In their latest book on bettering your brain, Think Like a Freak, authors Levitt and Dunbar distill from cognitive science various morsels of wisdom on how to think more rationally and creatively. Among their advice, two related and counter-intuitive ideas stand out for lawyers.
First, we should learn to say, “I don’t know.” Lawyers fear ignorance because knowledge of the relevant facts and law is the key to preparation in legal representation. And preparation, in turn, is the key to success in most cases for most clients. A lawyer who admits ignorance, so this line of worry goes, risks both losing the client and the case.
Consider an alternative, one in which the lawyer says, “I don’t know,” but then follows it up with, “But I will find out.”At least three benefits should materialize. You will earn the client’s trust by your candor. You will now actually face what you don’t know, so that you can actually learn what you need to know. Plus, you will be thinking again, as opposed to reacting from fear of ignorance.
Second, we should “think like a child.” This advice is even more alien to lawyers than confessing ignorance. Lawyers must be serious, yes, but not so serious that we lose our innate ability to ask the simple, curious and unbiased questions – just like children do. Consider asking not the “big,” but the “small,” questions that children ask. Why? Because small questions are less often asked and therefore less likely to get us stuck in unresolved or biased problems. Because small questions are easier to untangle than big ones. Try chipping away at the margins of the problem instead of striking right to the core. Because problem solving often requires change, and small change is easier than big change. Because thinking big is, by definition, speculative and grand and imprecise.
These two maxims – think like a child and admit your ignorance – can be useful counter measures to legal thinking that too often leans on self-assurance and overly reductive problem solving.
These maxims enjoy a long lineage in our wisdom traditions. Sages in the eastern wisdom traditions refer to the “beginner’s mind,” as opposed to the expert’s mind, as the mind that is open, innocent of preconception, and able to solve and create simultaneously. Think Like a Freak shares this intellectual heritage, even though the authors rely on modern cognitive science research.
We lawyers can embrace both modern science and ancient wisdom to think more “freakishly” with the beginner’s mind. We might find such thinking improves our legal practice, not to mention our own mental wellbeing.