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The three most powerful words

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It's confession time.

That massive, much-discussed tome on economics I planned to read on vacation? Haven’t so much as cracked it open. I was too busy. And once I got back, I reorganized two closets, went to a conference, weeded the flower beds, caught Gamut Theatre’s excellent annual Shakespeare in the Park production, rejuvenated my grill — and read a different kind of economics book. That one was fun, a word I don’t expect to apply to the other one.

Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner, authors of the best-selling “Freakonomics” and “SuperFreakonomics,” published a short book last month titled “Think Like A Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain.”

It’s a quick read — the kind of business book that breaks complex topics down into bullet points and catchphrases. The nine chapters, according to my e-reader (which tends to wildly overestimate), can be digested in less than three hours.

That doesn’t make it trivial, though.

I have two takeaways to share — one for this week and one to follow up with next week. They aren’t necessarily original to Leavitt and Dubner, and I’ve heard them before, but they bear repeating.

Today: Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” when someone asks you a question.

Avoiding that answer seems to be hard-wired into our brains, though. Leavitt and Dubner cite a study done on British schoolchildren who were told a simple, three-sentence story and then asked questions about it.

Two of the questions could be answered from the story. Two had no answers, because the information wasn’t provided and it couldn’t be inferred. Nearly all the children answered the first two questions correctly. Nearly 70 percent of the children made up answers or bluffed their way through the second two.

OK, so those were children. And let’s say children like to exercise their active, creative imaginations and don’t see firm boundaries between reality and fantasy the way adults do. So of course they filled in the blanks.

It turns out experts are even worse, however. Not only do most experts freely make bad predictions about the future in their area of expertise, Leavitt and Dubner’s research suggest, but the more you know about your field, the more likely you are to have opinions about things you know nothing about.

Why can’t I get Donald Rumsfield, with his “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” out of my head? That actually made a lot of sense, if you could untangle his words.

It’s what you don’t know that hurts you in the end. And if you can’t sort out the facts from the assumptions, if you don’t know where your blind spots are, you can be in trouble before you realize it.

That’s another book on my shelf that I just had to read and never opened: “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He wrote 444 pages on why the greatest changes are caused by the things we don’t even suspect are coming at us. In a sense, we’re all complacent dinosaurs just before the comet hits earth — unless we choose not to be. Thank goodness some of us still ask, “What if?” and try to fill the gaps in human knowledge by looking past the assumptions to seek out the unknown.

“I don’t know.” Leavitt and Dubner call them the three hardest words in the English language. I call them the most powerful.

Next week: What’s so bad about failure?

The week ahead

The TeamPA Foundation has a new leader as of this month, and reporter Jason Scott talks to her about where she plans to take the organization.

On the banking scene, reporter Michael Sadowski polls the analysts to see why a midstate bank is under pressure to increase its stock value via a merger and whether that’s a good idea for shareholders.

This week’s Inside Business focus is on marketing and public relations. How do you build brand loyalty? How do you preserve your brand when your business model — and targeted customer base — changes?

The lists are on advertising, marketing and PR firms/consultants; signage companies; and niche consultants.

Find the week’s networking opportunities here.

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