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“Strong opinions, loosely held.” Sure but why?

And what does it even mean for an opinion to be strong but also loose? Is this expression garbage?

The question that everyone starts with is: how can an opinion be both strong and loose? Answer: it’s referring to 2 different things. Strong is a level of extremity, and loose is a level of conviction. We could rephrase it as “extreme opinions, with low conviction.”

Example of a strong opinion, loosely held:

Python is a terrible solution for this problem, but I’d be open to changing my mind if you showed me a nice proof of concept.

Example of the opposite – a weak opinion, tightly held:

Python may be ok-ish for this problem but I don’t think it’s my top choice, and there’s nothing you could say or do that would change my mind.

With me so far? Good. So why is this valuable?

First let’s define the scope of this advice. This is not a way to live your life in general. It’s a way to approach discussions and debates to make them productive. (But note that debates can also be internal; they don’t have to involve other people.)

Let’s start with the easy part: “loosely held.” Don’t be stubborn. Change your mind easily. Otherwise, why would anyone waste their time discussing anything with you?

Now the tougher part: “strong opinions.” Why? Because weak opinions aren’t valuable in a discussion.

Say I believe that “Python is an OK solution.” What’s the point of debating that? There’s no discussion to be had there no matter how loosely held that opinion is. It’s not a productive point of view in a discussion.

But say I believe that “Python is absolutely the best solution.” That’s ripe for a productive debate as long as that opinion is loosely held. Now, you may be saying “so I have to always pretend like my is opinion is strong even if it isn’t?” No, just don’t have a discussion around an opinion unless it’s a strong one.

If opinions were cars, “strong opinions” would be powerful motors. “Loosely held opinions” would be top notch brakes and steering. Be the zoomy car that can stop and turn on a dime. Don’t be the slow moving tank that takes forever to change direction.

I tend to think of things in terms of experiments. We could rephrase “strong opinions, loosely held” as “form a hypothesis and then try to prove it wrong.” It’s the scientific method dumbed down to a catchy sentence. And you can’t argue with science.

(Note, this post came out of a Twitter discussion which came out of an episode of the Not Overthinking podcast.)


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