What is Loserthink?

Despite evidence to the contrary, we all use our brains. But most of us have never learned how to think effectively. I’m not talking about IQ or other measures of intelligence, which matter in their own way, of course. I’m talking about thinking as a learned skill. We don’t teach thinking in schools, and you can see the results of that nearly every day. If you use social media, or you make the mistake of paying attention to other people’s opinions in any form, you’re probably seeing a lot of absurd and unproductive reasoning that I can loserthink.

Loserthink isn’t about being dumb, and it isn’t about being underinformed. Loserthink is about unproductive ways of thinking. You can be smart and well informed while at the same time being a flagrant loserthinker. That is not only possible; it’s the normal situation. My observation, after several decades on this planet, is that clear thinking is somewhat rare. And there’s a reason for that. No matter how smart you are, if you don’t have experience across multiple domains, you’re probably not equipped with the most productive ways of thinking.

For example, a trained engineer learns a certain way of thinking about the world that overlaps but is different from how a lawyer, a philosopher, or an economist thinks. Having any one of those skill sets puts you way ahead in understanding the world and thinking about it productively. But unless you have sampled the thinking techniques across different fields, you are missing a lot. And again,  to be super clear, I am not talking about the facts one learns in those disciplines. I am only talking about the techiques of thinking that students of those fields pick up during the process of learning.

The good news is that you don’t need to master the fields of engineering, science, economics, philosophy, law, or any other field in order to learn the basics of how to think the way experts in those areas think. For example, if you didn’t know what the concept of sunk costs is all about, I could explain fully understand it.

Sunk costs: money you already spent shouldn’t influence your decision about what to do next, but for psychological reasons, it often does.

I wrote this book to get you acquainted with (or remind you of) the most productive thinking techniques borrowed from multiple domains. Collectively, they will help you avoid unproductive loserthink.

Tiger Woods was born with a lucky arrangement of DNA that allowed him to dominate the game for years. But his natural talents would have been wasted had he not learned the strategies and techniques of golf. This is true of any learned behavior. Natural talent can only get you so far. If you want to be good at the not-so-ordinary task of thinking productively, you need to learn some techniques and then practice them. Your so-called common sense can dupe you into believing you already know how to think effectively.

I’ll show you what you might be missing.

Expect to read this book some ideas that you already know, plus some things you don’t. Everyone is coming to this book from a different starting point. I know from experience that many of you will give this book as a gift to the unproductive thinkers in your lives, and I wanted to create a complete picture for them, if not for you, O wise book-giver. I’m guessing that half of the people reading this book already knew how to think about sunk cost the right way. The other half just caught up.

Learning how to think productively does not come naturally to any of us. But it is easy to learn. You simply have to be exposed to the techniques and you’ll likely remember them for the rest of your life. The techniques are simple to understand and easy to master. This book will set your brain filters to recognize loserthink wherever you encounter it, in others and in yourself.

We humans give greater weight to things that have names. And giving loserthink its name creates a short-hand way of mocking people who practice unproductive thinking. Mockery gets a bad rap, but I think we can agree it can be useful when intelligently applied. For example, mocking people for lying probably helps to reduce future lies and make the world a better place, whereas mocking people for things they can’t change is just being a jerk.

As the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, I use mockery almost every day to keep the most ridiculous management practices from spreading. If that sounds like I have an exaggerated sense of my impact of society, consider that, in 2018, Telsa CEO Elon Musk wrote a memo to all employees in which he explained how to be productive in meetings. Here is one of his rules.

Elon Musk’s Rule Six: “ In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a ‘company rule’ is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make a great Dlibert cartoon, then the rule should change.”

Notice that it was easier for Musk to describe what he wanted of his employees because the word Dilbert exists in their common vocabulary and they all have a sense of what a Dilbert-like policy looks like. Naming things can weaponize them.

I used the Telsa example because it was easy to find a published quote. But I can tell you that for almost three decades I have been getting direct reports from managers of big companies telling me they changed or avoided policies because “ We don’t want to end up in Dlibert comics,” or words to that effect. The risk of mockery changes behavior. I would go so far as to say it is one of history’s most powerful forces.

If you have a negative word for something, it’s easier to avoid it than if you don’t.  Before I introduced the term loserthink, what word would you have used to describe a smart person who has a mental blind spot caused by a lack of exposure across different fields?

You would probably default to the closest word in your vocabulary, which might be stupid, dumb, idiot, and the like. I don’t have to tell you it’s hard to change someone’s mind after you call him an idiot. And if you take the high road and the intellectual path, describing a person’s mental blind spots with terms such as confirmation bias or cognitive dissonance, your target will claim you are actually the one suffering from those cognitive errors, and the discussion goes nowhere.

Now compare those useless approaches to what I am offering you here. You have my permission to take a photo of any individual page in this book and share it on social media, or with people you know, as your response to any situation in which you identify loserthink. The fact that the page will come from a published book adds weight to your point and depersonalizes the conversation so it doesn’t seem like your own crazy opinion. If you describe the copied page as coming from the book LoserThink, you have both mockery and unearned credibility on your side. And when this book becomes a bestseller, it will gain even more power as a suppressor of loserthink.

By now you might be wondering why I counsel against calling people stupid while are the same time I introduce the word loserthink, which seems just as bad. The difference is that stupid refers to a person whereas loserthink applies to the technique. And keep in mind that all of us engage in losethink sometimes. The loser part of loserthink refers to the outcome, not the DNA of the person involved. Remember to make that distinction if you use the term. Calling people stupid will not make them turn smart, but pointing out a bad technique and contrasting it with a good one can, in time, move people to a more productive way of thinking. As with my example of sunk costs, once you are exposed to the concept for the first time, it almost automatically becomes part of your future thinking.

I’m only able to write this book because I have made most of the mistakes I describe in these pages. I’ve learned from experience how to recognize those errors in myself and in others. In too many cases, I learned these techniques after being mocked by credible people (ouch!). None of us is exempt from occasional loserthink, but I hope what you read here will help you avoid the mockery I experienced over the years while unintentionally learning how to write this book.

Loserthink also serves as an explanation for why Hollywood artists seem –at least to many of us- more sincere than smart when they speak out on political or social issues. You aren’t imagining that something strange is going on there. Most people in the entertainment industry are not trained scientists, engineers, lawyers, economists, philosophers, or knowledgeable in any of the fields in which decision-making is taught. Adding to this effect is that, as human beings, we don’t know what we don’t know. If you have never been exposed to lessons on how to think effectively, you wouldn’t have a frame of reference to know whether or not you were doing it right.

You might be a naturally bright person, which seems likely because you are reading this book. And perhaps you once took a logic class. And perhaps you once took a logic class. That would be a great start, but it wouldn’t help you see the world the way people who have studied other disciplines see it. If you have been exposed to the thinking styles of only a few disciplines-let’s say history and philosophy- you would still have gaps in terms of understanding how economists and scientists see the world.

For example, you might know Seth MacFarlane as the creator of the hugely successful animated TV show Family Guy, but that’s a silver of his accomplishments. He has one of the most impressive stacks of world-class talent you will ever see in one human being. He’s a singer, actor, writer, artist, producer, humorist, and voice talent. But does that tell us MacFarlane has the right combination of education and experiences to understand our would? Would that set of thinking skills (the ones we know about) compare favorably to a person with deep experience across the domains of science, business, and psychology, for example? Based on MacFarlane’s extraordinary success, it appears he is talented in all of the fields in which he has succeeded. My impression from afar is that his natural intelligence (IQ) is extraordinarily high. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and has racked up one success after another in various entertainment domains (animation, movies, live-action TV, music, award show hosting, ect.) while making new fortunes from almost every one of them. In other words, he’s a super-smart guy. And I have no reason to doubt his good intentions.

That said, based on his Twitter comments about politics, it does not appear that he has much experience with the fields of study that teaches us how best to think about our world. If that describes you as well, you wouldn’t notice anything was missing from MacFarlene’s political opinions or your own. I’ll give you one good example to make my point. In the following tweet, MacFarlane is saying, in effect, that we can be sure climate change is real and dangerous because of the massive and dangerous because of the massive number of scientists who say so.

If your experience in life has been concentrated in the arts, it would seem entirely reasonable to rely on the consensus of climate science experts. And if you observed that others were not doing the same, you might conclude that those folks are morons who can’t see the obvious. I can’t read Seth MacFarlane’s mind, but his tweet seems to communicate something along those lines.

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