Be skeptical; fine-tune your crap detector

skeptic-cartoonTo be a good writer you have to have a good, built-in, shock-proof bullshit detector.  Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway surmised that to be a good writer you had to be able to see through the folderol and not be duped by manipulation and deceit. If I may, I’ll rewrite his sentence to read, “To be a wise person you have to have a good, built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” I have extended the application to all persons and chosen a slightly more socially acceptable term.

A crap detector is fueled by healthy skepticism. We all need a dose of skepticism because it protects against naiveté and being taken advantage of.

Be suspicious of advertising, PR, and marketing.

Most advertising is propaganda; it is self-serving manipulation. It is biased and often misleading opinion. It blurs the distinction between perception and reality. When you hear a radio ad say “AAA Plumbing Company really loves its customers,” don’t be fooled. Of course they’re going to say that. Would you expect them to say “We really don’t care much about our customers; we just want your money”?

Fortunately, the Internet has given consumers new tools to see through the haze and shop smartly. Customer reviews can provide clear insights into products and services. So don’t fall prey to Madison Avenue.

Be distrustful whenever money is being exchanged.

Chances are good that the AC repairman is overcharging you. The suggested auto repairs your local Firestone store is recommending may be unnecessary. The medical treatments proposed by your doctor may or may not be necessary.

That’s why it’s prudent to always get multiple opinions and multiple bids. If you always get at least five bids on all products and services, you’ll typically save around 30%.

Be wary of political rhetoric.

I don’t listen to either Fox News or CNBC because neither reports unadulterated news; they give biased commentary on select topics. Interestingly, the BBC is a more impartial and reliable source for news about American politics and events. The Economist magazine, printed in Great Britain, is also a good source.

During political campaigns, it’s hard to trust what candidates are saying, because their messages are constantly being adjusted based on public opinion.

Be skeptical.

I’m not advocating philosophical skepticism, a branch of philosophy that questions the notion of absolute truth. I am promoting practical skepticism, a mindset that seeks to identify and debunk both intentional and unintentional falsehood.

Don’t be consumed by skepticism or allow it to morph into cynicism; it should not define your personality or outlook on life; not everyone is out to “get you.” You don’t want to be known as a negative, crotchety, and sullen cynic. But you do want to be wise, insightful and prudent.

Brian Dunning shares these interesting thoughts on skepticism:

“The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.

“The scientific method is central to skepticism. The scientific method requires evidence, preferably derived from validated testing. Anecdotal evidence and personal testimonies generally don’t meet the qualifications for scientific evidence, and thus won’t often be accepted by a responsible skeptic; which often explains why skeptics get such a bad rap for being negative or disbelieving people. They’re simply following the scientific method.” (Brian Dunning © 2015

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

What? – When properly employed, skepticism is an asset.
So what? – An appropriate level of skepticism will make you a wiser person.
Now what? – Become selectively skeptical, particularly regarding the three areas mentioned above.

Leaders – Vet everything. Try to see all issues from multiple angles. Pursue facts. Have a wholesome and balanced mistrust of all vendors. Get multiple bids on all work-for-hire.

Utilize four-minute conversations

4 minute.001A lot can be accomplished in a four-minute conversation. It’s long enough to make a solid connection and a good impact; it’s short enough to maintain a quick pace and uninterrupted flow.

A short conversation—10 to 30 seconds—may satisfy basic social norms but it’s not long enough to truly connect with someone. It will seem polite but likely be ineffectual. But in 240 seconds, a solid and profitable connection can be made.

Conduct your own experiment to see if this is true. The next time you’re mingling with a group of people, engage in a few short conversations and in a few four-minute conversations and sense the difference. When you arrive at work tomorrow, instead of slowing down just long enough to say a brief hello to your office mates, come to a complete stop and spend four minutes with each person or group.

The constructive use of four-minute conversations can make a huge difference in human encounters, particularly the following.

First four minutes of reengagement

Marriage counselors tell us that a critical time in all marriages is when husband and wife reengage at the end of the day. Prioritize that time and it will enhance your relationship; neglect that opportunity and you’ll damage it. The same window of opportunity occurs when your kids get home from school and when you first see your office mates following the weekend.

First four minutes of a new encounter

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When you meet someone for the first time, carefully orchestrate the encounter. Be nice. Be genuine. Make it easy for people to enter your personal space. Show interest in the other person. Talk more about the other person than you do about yourself, but talk about yourself, too.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

What? – A lot of good can happen in a four-minute conversation.
So what? – This should be a “tool” in our relationship toolbox.
Now what? – Immediately start using this relational technique.

Leaders – This is a great people skill for your team members to embrace. It’s also a good tool for you to use as you relate to people in your organization.

Avoid the diminishing-expertise syndrome

Russian matryoshka dolls
Russian matryoshka dolls

Great teams are led by people confident enough to recruit people better than themselves.—Warren Bennis

A favorite toy among Russian children, the matryoshka doll is a series of wooden dolls that nest inside each other and get progressively smaller and smaller. Open up the largest doll and you’ll find a smaller, identical doll. Open up that doll and there is yet a smaller one. There may be as many as 15 dolls inside the largest one.

The matryoshka doll can teach us some important lessons on how good leaders build a great team and how insecure or uninformed leaders can inhibit the growth and health of their organization by choosing weak team members.

Recruit people who are “bigger” than you are.

If the person at the top of the organization intentionally hires someone who is “smaller” (less qualified with less potential), and that person recruits someone who is “smaller” than herself and this selection criterion continues to cascade down through the entire organization, eventually it will produce a dumbed-down organization.

Recruit people who are “different” than you are.

All of the dolls inside a matryoshka doll are identical (except for their size). If a leader only recruits people who are similar to himself—same personality, gifts, age range, perspective—his team will not benefit from the critical element of diversity.

Choosing quality team members is the leaders most important job.

For a leader, important decisions fall into two categories: strategy and people. I think the people decisions are the most important because if you get the right people on your team, they will help you set the right strategy.

When I was a kid, we often played an impromptu game of softball or basketball after school. Everyone who wanted to play gathered, two captains were chosen, a coin toss determined which captain chose first, and then teammates were selected one at a time. The captain who chose the best players, won. Sometimes a captain would choose a less-skilled player early in the selection process so as not to hurt the person’s feelings (no one wanted to be chosen last). While that might have been the kind thing to do, it wasn’t the smart thing to do if you wanted to win.

Leaders, choose the best and the brightest to serve on your team and your organization will prosper.

This suggestion is not for the insecure and paranoid; it takes a lot of emotional fortitude and self-confidence to recruit and empower people who are smarter, more competent, edgier, and more connected than you. But if you don’t, you and your organization will suffer from the diminishing-expertise syndrome.

You may wonder, “Won’t that make me look bad?” No, it will make you look like a competent leader. Remember, leaders get work done through other people. Also, surrounding yourself with top-flight people will motivate you to continue to grow and become better yourself.

In her book Team of Rivals, Doris Goodwin reminds us that when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and began compiling his cabinet, he not only chose strong and competent men, he actually chose men who had run against him in the primaries, men who had hoped to have his job—essentially, he chose a cabinet of opponents. Lincoln reasoned, “I have looked the party over and concluded that these men were the very strongest men. I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Surround yourself with great people.


What? – When insecure leaders recruit team members who are less competent than they are, the team suffers. If this mentality is systemic, it will negatively impact the organization.
So what? – Leaders must recruit the brightest and the best, even if the candidates are better than the leader.
Now what? – When given the opportunity to choose team members, choose the best.

Leaders – Analyze yourself in this area. Are you guilty of the diminishing-expertise syndrome? If so, adjust your mentality.

Filter and edit your speech

phone call 3.001Have you ever known someone who tends to say everything he thinks? There is no filter between thoughts and speech. It is a flawed type of communication that reasons, “If I think it, I should say it.”

Verbal diarrhea.

Before you turn your thoughts into sound waves, send them through filters that will snag the detritus and let the worthy thoughts pass through. Filters like these:

  • Is what I’m about to say accurate and truthful (or am I assuming, telling a half-truth, misleading, etc.)?
  • Is this the right time to speak?
  • Is this the right place to speak?
  • At any given time in a conversation, is it my turn to speak or should I remain silent?
  • Is this the best person(s) to share these thoughts with?
  • Will what I say be helpful? Is it necessary?

If you allow these filters to do their job, I suspect you’ll talk less and the world will be a better place.

Thoughts that make it through the filters will then need to be edited. A good editor makes prose clean, clear, and concise. Here are some items to consider:

  • Have I already said this? If so, there’s probably no need to repeat it.
  • Will what I’m about to say make sense?
  • Does my audience have the right context to understand what I’m going to say?
  • How can I be most clear and concise?

If you edit your thoughts before you speak them, we’ll more easily understand what you want to say and the risk of miscommunication will be greatly decreased. Before you speak ask yourself if what you’re about to say is worth it.

The gold standard for communication is: well said and worth saying.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this topic?[/reminder]

What? – Filter and edit your thoughts before speaking.
So what? – Analyze yourself: do you scrutinize your thoughts before you speak?
Now what? – It takes time and self-discipline to incorporate these suggestions into your life, but the sooner you start, the better.

Leaders – Consider your organization’s internal and external communication. Are all communiques filtered and edited? When you use your “leader’s voice” are you careful and thoughtful about what you say?