A radical thought: in defense of arguments

Remember the “debate?” The art of constructing and carrying out an argument. I find myself seeking those out more and more recently and I finally realize why. During another car ride this weekend it struck me:

If done well, arguing makes us smarter

I have to give credit where credit is due. A few of my friends and start up founders — we will call them Stan, Mary, and Vas — inspired endless discussions about algorithms and biases, and role they have played in making us feel comfortable and “right”, when in fact we are not. Knowing what we know now about how the algorithms used by social media companies work — i.e. pushing content that polarizes people and keeps pushing them to extreme views — we recognized a need for consciously pushing ourselves to be uncomfortable. To deconstruct the information that gets served to us, and arrive at new conclusions sitting in a grey area rather than a black or white one. (I have also now realized I have been privileged in my adult life to be surrounded by highly intelligent people who have never let me keep off my toes — so, thank you!)

While we wait for the FAANGs of the world to take appropriate responsibility towards people — either through regulation, or other means — what we ourselves can do is develop our comfort with, and preparedness to, argue.

The aim is not to win an argument. It is to learn something new and move humanity forward.

In order to do this, with more of my founders now we do a little exercise. We argue. About everything. On purpose. There is one rule both parties need to abide by:

You are not entitled to an opinion. You have to form an opinion.

1) Do your homework: This means going out, getting the data and evidence, by speaking with the right expert people on the subject. This is true even if you think you know your subject. We live in a fast changing world. Assume your evidence is already old.

2) Crystalize your values: what do you prioritize? Ask yourself difficult questions (e.g. do I care about privacy or security? And why? And under what circumstance would that priority change? What would I do if pushed into a corner?). If you can, experience your questions.

3) Be respectful: you are speaking to a human being who has their life story, their experience, and their perspective. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and listen to what they have to say. Then give them respect if they amend their opinion.

Somewhere on the vector between your fresh evidence, and your values, is where your opinion lays. “Respectfully” is how it should be delivered.

If you are a start up founder and you are afraid of arguments, culturally you are not a start up — you are an old dinosaur company, which grooms soldiers, and punishes dissenters. Every business needs to evolve and this happens through a conscious effort of disrupting your own self time and time again.

Don’t be afraid to disrupt yourself. Don’t be afraid to argue.

Start up advisor, strategy manager, and investor. @WeWork; ex-Uber; ex-VC; ex-TBWA. LBS MBA.

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