Expertise vs. Ignorance. The overwhelming complexity of modernity, the unpredictability of events and the onslaught of misinformation make it increasingly harder to navigate our lives. This is why we need the expertise of others. But how do we know whose answers we can trust? In The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols notes that “the public space is increasingly dominated by a loose assortment of poorly informed people.” In too many realms that unfortunately now include the media, ignorance has become hip. Consider, for example, such inanities as the Flat Earth movement, the uninformed debate about vaccines or the Trump White House.
Rejecting good advice is as much a sign of ignorance as it is a cultural statement. Douglas Hofstadter warns us that “What used to be a jocular and benign ridicule of intellect and formal training has turned into a malign resentment of the intellectual in his (or her) capacity as expert.” It’s nonsense to believe a few minutes on Google can compare with the wisdom of those who’ve spent years, if not decades, learning deeply and broadly in a particular domain of enquiry. We been taught we’re entitled to our own opinions – an undeniable truth – but does that notion deserve equal weighting in dismissing the expertise of those who’ve done the requisite research? We will always have a right to our opinions, as well as our confirmation bias, but that doesn’t make what we believe factual.
Victim vs. Conqueror. Have you ever said (to yourself as well as others) “it wasn’t my fault”? Not my fault I was late for that meeting. Not my fault I lost money on that stock tip from a friend. Not my fault I was let go … they should have trained me better. What happens to you actually is your fault. If you can’t accept that reality, you’ll find yourself in this sort of predicament repeatedly. Maybe you should have planned for the traffic that delayed your arrival for the meeting. Possibly your investment choice was a consequence of how little you know about how markets really work. Perhaps it’s time you stopped assuming others should teach you what you need to know to earn a living.
The victim mentality is an attitude that says “I’m not responsible for my choices.” When this mindset takes over, you increasingly say “I can’t,” not “I will.” Of course you can. You’re just not willing to pay the price, do the work, spend the time required to do something hard. Everything is hard before it’s easy. But it’s usually easier to convince ourselves that it’s not our responsibility. It absolves us from accepting blame when things go wrong. It means we can assume that circumstances, not us, actually control our lives. Own your failures. Learn from them. Control of your choices. Stop lying to yourself. Own the process. Be a conqueror not a victim.
Interesting vs. Unremarkable. You may recall a television commercial featuring “the most interesting man alive.” Years ago, I set out to build a course around the concept of personal magnetism. My research on the subject led me down a path towards what is now often referred to as executive presence. Surprisingly, little had been written about this fascinating topic. Maybe, like jazz and pornography, it’s rather hard to define yet we do seem to recognize what it is when we see it.
We are attracted to the people we call interesting (for many reasons). We find them quite likeable, initially at least. They are certainly not boring. Those we find unremarkable believe their life stories and accomplishments are more important than ours. The people we find most intriguing, if not captivating, are good listeners. They don’t interrupt us or play the one-upmanship game. They leave a distinct impression by saying amazingly little. And they laugh a lot, especially at themselves. They seem to live fascinating lives. The folks we find quite unexceptional, and thus not worth our valuable time, are overtly dull, fundamentally pedestrian, tedious, insipid and banal. In short, they have a distinct lack of uniqueness. They have a vanilla hue in a multi-coloured world.
Truth vs. Empiricism. As odd as this may sound, in science and in law, there is no such thing as truth – there are only conclusions drawn from personal observations. Scientists don’t prove a hypothesis; they collect data that points to it likely being factually correct. Lawyers can’t prove something happened beyond a reasonable doubt; they only provide evidence that may seem, on analysis, irrefutable. Knowing what makes an argument valid is critical to making good decisions. It also helps us to spot those who deliberately mislead. In general, we consider something true if the evidence verifies it. The more unassailable the data we have, the stronger our conclusions can be.
The evidence we need to confirm our suspicions or determine truth comes in several forms. Observations should be repeatable with consistent results. Testimonial evidence, for example, is always somewhat unreliable because we humans are biased and our memories flawed. While data is the foundation of conclusions, we need to be wary of generalizations, questionable statistics, doubtful analogies and inferences. All data is unreliable if the facts are not directly testing a specific hypothesis. When it comes to statistics, the size of the population sample does matter. Truth is the consequence of the strength of the link between the premise and the empirical data that supports it.