a coin already. If only…
Instead, you get to meet confirmation bias’ distant cousin, groupthink. Groupthink sneaks up on you when you think you’re all set with yourself, ready to move forward with your applications, your recruiting, your business plan, your next move, whatever it is. Just when you thought it was safe to tell someone else your plans, you remembered you were in MBA-land. The only way a conversation that starts with “I actually decided not to pursue that option” ends in MBA-land is with you sitting quietly in a corner, drenched in doubt and maybe even panic, thinking that maybe you need to rethink your thinking about the whole thing.
Or, maybe you don’t absorb the panic; maybe you accidently spread it to someone else.
You: “I’m definitely signing up for that investment bank’s info session next week.”
Other Person: “Um, you are? I wasn’t going to because my (previously, until a second ago) dream CPG company is coming to do a brand management info session that night, but maybe I should go with you instead? Or somehow do both? Or….”(bites nails and quietly loses mind).
It’s utterly amazing how mere seconds of exposure to other people’s choices can make us doubt our own, especially in the b-school world. It’s uniquely primed for it, and I’ll tell you why. Come in a little closer…ok, here it is: insecurity.
We, as humans, like to have our decisions reinforced by the people around us. With decisions that feel especially “big” and difficult and scary, and there’s always an element of risk involved, even if it’s just the sense of uncertainty. If you meet someone who’s making the same choice, you feel just a fraction better. One more person, and ok, this is starting to look like a good call after all. It’s normal, it’s comforting, and it’s a part of community building. It’s also, however, inertia, which has its purpose, but shouldn’t get in the way of you finding yours.
Options are both a blessing and a curse. Well, really they’re just a blessing, but you get my drift. Places and spaces that make you feel like everything is possible can also keep you from making anything probable. Although it’s cool to learn about new things and opportunities, eventually you have to decide where to focus your energy. You need to be able to connect to your intuition, and your inner sense of what it is that you need to pursue right now. Tell FOMO to take a hike. If your choice happens to align with someone else’s, that’s nice and all, but that alignment will be coincidental, and not the result of you blindly following them because you didn’t know what else to do.
Mindfulness is a simple of set of tools that can help you feel the swell of uncertainty, doubt, jealousy, panic – whatever it is that groupthink has you feeling – and notice it, without beating yourself up for it, before deciding how to respond to it. All you need is your breath, and even just a minute to connect with the basic sensations of your inhales and exhales. You’re right here, right now, and nothing else is happening besides your breath. Let your heartrate slow, and your thoughts detangle. You may realize that some of them weren’t even yours to begin with.
Photo credit: Davide Ragusa