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Why Every Good Leader Should Escape the Algorithm (Before You Can’t…or Won’t)

algorithm

A lot has changed in the last decade. In fact, things have changed so quickly it’s hard to remember how it used to be.

For example, any idea what’s influencing how you think?

Or let me ask it another layer down: have you ever worried as a leader that your ability to make good, healthy decisions is being compromised?

By what you ask?

As strange as it sounds—algorithms of all things.

An astonishing amount of your life and mine is run by algorithms these days, and that’s something that has changed rapidly in the last decade, almost without us knowing it.

Algorithms drive the suggestions you see on sites ranging from Amazon to Netflix to Spotify or Prime that tell you ‘because you watched X, you’ll probably like Y.” That’s algorithmic suggestion.

While I’m not generally an alarmist, I’m increasingly concerned that the omnipresence algorithms is threatening your ability to think freely, creatively and redemptively.

Okay, I know this sounds totally out there. So where’s this showing up in your day-to-day?

Algorithms drive most of your current experience on:

Amazon

Spotify

Netflix

Kindle

Hulu

YouTube

Instagram

Facebook

Twitter

..and about a million other places.

Social has gone algorithmic too.

Gone are the days where on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter you could chronologically scroll through your complete feed and see what everyone you follow is up to. Now—and this is the key—the app itself decides what content you should see and what you shouldn’t.

All of this means your Netflix, Spotify and social channels, and even your Amazon looks completely different than mine or your neighbor’s.

Content providers today keep feeding us more of what they think we want because it results in more clicks, and more clicks eventually equal more dollars.

While this sounds like a great thing (giving you more of what you want), I’m increasingly convinced it’s not.

If you think this has nothing to do with the freedom you need to live and lead well—or to even think clearly and well—think again.

There are at least four potential challenge to your life and leadership that our current algorithmic culture has created.

1. You loop into deeper confirmation bias

As your choices narrow and you click more, your decision-making ability deteriorates because you see more of what you already like/believe/accept.

Algorithms don’t challenge confirmation bias, they fuel it.

Algorithms don't challenge confirmation bias, they fuel it. Click To Tweet

Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to interpret new evidence in a way that supports our pre-existing beliefs. A simple example: when you read more reviews after you made a purchase to ensure that you made a sound choice, and dismiss the one and two-star reviews as people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Essentially, your confirmation bias gets fueled when algorithms feed you more video on why the world works the way you think it works.

Essentially, the algorithm keeps feeding you more you. Theologically and philosophically, that’s not a good move. The problem when you do you is that all you get is more you. 

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t need more me. I have enough holes in my thinking, enough biases and blind spots that what I need is more truth in my life, more perspective, more help from others who see things I don’t see, understand things I don’t understand and can help me align my life more closely with where it should be going.

If you think this isn’t a problem, read on to the second point.

The problem when you do you is that all you get is more you. Click To Tweet

2. You become more tribal and extreme

So where is our current tribalism and extremism coming from? As the middle disappears from politics and people seem to be increasingly left or right, conservative or progressive and extreme, what’s fueling that?

Again, you could argue algorithms have quite a bit to do with it.

You click on one story about the alt-right or socialism (pick your extreme) and five more appear next time you’re on the platform. Click on a few more, and descent down a wormhole begins.

Similarly, if you follow your more conservative or liberal friends, again, more suggestions of similar ideological/theological/philosophical pop-up.

Before you know it, your whole world thinks the same, believes the same and acts the same way you do, and perhaps in more extreme ways.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic or alarmist, but everyone is in on the ‘pay attention to me’ game these days. Even the Weather Network wants me to turn on alerts so they can keep me ‘safe’.  And, sticking to the world of weather, almost everything has become a weather alert these days—from humidity to heat to cold. And I’m not talking about record-breaking or extreme weather. The game now is to turn any variation into news so you’ll click. Even relatively ordinary weather is being sold as extreme.

Which of course explains FoxNews and CNN and all the online sites trying to claim your attention.

If you don’t think this is an issue, ask yourself. Am I more:

  • convinced you’re right today than you were a decade ago?
  • nuanced in your thought, or less?
  • rigid, or more curious?
  • extreme, or more moderate?
  • loving, or less?

You probably didn’t become more extreme all by yourself.

One more thing: there’s a huge difference between a deeply held belief and a rigidly held belief. If you’re a Christian, deep runs concurrently with love.  Rigid is louder, angrier and more tribal.

There's a huge difference between a deeply held belief and a rigidly held belief. If you're a Christian, deep runs concurrently with love. Rigid is louder, angrier and more tribal. Click To Tweet

3. Your choices usually end up becoming more limited, not greater

Think back to the day when you had to purchase music, as in specific music, to listen to what you wanted to hear (or rely on radio to play your favorite song).

You saved up your money and purchased a physical CD, cassette or album and listened away. The iPod changed that a little bit as purchases moved from physical to digital, but what totally changed the game was streaming. Now, for a dozen dollars or so a month, you can theoretically listen to anything from anyone anytime.

Except, if you’re like me, you don’t.

The algorithm keeps feeding me songs based on what I listened to previously, which rather than make happier, makes me feel like my universe is shrinking. Even in the auto-generated playlists, they keep stacking songs I’ve already listened to.

Sure, you can break free and listen to whatever you want. But you have to work at it, and most of us don’t.

But I miss the days of a few hundred CDs and the random radio and different stations that fed me new music. (And yes, you can go to the new music playlists etc etc etc, but still.)

The same is true of online shopping, video, TV shows, movies, social posts etc: you don’t actually get more choices, you get fewer because the algorithm is designed to feed you things it thinks you like so you’ll stay on longer, buy more, and click more often.

In an online culture run by algorithms, you don't actually get more choices, you get fewer. Click To Tweet

4. You lose the ability to think freely 

All of this challenges your ability and my ability to think and choose freely.

In a fascinating interview with TED founder Chris Anderson, historian Yuval Noah Harari highlights some of the concerns with our loss of autonomy and the ability to think freely. (Listen in at the 1:05:00 mark). Harari argues that our minds are being hacked and that human hacking (the ability to control how we think, behave and even vote) is at stake. While that may be an extreme view, and while I don’t agree with everything Harari says, I think his argument is worth considering.

Again, ask yourself whether your views have calcified or whether you’re still learning and growing from a variety of sources?

I can only imagine some of the push back that might happen by even asking questions like these. Personally, I am committed Christian with deeply held convictions. Ironically, those convictions have deepened not because I’ve avoided opposing views or open dialogue, but because I’ve engaged them.

If your world-view collapses because you’re open to dialogue and other ideas, your worldview wasn’t that strong to begin with.

And if you have to defend it by getting angrier and louder, you’re probably speaking to an ever-dwindling circle of people.

If your world-view collapses because you're open to dialogue and other ideas, your worldview wasn't that strong to begin with. Click To Tweet

So What Should You Do? 

The best leadership is based on the best thinking. So is the best life. If your thinking is limited, so is your life and leadership.

If algorithms really are diminishing choice and variety, they’re diminishing you and the organization you lead. And if they’re diminishing nuance, they’re diminishing all of us.

Here are three things you can do.

If algorithms really are diminishing choice and variety, they're diminishing you and the organization you lead. If they're diminishing nuance, they're diminishing all of us. Click To Tweet

1. Read and listen widely

Break out of the algorithm and read, listen and watch widely. Think back to the public library or even Blockbuster when you could walk into a room and choose from hundreds of options, not just the ten someone (or some code) thinks you’d like.

Find out what people who don’t share your exact perspective are reading, and read that. Watch someone completely different. Go way outside your normal genre.

Cross-disciplinary learning is one of the best forms of learning anyway. Know nothing about astronomy? Go learn something.

2.  Learn from people you disagree with instead of judging them

It’s so easy to think you’re right to judge people who disagree with you.

Don’t.

Learn from them. Just because someone doesn’t think the way you think doesn’t mean their stupid. Highly intelligent people hold opposing views. Some of them are smarter than you are.

Learn from them. Be open.

So many narrow-minded people see this as a threat. It’s not. Sometimes my views change, but even when they don’t my understanding broadens. Frankly, as a former lawyer, I know that understanding the opposing point of view is one of the best ways to get people to accept you thinking.

Ridiculing and dismissing others makes you look stupid.

Learn from others rather than judging them. Ridiculing and dismissing others makes you look stupid. Click To Tweet

3. Embrace first principles thinking

The ability to think for yourself will emerge as a superpower in leadership only because it’s becoming increasingly rare. Imitation is far more common today than innovation.

Imitation is far more common today than innovation. Click To Tweet

So do that.

What is first principles thinking? Essentially first principles thinking is the ability to think through a problem to its foundational concepts, elements or principles. Simply put, it’s an axiom that cannot be deduced from any other within that system.

In popular terms, it’s not accepting what is widely assumed.

First-principles thinking deconstructs a problem to the most fundamental level of what what is known and builds out what you’re trying to accomplish from that.

It challenges all assumptions, and it’s the foundation of breakthrough leadership and thought. James Clear has a helpful post on first principles thinking here,

Some examples:

  • If you run a business, you have to have an office. (Actually, you don’t. The rise of the virtual workplace is more than possible and is becoming a significant phenomenon.)
  • Artists will always starve, it’s just the nature of the industry.
  • People just aren’t interested in coming to a weekend service for church anymore.

Again, widely accepted current thinking will get reinforced by algorithmically driven sources. It becomes a confirmation bias, a feedback loop that self-perpetuates.

In the church world, church online drew a ton of criticism when it launched. So did multisite. So did video teaching. They still do. But all of these are attempts to break through to a new way of reaching people. Current iterations may not be future iterations, but don’t assume that what others accept is true.

As Elon Musk says, good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.

Good ideas are always crazy, until they're not. @elonmusk Click To Tweet

Free Up Far More Time to Read, Explore and Live

Sometimes you read an article like this and all you can think is  “I barely had time to read this post, how will I find the time to explore me?”

I get it.

I always used to say I didn’t have time to read, exercise, or do what I wished I had time to do.

Then, I burned out.

Since then, I found a new normal that radically boosted my productivity and helped me beat overwhelm and get my life and leadership back.

I’ve published four books (and written my fifth), started blogging, podcasting and speaking around the world, all while leading a growing company, and I did it through years of experimenting with how to get time, energy and priorities working in my favour.

And in the last few years, I’ve helped thousands of leaders do the same thing.

I’ve put all my learnings so far into my High Impact Leader course.

The High Impact Leader is an online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favor.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – Joel Rowland,  Clayton County, North Carolina

“Carey’s course was the perfect way for our team to prepare for the new year. Our team, both collectively and individually, took a fresh look at maximizing our time and leadership gifts for the year ahead. I highly recommend this leadership development resource for you and your team.” Jeff Henderson, Atlanta Georgia

“A lot of books and programs make big promises and cannot deliver but this is not one of them. I have read so many books and watched videos on productivity but the way you approach it and teach is helpful and has changed my work week in ministry in amazing ways.” Chris Sloan, Kingston, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell, Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Colorado Springs,  Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

Thoughts?

I know this post is more philosophical and cultural than normal, and it might strike you as more ‘out there’ than my normal posts.

But this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and noticing. And I think it directly impacts the quality of our life and leadership.

The ability to think freely is exactly what helps us to explore and embrace the best ideas.

What are your thoughts? Scroll down and leave a comment.

12 Comments

  1. Adam on September 16, 2019 at 9:33 pm

    Bandersnatch. I’m with you though, Carey. Thanks for bringing it to light in a more serious understanding of it than Black Mirror and some solutions to boot!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2019 at 2:54 pm

      My Pleasure!

  2. Dell Bornowsky on September 16, 2019 at 8:13 pm

    Thank you for this issue and warning (being “more philosophical and cultural than normal”). Cultural analysis is imprtant to the effective proclamation of the Gospel. I think you are right to suggest that this kind of editing by algorithm also plays into the increasing tendency toward to polarization, tribalism, and radicalization.

    Back in the early seventies (I guess that is way-back now) when I was a student in Television and Radio Production much of our training was writing and producing advertising. Even before the days of algorithms related to the interests and buying habits of consumers, the research being done by marketing companies was already starting to predict that particular types of campaigns focused on particular demographics would produce particular levels of sales.

    Reflecting on the thought control illustrated in George Orwell’s book “1984” where the slogan “big brother is watching” indicated that state surveillance of the masses could achieve control through fear, we concluded that in democratic but consumeristic societies it was not necessary for big brother to be watching us in order sway societal norms, rather it is enough for us to be watching big brother through mass media.

    As Neil Postman suggested in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” appeals to pleasure (and confirmation bias?) may be even more effective than stimulus by fear because those being influenced are less apt to realize they are being manipulated.
    The ability to predict someone’s behaviour, to buy or “click”, is nearly as good as being able to control them, because with the advent of surveillance capitalism less effort is needed to predict the behaviour of the masses than to try to change them. Of course on the mass scale at which surveillance capitalism operates now it is not necessary to control any particular individual, it is enough (as was hoped by the marketers in the seventies) to predict or influence a significant (profitable) portion of a particular demographic.

    Nevertheless as you suggest the technique of algorithm editing does represent a significant determent to the ability of individuals to truly “browse” in terms of exploring unhindered all the variety that actually exists. And as expressed in the following article, with concerns similar to yours, the temptation to move from mere prediction to outright manipulation is strong: https://beta.washingtonpost.com/opinions/surveillance-capitalism-has-gone-rogue-we-must-curb-its-excesses/2019/01/24/be463f48-1ffa-11e9-9145-3f74070bbdb9_story.html?noredirect=on

    • Sue Gore on September 27, 2019 at 9:24 am

      I completely agree with you and have been noticing that I haven’t been feeling as challenged as I used to. Propaganda is everywhere and it feels like we can’t escape our bubble. I used to want to take time to write a book or blog but found no time. Now it’s more that I am not as motivated to. I will look into your course. I have been listening to your podcasts and enjoyed the thought provoking information. Thanks

  3. Paul Noblin on September 16, 2019 at 1:51 pm

    I know that I am redundant, but I have found a way to counter Brainwashing. Carey is right. Algorithms are a form of persuasion (brainwashing) that ultimately really wants one to buy. Look, everyone knows that products are paired with sex. A beautiful girl is shown with Brillo Pads. When you see Brillo Pads in the grocery store, you buy the product because a pairing of Brillo Pads and sex has been made. But, see this. When you are with a beautiful girl, you think about Brillo Pads. Over and over this goes. After a while, advertising and algorithms ruin good relationships. Even your relationship with God.

    Stop watching TV, don’t get addicted to the internet, and talk more with real people around you to even understand the news. Certainly, everyone needs to get closer to God through Jesus Christ.

    Tell everyone you can to read every Word of the Bible. Ask them to read it twice. One time for content, and another time for context. Ask Jesus to call down the Holy Spirit to help with understanding the Word. Don’t worry about the new trend to study Hebrew. Just read the Bible. It is the Truth that everyone needs. It stands alone.

    Here goes –

    The Key to the Universe;
    Revelation One Nineteen
    Write down a brief account of your day, your problems that day, and a list of tasks to do the next day.
    ©1985 Paul Noblin

    Read Rev.1:19 (KJV).
    “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;”
    Write down the past, present, and future.
    Align your inside mind with the outside world (reality including Christ), and you will be one with All.
    Telepath Love & Perfection.
    The past is not fixed. The past is in flux and is constantly changing.
    You can bend reality.
    You are the center of your own Universe.
    Reprogram yourself.
    It only 15 or 20 minutes of your evening.

    You must join our organization. The S. P. C. P. – The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to People.
    Just bury $40.00 in a jar in your backyard. We will contact you. Presto. You’re in!

    Warm Regards… paul.

    I am convinced that Carey is a good man who knows Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. He also moves mountains. I pray that Carey, his family, and his ministry will be strong and flourish. I suppose that he is “old school.” Many young people are simply “no school.” I am not a preacher. I have paranoid schizophrenia who is no longer insane. I am now, perfectly insane and will never come back. With Jesus, I am a happy man at 61 years old. Cheers.

  4. Aaron Bartlett on September 16, 2019 at 11:53 am

    I found this podcast to be really eye-opening following the same topic: https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/digital-manipulation/id523121474?i=1000444275182 I agree, we need to guard thinking for ourselves, continuing to practice critical thinking and deriving conclusions for individual circumstances “first principles” as you put it. One major part of this is self-reflection and being honest with ourselves when we start to follow a path of bias reinforcement.

  5. Thomas Sharpe on September 16, 2019 at 9:41 am

    Confirmation bias can be away for us to establish security and righteousness. Both of these attributes are given in Christ. The Gospel frees us to understand other when our righteousness and security are in Christ. For me, it has brought about doubt. But at the same time The Gospel is about God’s holding onto to me rather me holding onto God.

  6. Kevin on September 16, 2019 at 9:38 am

    Carey
    Do you think that our pulpits have fallen pray to algorithm thinking. Recycling the same 10 hot topics each year rather than helping people learn to think and process in a Spirit empowered Christ like way?

  7. Brian on September 16, 2019 at 9:33 am

    Old tech may help. RSS feeds still contain the information from sources you select. I keep up with site via Feedly.

  8. Brian Rutherford on September 16, 2019 at 9:24 am

    If you have read Digital Minimalism or listened to the Sleepwalkers podcast, you find that the problem is worse than we even think. We are addicted to input and when that is “curated input”, we lose touch with reality. It’s interesting to note that in Luke’s account of Jesus life, he shows Jesus constantly disengaging from the input of people. Silence. Solitude. Fasting. Retreat. If Jesus needed to do this in a less noisy world than ours, we may need heavy doses of these same anti-algorithmic practices in our day.

  9. Glendon Gross on September 16, 2019 at 9:24 am

    I’m a musician who uses Facebook and YouTube to promote my events. Consequently I am always trying to find ways to optimize the algorithms you are talking about. (One example is “liking” your own posts on Facebook in the hope that it improves their standing in the collective newsfeed.) But lately I have noticed that despite having almost 5,000 “friends” on Facebook, my news feed seems to become increasingly trivial and irrelevant. I suspect that part of the reason has to do with the Facebook algorithm reflecting too much of myself back to me, as you discuss in this post. Paradoxically this behavior may ultimately spell the doom of Facebook, if it drives away people because they do not see the kinds of things on the platform that drew them to use Facebook in the beginning. It reminds me of the old saying, “too many cooks spoil the broth”, in that if my Facebook news feed is too cooked and contrived by algorithmic manipulations, I may lose interest. But your observations on polarization in society are on the money, and just as bad actors have used it to influence elections (as in the case of the Cambridge Analytica scandal) thoughtful people should introspectively consider whether they are becoming excessively polarized via the data presented to them by the algorithm, causing them to form wrong assessments of what the actual opinions of their peers are on a subject. This behavior may cause me to move in the direction of doing less promotion on Facebook and more of it offline.

  10. Robert Juric on September 16, 2019 at 9:00 am

    I’ve been thinking about this as well. The question I keep bumping into is how far do you go to break out of the algorithm. Yes you can keep fighting it with these suggestions, but is that a fight worth fighting? Is it better to try and balance out the algorithm, or avoid it altogether?

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