Factfulness: Are You Sure – Or Is Your Thinking Simply Outdated?

I was recently struck by my lack of knowledge while reading Hans Rosling Factfulness (2018).  My only consolation was that I was not alone.  Ninety-five percent of the people made the same errors. One of the questions I missed was:  In the last 20 years has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty:

  1. Almost doubled
  2. Stayed approximately the same
  3. Almost halved

Would you be surprised to learn that extreme poverty has been cut by almost 50%?  I was.  In fact, I barely considered option C.  My preconceived ideas, my repeated exposure to tragic news stories and, to be honest, my reliance on outdated facts led me to conclude that it had almost doubled.

While I am in good company since almost everyone was mistaken, the fact is both comforting and disturbing.  It means most of us are out of sync with our current reality. Why is this?  The causes include:  (1) our assumption that we already know everything we need to know, (2) a tendency to expect the worst case is the most likely outcome, (3) a proclivity to reduce issues to two simple options and (4) time pressures.

If you are not convinced of the extent of this problem, consider another question:  Which statement do you agree with the most?

  1. the world is getting better
  2. the world is getting worse
  3. the world is getting neither better nor worse

The correct answer is A and the data that proves this includes: significant increase in literacy, agricultural yields have increased, more people have electricity, more groups are allowed to vote, child cancer rates have improved, access to potable water has grown, more girls are in school,  and technology has spread widely to less developed nations. Many of us failed to see this program.  We seem to see the world as a glass half empty, rather than half full.  Moreover, this notion creates fear derailing critical thinking and analysis.

Critical thinking is vital as we confront rapid change and complexity.

What we know “for sure” is rarely entirely accurate.  Sometimes our knowledge is obsolete, and at other times it is incomplete.  To understand our current circumstance, we must stop thinking we know more than we do and start asking questions to fully understand all the issues enabling us to examine the facts critically.  Critical thinking is vital as we confront rapid change and complexity.  It exposes misconceptions, while also producing wiser more rewarding decisions.

Knowing that we infrequently update our knowledge and overlook information that does not conform to our pre-existing assumptions, we need new tools. Deploying a checklist has proven successful in medicine, aviation, litigation, and construction not because of ineptitude or ignorance but due to inherent cognitive flaws.   Instead of being a constraint, checklists free our minds to concentrate on critical aspects, prevent small mistakes and save time.  Now it is time for leaders at all levels to develop, share and use checklists to stay in sync with their current reality.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. Thanks a lot, Dr. Lippitt, for sharing yet another eye-opening advisory! Without going too far, we can learn from the trades-people how frequently (and above all, why) do they need to train, retrain, and also re-qualify, to stay up-to-date with their skills. Perhaps, leadership is an exception where people assume their achievements are good for life, with scant regard to the massive developments taking place all around us, each passing moment.

    Technology has changed the entire gamut of communications. “Internet of Things,’ AI, Machine Learning, VR, Robots, Cloud, FOG, and Edge have given a new meaning to advancement. Given this scenario, how can leadership aspirants choose to sit on their so-called laurels, and continue to impart their outdated ‘wisdom’ to the innocent followers? It is nothing short of selling snake-oil!

    My family joins me in Wishing You, and All Your Loved Ones, Happy Holidays, and A Very Bright, Cheerful, Happy, Healthy, Peaceful, and Productive New Year 2019!!!

    • Bharat,
      Thank you for your insightful and kind post. You are correct that leaders frequently fail to realize the need for agility to cope with massive changes. New thinking is essential. The reference you made to the impact of technology cuts to one of the pressing needs leaders face today. As technology replaces entry level jobs our need to retrain our workforce mounts. I just returned from Zimbabwe where I took my first safari and was shocked to see an unemployment rate of 80% there and 30% in South Africa. How should leaders in those instances handle the outplacement of people? How will they achieve the right balance between short term opportunity and long term sustainability?
      I look forward to learning more from you and our colleagues.
      Happy New Year to you and your family,

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