Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Leaders Guide to Encouraging Doubt, Distraction, Calmness, Context, and Curiosity

Written by: on February 5, 2024

I read Tim Harford’s book How to Make the World Add Up and listened to two lectures that he gave in Oxford[1].  As I read and listened, I asked myself two questions, how do these relate to the other books we have read, and how do they relate to leadership.  I am going to process more about how I see this relating to leadership.  In his book Harford provides us with ten rules to help when looking at numbers.  His first lecture Statistics: Why the Truth Matters?  provided me two words to remember, doubt and distraction[2].  His second lecture How to be a Truth Detective provided three words to remember, calm, context and curious.[3]  Both lectures contained similar content found in his book, but it is easier for me to remember 5 words than 10 phrases.  Let me process each of the 5 words.

Doubt In both the book and his lecture Harford discussed doubt as the weapon the big tobacco companies used to deal with the research showing tobacco smoke causes lung cancer.  Martyn Percy encouraged us to sow seeds of doubt as we educate others, he used the word suspicion.[4]  Martyn wants us to doubt so that we dive deeper into the learning process, research and discover the truths for ourselves.  Big tobacco wants us to doubt so that we remain complacent in our thoughts and behaviors.  If there is a chance this is not true, then I do not have to change anything.  As a leader, I need to encourage my followers to doubt, to be active in their own knowledge seeking process, not just believe something because I said it.  Harford encourages his readers to do the same in several rules found in his book.

Distraction According to Harford, distraction is a form of noise “anything that prevents us from focusing on the issue”[5]  It’s amazing how we never hear a bad wheel bearing in our vehicles when we always have the radio playing.  Distraction has both its benefits and drawbacks.  To be honest, I have a friend who is really struggling right now with things that are essentially out of their control, yet they feel a deep sense of responsibility.  I told my friend that he needed to do something to distract himself from focusing on the issue.  I said this so that my friend could allow their mind some rest from the stress they feel.  However, like a bad wheel bearing, if we continue to ignore real problems, there is the potential for disaster to occur.  As leaders we need to balance how we use distraction in our lives and how we coach others.  I believe there is a time to engage in the deep listening that Tom Camacho talks about, where “we let the person we are coaching share what they are thinking and feeling about their issue or situation.”[6]  Then there are times when I believe at the discernment of the Holy Spirit, we need to encourage the person to take a break and do or think about something else for a while.

Calm In his lecture “How to be a Truth Detective”, Harford talked about being calm, In his book, this is rule Number One, Search Your Feelings, however, I think some of the other rules apply here as well.[7] [8]  In his lecture Harford talked about how Conan Doyle, the acclaimed author of Sherlock Holmes believed in fairies based off a photograph that he saw.  Harford says this was a problem with what he calls the Brain Guard whose job is “to figure out what information is allowed into your brain and what information you ignore or reject or you forget.”[9] Harford discussed how our feelings impact our desire for what we want to be true, thus impacting how the brain guard does its job.  He says we need to calm down and take time to examine how our feelings might be impacting our perceptions.  Like all the cultures and myths that Joseph Campbell researched, there’s a desire for those stories to be true because of how they make us feel, we want our heroes and gods who provide for our needs and fight our demons.[10]  As leaders, we need to take stock of our feelings.  We cannot let our feelings dictate how we make decisions.  Especially when those decisions impact the lives of several other people.

Context In Harford’s book, rules four through six fit into this category, making sure that we “Step Back and Enjoy the View”, Get the Back Story” and “Ask Who is Missing”[11]  As humans it is easy for us to focus on what we want to see and disregard the surrounding and/or missing information.  Leaders need to ask context questions when information is presented to them.  Leaders also must be careful not to take information out of context to influence others’ behavior.  Some churches can be guilty of this. For example, I can provide a congregation in August the amount people gave in the month of July and compare it to the average monthly giving to encourage people to give more and make up the difference.  I’ve taken that out of context, knowing that many people don’t give in July because they are on vacation and others give big gifts in December.

Curiosity Harford wraps up his book with this word, he encourages us to “Look deeper and ask questions”[12] Let’s not take everything that is presented to us as the gospel truth, let’s be suspicious and ask ourselves and others those deep hard questions that really need to be answered for us to understand our world.

[1] Tim Harford How to Make the World Add UP: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently about Numbers. (Great Britain: Bridge Street Press, 2020).

[2] Tim Harford, “Statistics: Why the Truth Matters,”  Oxford Mathematics Public Lectures, February 15, 2017, video of lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHnJd6lEtTM

[3] Tim Harford, “How to be a Truth Detective”  2023 Oxford Maths Festival, May 23, 2023, video of lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgy6fleG-RI

[4] Martyn Percy (lecture, Portland Seminary, Oxford England, September 23, 2023).

[5] Harford, 2017, 48:55.

[6] Tom Camacho, Mining For Gold (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019), 61.

[7] Harford, 2023.

[8] Harford, 2020, 21.

[9] Harford, 2023, 23:55.

[10] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces 2 ed. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973), 36

[11] Harford, 2020, 93-162.

[12] Harford, 2020, 282.

About the Author

Jeff Styer

Jeff Styer lives in Northeast Ohio's Amish Country. He has degrees in Social Work and Psychology and currently works as a professor of social work at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Jeff is married to his wife, Veronica, 25+ years. Together they have 4 beautiful children (to be honest, Jeff has 4 kids, Veronica says she is raising 5). Jeff loves the outdoors, including biking, hiking, camping, birding, and recently picked up disc golf.

17 responses to “A Leaders Guide to Encouraging Doubt, Distraction, Calmness, Context, and Curiosity”

  1. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Such a great breakdown Jeff! Thanks for this helpful post and summary of Harford’s work! When it comes to curiosity, how do we mitigate our own bias and the bias of others around us?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I think we need to be open to being wrong about what we believe, which is hard to do at times. I think we need to keep our eyes open to exceptions to our biases. If we see enough exceptions, we will begin to second guess our own beliefs. Regarding the biases of others, I think we develop relationships with people and over time we can help them challenge their own biases. I think correction needs to be done inside of relationships.

  2. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Hi Jeff, thank you for the breakdown of the book. I am especially interested in the role of doubt. How do you think Christians can counter the “doubt narrative” when it comes to pessimism and cynicism of the Christian story and use doubt to an advantage?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Great question. Harford in one of his lectures talked about how you can take people who believe that vaccines cause autism and educate them on all the false research to the point where they will agree that science shows vaccines do not cause autism. However, when you ask them if they are going to get their kids vaccinated, the answer is a resounding “No.” Harford says that there are emotions and other deeply entrenched reasons that prevent a person from really changing their minds. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist talks about how to get people to change their minds. I haven’t read his book (The Righteous Mind), but a few years ago I was listening to a Holy Post podcast and Skye Jethani was talking about Haidt’s book. Jethani said that it is about developing relationships with the people. People begin to like you, examine your beliefs, begin to want your beliefs to be true and then construct an argument to justify their desire for your beliefs to be true. Obviously, if a person begins to want Christian beliefs to be true, a person starts doubting their own. So, I think we counter doubt by being authentic and developing relationships with people regardless if we share beliefs or not and allow Christ to work in their hearts and minds.

  3. Adam Cheney says:

    I appreciate that you brought in Martyn Percy’s statement about suspicion. While he was mainly focused on the institution of education we need to develop a bit of suspicion or doubt about what is being projected around us. How do you think we develop a deep since of doubt and suspicion about the world around us while also demonstrating a welcoming and loving attitude of Christ without becoming pessimistic?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Great question. I think a key is to really dig deep into context. I think we ask the questions about the who and why and not take everything we see and hear at face value. Looking for context helps us to foster an understanding of why the world around us is the way it is and that understanding, I believe, helps us love our neighbors. Singer Brandon Heath sings a song “Give me Your eyes.” He asks God to allow him to see the world through His eyes. If we could truly do that, we would have all the context we need to understand others. To counter the pessimism that could be easy to hold on to, I think we also look to see how Christ has and continues to work in not only our lives, but also the lives of others. That gives us hope.

  4. Nancy Blackman says:


    Great takeaways! I wonder how much distraction is a part of our decision making process. Any thoughts on that?

    As someone who operates in the social work and psychology world, how do you connect the dots between all the points you mentioned from Harford’s book and what you might teach your students?

    And, how do you find this reading helpful or not so helpful with your research?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I think distraction, where we ignore the real issue, plays a big role in our decision-making process. If I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to deal with it. I have big decisions to make about whether or not to repair our vehicles or look for newer ones. Keeping busy allows me to be distracted and avoid making those decisions.
      This week, I referenced Harford and the necessity to remain calm and search our feelings. I also urge students to be curious. I tell them when they read a statistic in a news article, they should look up the original research and draw their own conclusions and see if they align to what they read.
      I think this reading is helpful for my NPO. It will help me to remember to slow down and really examine the data, especially the context surrounding it. I have my own biases and I need to be careful.

  5. Diane Tuttle says:

    Jeff, what a great way to capture the message of Harford. Are these areas that you are able to share with your students? and, if so maybe in what context?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I found myself referring to Harford’s book and lectures this week. I talked about the need to calm down and search our feelings before making decisions. I already encouraged students to look for original research when they see stats presented in news stories. I tell them to go to the source and see if your interpretation is the same.

  6. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Thank you for sharing your method of condensing Harford’s ten rules into five key concepts – doubt, distraction, calm, context, and curiosity. This reveals a practical and targeted approach to implementing his teaching within your leadership responsibilities. I appreciate your thorough exploration of each term thus interpreting statistical data and its broader impact on decision-making processes. How is this book beneficial to your research?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      The book is helping me to step back and ask questions about any research that I read. It is helping me step back from my feelings and try to be unbiased in my thinking about what I read, especially when it doesn’t seem to line up to my beliefs

  7. Chad Warren says:

    Jeff, great work drawing both the reading and other lectures from Harford. Do you think the lectures are worth engaging or do we get the thrust of his ideas in the reading alone?

  8. Jeff Styer says:

    I think the book is enough. He really makes many of the same points, just with different illustrations.

  9. mm Kari says:

    HI Jeff, I appreciate your breakdown of Harford’s various works. I’m wondering what area in your personal life are you feeling prompted to apply these things, be curious, and to ask hard questions?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I apply the Be Curious aspect to a lot of what I do. I try to find the backstory with a lot of the information I teach and encourage my students to do the same. For example last week I gave students some stats about the number of people worldwide that suffer from depression and anxiety. But then we looked and saw that 80% of those people live in low to moderate income countries. So I challenged my students to examine which comes first, poverty or mental health issues and what else does poverty impact. In my social policy class we are getting ready to evaluate several federal policies asking whether or not they have been effective. So for me, curiosity is all about asking lots of questions and sometimes those am can be hard questions, especially when those questions force us to challenge our beliefs/biases. While its uncomfortable I continue to try to practice and teach it.

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