Learners Operate in “Perpetual Beta”

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 11-24-21

The very first problem-solving behavior I explore in People Solve Problems is to Learn Deliberately (Chapter 9). Learning is more than just a skill, just as problem-solving is more than just a tool. Learning deliberately is a mindset and behavior. One way to describe this is to hold our assumptions lightly, always willing to let them go or to change them. This is easy when they are only surface-level beliefs or assumptions, but much harder, and more important, when they are core to our work and our thought processes.

In the book Noise, co-authored by Daniel Kahneman (who authored the important Thinking Fast and Slow), they explore the idea of superforecasters who are really effective at making predictions. They determined that “what distinguishes the superforecasters isn’t their sheer intelligence; it’s how they apply it.” The book expands on the concept: 

“To characterize the thinking style of superforecasters, Tetlock uses the phrase “perpetual beta,” a term used by computer programmers for a program that is not meant to be released in a final version but that is endlessly used, analyzed, and improved. Tetlock finds that ‘the strongest predictor of rising into the ranks of superforecasters is perpetual beta, the degree to which one is committed to belief updating and self-improvement.’ As he puts it, ‘What makes them so good is less what they are than what they do – the hard work of research, the careful thought and self-criticism, the gathering and synthesizing of other perspectives, the granular judgments, and relentless updating.’ They like a particular cycle of thinking: ‘try, fail, analyze, adjust, try again.’ 

This describes well the mindset of a learner mentality. While reality might be more fixed, our understanding and knowledge of that reality is more flexible and temporary. Learners never assume they are right. They also aren’t paralyzed by the possibility of being wrong, because they know everyone else is also flying without a net. Learners are able to decide and act with relative confidence, which is much more powerful than false confidence. 

If you are operating in perpetual beta, you will always be open to learning as it becomes available, whether that is new insight to existing ways of working or being flexible to new ways of how things really work.