I was talking to Dr. Drew recently — this was after our great interview together — when he mentioned a college orientation talk he gave that got interesting.
During the Q&A, he told me, a number of students began to challenge the facts he presented in his talk — psychology stats, mental health research, stuff like that — and actually ended up arguing with him about the facts he was presenting.
Now, it’s not like Dr. Drew thinks he’s beyond criticism. In fact, he’s one of the most thoughtful debaters I’ve met. But when you’re a medical doctor with 30+ years of experience and a bunch of 18-year-olds without college degrees start debating your own field with you, it’s hard not to wonder if we’ve lost the importance of forming thoughtful opinions.
We’re living in the age of questionable facts. Sources have become sketchy, opinions have become louder, and the respect we used to have for honest thinking seems to have slipped away. A lot of our society — including many experts! — discount the value of data and inflate the importance of opinions, and they tolerate the same from everyone else.
But that only makes clear thinking more valuable. Because from the conference room at work to the bedroom at home, we relate to other people through our beliefs and opinions. Our careers, relationships, and personal brands depend on them. So it’s never been more important to form them the right way — and to understand how other people form them, too.
That’s what we’ll be talking about in this article: the work necessary to hold an effective opinion, and how to approach that work in a way that leads to clearer, stronger thinking.
It all begins with choosing the right perspective.
Adopt the mindset of a student.
The first stage in forming a strong opinion about a specific debate is studying the issue not as a participant in the debate, but as a student of it.
That process begins by mentally stepping outside of the emotions and politics surrounding the issue in question, and focusing instead on its raw substance.
That substance includes the reason the topic matters in the first place, which issues are driving the topic right now, what each side is arguing, and how each side is responding to the other’s arguments. (More on that in a moment.) To focus on that, we have to suspend any preexisting opinions, and consciously walk into the debate without any affiliations.
When you step outside of a debate, you put yourself in an extremely powerful position: that of the student.
While a participant in a conversation has certain interests — to look good, to win, to be “right” — the student is free to learn from those interests, to become an expert without picking a side. Ultimately, this is the best way to becoming a powerful participant down the line — and a surefire way to ultimately look good, win and be right. But it all starts with disidentifying from any one position, and fully appreciating the arguments on both sides.
At this stage, your only priority is to understand the issue at hand as deeply as possible. In many fields — like physics, ethics and pretty much any kind of art — that process will last a lifetime, and will never be truly finished. That’s why you often (but not always) find surprisingly humble people in the upper echelons of those fields — because true expertise only reveals the depths of their ignorance. Whereas you’ve probably met a lot of cocky mechanics and know-it-all politicians, who work in fields where the expertise required to succeed is more finite.
Most of the dysfunction in contemporary debate begins in this stage.
If more people were willing to be students before they decided to become participants, our conversations as a society would be much more meaningful. But as we know, most people won’t (or can’t) take that stance. Why is that?
In short, because it’s often harder to be a student than to be an expert.
Being a student means admitting to — or choosing — some degree of ignorance. It means being uncertain in your opinions while you study an issue. And that uncertainty, for many people, is quite scary. If we don’t know what we believe, who are we? If we don’t know how we feel, where do we stand?
Opinions, on the other hand, remove that anxiety. They’re fixed. They’re safe. They’re stable. They provide intellectual shelter; they give shape to our feelings and impulses. That’s why most people cling to their beliefs so strongly — because if they didn’t, they’d have to deal with the discomfort of not knowing which form their neurons should take.
But it’s precisely the student mentality that leads to reliable thinking. Ironically, we need to sit with the discomfort of being students to really enjoy the satisfaction of being experts. We need to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing what we think — of struggling to figure out what we believe — to arrive at an opinion that’s actually trustworthy.
And that’s not a one-and-done process. Most top performers will tell you that they have to consciously revert back to the student’s mindset throughout their careers to make sure that their opinions remain valid, honest and effective. That’s true of everyone from Tony Hawk to Warren Buffet, Meryl Streep to Jeff Bezos.
The student’s mindset is where this work begins. Recognize the freedom of that position. Embrace the opportunity it presents. Live it as much as possible. All strong opinions begin here.
Know the arguments.
Once you have a grasp of the broad outlines of a topic, it’s time to turn your student mindset upon the specific claims — the arguments — that make up the debate. This means understanding every argument, documenting every piece of evidence, and analyzing them carefully and thoroughly. This is the nuts-and-bolts of forming a strong opinion.
Here’s a helpful tool for dissecting an issue. This is the oldest debate format, and it’s a framework that top executives, politicians and journalists use when they study an issue.
|Side A||Side B|
|Counterargument 2 / Argument 2
||Counterargument 3 / Argument 4
|CONCLUSION A||CONCLUSION B|
In this stage, your job is to fill out the table above as many times as you need until you exhaust all of the arguments in the debate. Identify the arguments one side holds, articulate the counterarguments the other side gives, track the new arguments that the original side forms in response, and — this is the most important part — understand and confirm every piece of evidence that supports (or disproves) each argument.
This data can come from any number of reliable sources relevant to the issue you’re studying. Some of the most common include:
- Newspapers, magazines, websites and other publications
- Panel discussions
- Live debates
- Trade/industry journals
- Subject-matter experts
- Reports and white papers
- Statistics and models
- Personal experience
- Podcasts with experts curated by hacks like me
This step is so technical that it’s almost boring to read about, but it’s worth acknowledging how much homework goes into having a good opinion. Because it’s not just about understanding the claims. It’s about verifying all of the evidence that supports those claims for yourself, and sometimes even discovering new information. Data is the foundation of the entire structure of an opinion. If we don’t take the data seriously, then our opinions will eventually crumble.
There are two stages to this step. They can happen simultaneously, but it’s helpful to break them out.
First, document the arguments and evidence.
This means approaching the arguments as a collector. Without evaluating the validity of the arguments too intensively, organize all of the arguments and their evidence into the framework above. Track how each argument responds to another, which pieces of evidence support which claims, and how the debate unfolds point by point. This stage might take you a few passes, especially for debates that are complex or very old.
Second, analyze the arguments and evidence.
Once you have a grasp of all the arguments and facts, then you can begin the deeper work of evaluating the argument.
This means studying the claims as an analyst. Do you believe the evidence truly supports the claims? Do you find the arguments persuasive? Do you think the arguments lead convincingly to the conclusion? If so, is there a counterargument to the conclusion? If not, where in the debate do the arguments break down? This stage will probably take you several passes, and might even last forever, especially when it comes to questions that are difficult or evolving.
Exercise: The Casual Debate
A helpful exercise in this stage is to examine the argument with someone else.
With a friend, colleague or expert who’s game, walk through the argument, exploring each side, and discover in conversation with someone else how your analysis holds up. Have you understood the debate correctly? Are you analyzing the arguments effectively? Dissecting a topic with someone else — especially someone who has an equally strong (or hopefully superior) grasp of the facts — is the best way to pressure-test your understanding.
But remember: you must stay focused on your role here. You’re not trying to be a full participant in the debate, advocating for any one side. You’re in an intermediate phase, where you’re walking through the argument as an interested party, but still as a student first and foremost.
If you find that you’re beginning to argue for one side or react emotionally to any of the positions, then it’s time to take a step back and put your student hat on again.
That awareness is crucial. It’s how you’ll avoid forming an opinion before you’re truly ready, which the human brain wants so badly to do.
Use the evidence to form a position.
Once you’ve truly understood all of the arguments and claims in a debate as a true student, then you’re finally in a position to form an opinion.
But what is an informed opinion, really?
First, an informed opinion is one that you develop through honest and thorough analysis of the arguments and evidence.
This is the principle we’ve been working on up until now — the good old fashioned intellectual work of understanding the debate.
But a strong position also remains open to revision.
We’ll get into the details of that principle in just a minute, but it’s worth acknowledging that a strong opinion doesn’t need to be a fixed opinion. In fact, a mark of truly honest thinking is its openness to new evidence and criticism. That’s what keeps an opinion flexible enough to remain true as the conversation in question evolves. Many people, especially today, think that an opinion must be militant in order to be true. But the exact opposite is true.
A strong opinion can straddle and appreciate more than one position.
In the complicated world we live in, it’s pretty unlikely that one monolithic opinion will be completely true. If you really engage with the previous step in the process, then you’ll usually come out with an appreciation for the merits of both sides. You might even be sympathetic to your opposition, even if it isn’t the side of the debate you end up choosing. In fact, if you read the most insightful thinkers out there, you’ll find that their arguments often give their opponents full credit for their point of view. It’s almost as if they can’t effectively argue their own side without faithfully presenting their opponents’ positions. That’s a sign of truly honest thinking.
Interestingly, having a strong grasp of counterarguments is also one of the most effective ways of convincing people that you’re right.
A recent study on misinformation, for example, found that recipients of misinformation are less likely to accept messages debunking their point of view when the counterarguments simply label the misinformation as wrong. But when the counterarguments debunk the misinformation with new evidence and details, misinformed people are more likely to change their point of view.
So when it comes to influence and power, responding to people’s opinions with well-supported counterarguments, rather than simple criticism, makes all the difference.
For most of us, remaining in the student’s position about most topics is a perfectly acceptable place to be — and often the most effective one.
Interestingly, many people go through this process only to realize that they don’t know exactly what they believe. As we’ve discussed, this can be disconcerting. Did we really do all of this work only to realize we don’t know what we actually think?
But I’ve come to recognize this conclusion as a sign of good thinking. An opinion that comes easily is usually weak, while an opinion that remains uncertain usually means you’ve done your homework.
That’s because the most important issues in life — the ones about the Big Stuff, like truth, value, beauty, justice, and so on — are never the full story. The world is just too complicated to capture with a simple argument. So I actually celebrate these moments, even if they mean I don’t get to hang my hat on a neat and tidy opinion.
But from here on out, let’s assume that you have landed on a clear opinion. What do you have to do to make sure it remains correct? And how do you use it to influence the people around you?
The answer comes down to something we touched on earlier: being able to adopt the other perspective.
Know your opponent’s perspective better than they do.
“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything,” said legendary investor Charlie Munger, “that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” What Munger understands better than anyone is the importance of appreciating counterargument.
When you know your opponent’s position — ideally better than even they do — you give yourself two huge advantages.
First, you challenge your arguments, test your assumptions, and renew your commitment to your conclusion.
Attacking your own point of view from the opposite side is hands-down the best way to pressure-test your arguments. It also forces you to see your evidence and logic with new eyes.
If you find that your argument holds up to opposition, then you’ll not only have more confidence in your position, you’ll also have a renewed conviction in it. If you don’t take the time to study your opponent’s perspective, then it’s easy to rest on your conclusions without having a strong connection to how they work. That’s why even good opinions tend to calcify and lose their power over time.
As the sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov famously said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
Second, you anticipate how your opponent will challenge your position in the real world.
Understanding your opponent’s arguments is hands-down the best way to prepare for any discussion, negotiation or debate. When you study your opposition, you give yourself the best possible chance of “winning” in whatever sphere you’re navigating.
Uma, a management consultant in the beauty industry, recently applied this principle on the most important case of her career.
As she prepared for her final presentation to a major makeup company’s CEO — a meeting where she recommended shutting down a major business line and creating two new ones — she knew would be facing some intense questioning and resistance.
Uma had done the critical work as a student of this debate. She had examined every option, explored the arguments for and against her proposal, and done all of the analysis that supported her recommendations. Now she had to look at her presentation as an “opponent,” so she could anticipate any and all objections the CEO might throw her way.
For 10 days, she prepared intensively with her team. They held mock presentations and Q&A sessions to challenge Uma on every point. They refined their deck in light of new arguments. Most importantly, they worked to shift Uma back and forth between her perspective and the CEO’s, so that she could both advocate for her view and acknowledge the other side.
In her meeting, Uma ended up encountering every single objection she had anticipated. The CEO asked some tough questions about her recommendations; she openly engaged with all of them, and explained how and why she arrived at her answers.
If Uma had been less prepared, she might have interpreted his questions as attacks on her position. But because she had done so much prep, she found that she wasn’t so much defending her ideas as explaining them more deeply, with the help of the CEO’s objections. In that way, Uma actually managed to avoid turning the CEO into an opponent at all. Instead, she demonstrated how much she respected his point of view, and how much self-awareness she had about her own — all of which enhanced her credibility and persuasiveness.
Uma’s relationship with her “opponent” reminded me of some great wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Let me never fall,” he once told himself, “into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
If we really do our homework, then being contradicted will never be a form of criticism or persecution. It will only become evidence and ammunition.
So as you develop your opinions, take your opponent’s arguments seriously. Study them. Understand them. Empathize with them. Acknowledge the evidence that supports their claims, and recognize the values and motivations that underlie them. Use their counterarguments — and there will always be counterarguments — to strengthen your position.
When you take the other side’s argument seriously, you force yourself to take your own side seriously, too — a massive advantage when it comes time to defend your perspective.
Revisit and revise your position.
A strong opinion is an informed opinion. Ironically, however, the more we cling to those opinions, the weaker they become.
That’s why the work that goes into forming an opinion is never really over. We have to revisit and revise our arguments — or at least be open to doing so — to ensure that they stay accurate and relevant. If we don’t, they will eventually stagnate and become obsolete. That’s why William Blake, who knew a thing or two about opinions, called people who never change their beliefs to “standing water.”
So how do we keep our opinions accurate?
First, continue to consume relevant data.
This means continuing to check sources relevant to your topic, exposing yourself to new data (studies, information, analyses — including those of your opposition), and staying on top of the latest ideas and developments that bear on your topic (policies, prescriptions, trends and so on).
As we saw in the table above, it’s the evidence underpinning your arguments that determines the strength of your opinion. If you stop consuming new evidence, your arguments will eventually start to break down.
If the opinion you’re developing relates to your career, then this step should be an ongoing layer to your job (carving out reading time, networking with industry experts, and discussing the issue within your office). If the topic you’re exploring is just of personal interest, then you only need to dedicate as much time to this step as is necessary to be comfortable in your position.
For example, if you’re a defense contractor to the government, then you should be dedicating time to reading trade journals that inform your beliefs about the industry. But if you’re a person who’s casually interested in the government’s defense budget, then you only have to read those sources as much as you want to satisfy your curiosity. There’s a spectrum of importance here, and it dictates how much time and energy you should dedicate to revising your views. As always, it’s all relative to the function of the opinion in your life.
Second, analyze your argument in light of new information.
As you consume new data, you’ll also be evaluating your existing opinions in light of it.
How do the latest job numbers affect your belief about a mayor’s job performance? How does your sibling’s promotion at work shift your opinion about their competence? We’re consuming new information all of the time, whether it’s economic or personal. It’s up to us to do the extra step of using it to confirm, qualify or change our existing beliefs.
Exercise: Fighting Confirmation Bias through Conversation
One of the best techniques in this stage is to test your opinion with other people — especially people who do not have the same experience, outlook or assumptions that you do.
When you explore your position with people who are radically different, you avoid the confirmation bias that gets most people into so much trouble. Confirmation bias, in its simplest terms, is the tendency to interpret new data as confirmation of our existing beliefs or opinions. It’s a dangerous cognitive quirk that leads even the greatest minds to the wrong conclusions.
This is another great reason for understanding your opponents’ arguments. Studying the other side not only challenges your own position, but also ensures that you don’t fall prey to the pitfalls that trap you in your existing views. Overcoming cognitive biases is one of the most important tools in our opinion toolkit, and it’s something we have to actively develop.
Strong beliefs are one mark of great leaders, thinkers and builders. But an even more important quality of successful people is their ability to change those beliefs.
I’ve noticed this trait in every high-performing person I’ve interviewed on the show. Confronted with new and compelling information, they rarely dig their heels in. In most cases, they dispense with the opinion that led them to that point, and revise or drop it in light of what they’ve learned.
The faster you’re able to do that — the more quickly you can reformat your beliefs — the faster you can respond to the dynamic world around you.
That willingness will empower you to ship the right products on time, come to a clearer understanding of your employees, and avoid pursuing opportunities that don’t serve you — all of which can make the difference between life and death, success and failure, happiness and misery.
You see that process sometimes on Shark Tank, where an investor like Mark Cuban will decline a deal only to learn a compelling new piece of data. Then, analyzing and integrating the information on the fly, he’ll suddenly change his mind and invest.
The product might not always pan out, but his willingness to drop an assumption and adopt a more accurate one in light of the evidence is one of the qualities that differentiates Cuban. It’s no surprise that other great investors, including Charlie Munger, consider this quality to be a superpower. “The ability to destroy your ideas rapidly instead of slowly when the occasion is right,” he said, “is one of the most valuable things.”
If I had learned that principle earlier in my life, I would have avoided tons of questionable partners, dysfunctional relationships and disappointing projects. Then again, sometimes you have to cling to your opinions for too long to learn how valuable it can be to drop them.
Which brings us to our final principle.
Don’t take your opinions too seriously.
Having well-considered opinions is important. But having a strong opinion on every topic you encounter is not always necessary. In some cases, it can actually work against you.
That might be surprising to hear, since this whole piece is about how to form a strong opinion. But it’s worth remembering that opinions are only important in relation to your values, your work, your goals, and the world around you. We don’t always need to have a clear opinion on every single topic, even if we want one.
Consider two very different cases.
Politics, for example. Knowing where you stand on campaign-finance reform might be “important,” but if you’re an engineer whose main priority is to be a great parent, then that opinion probably isn’t a matter of life and death. (Yes, you could argue that campaign finance laws indirectly affect everybody in society, and you’re right. But that doesn’t mean the engineer with a family absolutely needs to have a firm opinion on the topic to be happy or to raise a great family.) But if you work on Capitol Hill, you better know where you stand on campaign finance — because having a stance on that issue is a significant part of your job description, your relationships and your values.
Sometimes having no firm opinion on a given topic is actually an advantage — even if it relates directly to your goals. Take my friend Paul, an up-and-coming novelist.
When Paul sits down to develop a story, he needs to have a seed of an idea to work with. It could be an image, it could be a question, it could even be something as small as an object he finds interesting. But when he begins his work, he says, he is 99% in the dark about where it’s going to go. Not only is it impossible for him to have a strong opinion on how the story should unfold, but having a strong view might actually prevent him from creating something better.
So part of Paul’s job is actively trying to not have rigid beliefs about his work. Instead of forming a strong idea and then proving it in his writing, he writes without a strong idea, so he can eventually arrive at one. If he tried it the other way, he told me, his work would probably be much less interesting, and might never see the light of day.
That doesn’t mean Paul doesn’t have any opinions. It just means that he’s disciplined about which opinions matter in the moment. For example, he has strong views on the themes he finds meaningful, what makes a character interesting, and the best way to tell a story. But he knows that there are other opinions he doesn’t need even if they seem important, like what the finished product should look like before he even begins.
So there are jobs and situations that actually benefit from not taking your opinions too seriously. First dates are another great example. We should all have a conviction in our values and standards when it comes to our partners, but we probably have more to gain from being surprised by someone new than from clinging to an ideal version of who they should be (or, more often, what they should think). In fact, our opinions about other people’s opinions are usually the opinions we should take the least seriously.
The Best Opinion
“Strong opinions, weakly held.” This is a pearl of wisdom that has been around for a while, and is usually credited to tech guru Paul Saffo.
If there’s one insight that sums up this whole piece, it’s this: the idea that we should commit to the hard work of forming strong beliefs, while at the same time being willing to question, revise, and sometimes abandon them entirely in light of better evidence. If we can commit fully to both sides of that equation, then it’s very hard to go wrong in our opinions.
When we prioritize the process of forming good opinions over the content of those opinions, then we position ourselves to have the most effective and meaningful views over the course of our lives. We avoid the tendency to shut down, stagnate, or become out of touch. We stay alive to our own intellects and to the ever-changing world around us. We choose ourselves over our concepts, our minds over other people’s opinions.
Or, as Charles Hitchens once wrote, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” True story.
[Featured image by Elijah O’Donnell]