The Idiot’s Guide to Not Being Tricked by Statistics

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Mark Twain

Today’s world is powered by data. Companies like Google, Facebook, IBM, Amazon, and many more, thrive on collecting massive amounts of data from their users, then using that data to tailor a unique experience. Or, if you’re more conspiratorial, use it to manipulate customer psychology and destroy privacy.

Whatever your opinion on those things, so called “Big Data” is very real. And where there’s tons of data, there will be lots of statistics to try to make sense of it all.

Problem is, on Mark Twain’s scale of truth, statistics are just beyond “damned lies,” so it’s understandable if you have a tepid relationship with statistics. Add to it the avalanche of statistics hyped up on the news and the fact that lots of people who have taken statistics classes hated them (sorry, no stats on that), and you’ve got a platform for spreading misinformation and deceit to a wide audience. The political rhetoric of entire nations could be changed if people took a little more time to understand how to make sense of statistics.

I’m not sure if this post will do that, but it can sure change things for each of you reading it. Welcome to The Idiot’s Guide to Not Being Tricked by Statistics.

In this guide, I’ll give you four ways to get a clearer view of statistics, doing my best to provide plenty of examples along the way. Let’s get started.

Method 1: Invert the Statistic

A while ago (September 19, 2013), I posted the following on my Facebook:

When you see a negative statistic, immediately invert it. “1 in 5 Seniors can’t retire.” That means 80% can. “1 in 10 people don’t have jobs.” So 90% of people do. Negative headlines are poisonous and misleading. They exist to sow dissatisfaction, not to inform, improve, or enlighten. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

I stand by those comments. Very, very often, you’ll find that statistics, even factual ones, are presented to be persuasive, not informative. That’s going to be a common theme in these methods for staying rational, so get used to it. Take the emotional edge off by muting the TV or navigating your web browser away from the article, invert the statistic, and see if it’s still worth being upset or negative about. Sometimes, that’s all you need. Sometimes, you’ll need to complement with one of the following methods. Read on.

Method 2: Convert Numbers to Percentages, and Vice Versa

This is a favorite of mine. In general, the rule is that in large systems (for instance, whole nations like the USA), raw numbers sound larger and percentages sound smaller. This is due to the fact that it’s very difficult to contextualize quantities and probabilities of a sufficient magnitude. A classic example (although probability, not statistic related) is the lottery. It’s very difficult to imagine the number three-hundred-and-fifty-million, so when the chances of winning are one in that many, we overestimate them because we can’t even process the enormity of those odds. Interesting fact, you can actually calculate the break-even value of a lottery ticket by taking the payout (tax reduced and in present value dollars), multiplying it by the odds, and comparing it to the cost of a ticket. Short form: it’s a bad idea.

In smaller systems it can go the other way (50% of our employees approve of the new media policy; turns out it’s the 5 managers out of 10 employees that promoted the policy). In any case, it’s best to always convert to get a clearer picture and develop context. Let’s look at a few examples.

One of my wife’s favorites is hype over pet food recalls and problems. Consider this headline from Fox News: Toxic jerky treats linked to more than 1,000 dog deaths. Sounds dire. Only it gets a little less convincing when, according to the AVMA, some 43,346,000 households own dogs, and at an average of 1.6 per household, there are around 69,353,600 puppy pets in the US. These 1,000 dogs that died, while certainly sad, represent .00144% of the registered dog population. If only 1% of dogs ever had these treats, it’s still only .144% of the dogs exposed to the treat that died – 693 had the treat and were fine before one died. When you hear “1,000 cute little puppies died due to the bad treats,” you get riled up. But it takes the edge off when you realize just how few that is in the scheme of things. There’s more to the story too, which we’ll revisit later.

Now let’s amp up the intensity and talk about something more fiery. According to the Pro Choice official website, “13,000 women each year have abortions because they have become pregnant as a result of rape or incest.” The site references a 2003 Guttmacher Institute study which can be found at this link. There’s no denying that rape and incest are always terrible, and no one should make light of them. But… are we making too much of the political rhetoric center around these admittedly horrible cases? Let’s contextualize by using the number-to-percent trick.

The exact same Guttmacher Institute study that Pro Choice referenced (in case anyone thinks I’m selecting sources with bias) shows the following table:

abortion_stats

Which tells a much different story. 1% of abortions are because of rape-induced pregnancy. Less than 0.5% are as a result of incest. While I’m in full agreement that these 1.0%-1.5% should have some sort of recourse, 1% isn’t even close to enough to drive the overall conversation to the extent that it does. This is a post about statistics and not my personal politics, but it seems we’re basing way more than a representative amount of the abortion conversation on these 1%. Especially when 74% or more are for essentially selfish reasons and could have been avoided by making good choices regarding sexual practices, including both contraception (there’s no reason not to use or enforce this with your partner) and abstinence (I chose to not have sex until my wedding night; believe it or not, hormones can be overcome with self-control).

Mini-rant aside, the point should be clear. Fox News (and every other media outlet in the world) is incentivized to make headlines more dramatic, because that’s what gets views, shares, subscriptions, whatever. Pro Choice is incentivized to make it look like a lot of pregnancies are terminated due to honest tragedies in order to drive the discussion towards the outliers which more strongly support their views instead of talking about the vast majority. We, as consumers of information, need to be able to contextualize how representative these stories are, in order to make intelligent, rational decisions, instead of being swept away in emotional appeal. Convert those numbers!

Method 3: Make Sure Any Comparison is “Apples to Apples”

Did you know that the average American has watched more television in their life than all of the founding fathers of the United States combined? You should learn from them, you lazy slacker.

A classic method of deceit is to take something that’s technically true, but not useful, and play it off as useful (or heck, even just as interesting). Consider the following “technically true” comparison from Business Insider, reposted on Reddit and everywhere else on the internet:

Taco Bell sold 100 million Doritos Locos tacos in their first 10 weeks of availability. It took McDonald’s 18 years to sell the same amount of burgers.

Sounds interesting, right?

Yeah, but it’s really not.

What’s missing from this is that when Taco Bell introduced the Doritos Locos taco in 2012, they had a massive, established infrastructure of over 6,000 restaurants spanning the United States and beyond. McDonald’s only had 102 restaurants by 1959, 4 years after Ray Kroc opened his first version of the store. I’m not sure where that infographic got its statistics on McDonald’s, but the comparison is clearly flawed. The delusion takes hold because we think of McDonald’s in current day context, a massive global company with insane distribution abilities, but the statistic is against a much different, much smaller McDonald’s. It’s taking early, infancy-stage McDonald’s against full-maturity Taco Bell. It’s like asking who would win between Muhammad Ali in his prime and Mike Tyson at age 4.

Plenty of these kinds of things exist. The effects of time and cultural shifts are extremely difficult to quantify, but it doesn’t mean no effort should be made to do so. But we can’t control the media that’s produced, only our interaction with it. Check those stats to make sure they’re actually illustrating a viable comparison.

Method 4: Context, Context, Context!

I saved this for last because it’s really all-encompassing. Most of the others could have been put under this heading, but deserved their own space. To finish off, here are a bunch of quick things to consider when viewing statistics.

Sources

Misinformation is all over. It’s not perfect, but you can at least see if the sources are reasonable as a sanity check. Is it from the CDC? Does it reference a university study from a school that you’ve actually heard of? Or is it from some dude’s blog? A celebrity’s Twitter? This requires reading more than just the headline, and sometimes, even more than the article itself… which I know is super scary and not all that common. But be uncommon. It won’t catch all the garbage, but it’ll catch enough to be worth doing.

Time scales

When numbers are presented, see if they’re comparing things over time, or could somehow be distorted by time. The McDonald’s vs. Taco Bell statistic is a good example of this. Recalling the 1,000 dog deaths from the “toxic jerky,” the article says that “since 2007” there have been 5,000 complaints regarding health issues possibly stemming from consumption of the treats. While it doesn’t specify if the 1,000 deaths were over that same time scale, it seems fairly likely – and let’s consider what that would mean if so. Instead of .144% of the dogs that ate the treat dying, it would be 1/6 that rate, assuming an even distribution of the deaths and a reasonably constant dog ownership rate in the nation. In that case, 4,166 dogs could have eaten the treats before even one died… a rate of .024%; less than a quarter of a tenth of a single percent. They say that time changes everything, well it’s true of statistics too, so be watchful.

Isolated case

Hey, crazy things do happen. While this is more about not being deceived by media in general, and is often avoided by the “convert number to percent” tip, it’s important to recognize when something is just an absurdity. Deaths from shark attacks are the classic example. Not to make light of those few who have been killed by sharks, but being killed by a shark is a pretty sexy, and rare, way to go. Media reports what’s sensational because that’s what readers find interesting. Shark attacks and plane crashes are big, emotional, crazy events, but there’s just no reason to be deceived by hype into thinking that it’s more probable than it is.

External factors

This is another huge point. Sometimes, within certain constraints, unlikely events are more likely to happen. Let’s remember our dog treats one last time (I promise). The statistic in the article doesn’t shed (ha) any light on some pieces of vital information that could skew the interpretation of the results. How old were the dogs that died after eating the treats? Were they in otherwise good health? Were they fed a balanced diet, including, on rare occasion, the indicted jerky treats, or were they fed the treats as food instead of as an irregular snack? Not to be hypocritical, but some of the top comments on the article (admittedly rarely a good source of information) were echoing the sentiment of how bad these treats were by saying that their 10+ year old dogs were being affected by them. Well geez, the average life expectancy of a dog is 10-13 years anyway.

A well-presented statistic leaves very little reasonable doubt that something critical in understanding it was missed. If you have a few minutes when you’re done with this post, head over to this podcast on the Freakonomics website and listen from around 16:11-21:31. Pay close attention to how the Freakonomics host grills the interviewee on his methodology for his study and how he arrived at his conclusion. This is solid journalism. It asks questions and lets an intelligent consumer decide whether or not to agree with the conclusion.

Fact check

Some things are just bold-faced lies! Again straying outside of statistics for just a moment, I think about the article that went viral on Facebook in 2013 about how the Pope said that “all religions are true,” “religious truth evolves and changes,” “Satan himself is a metaphor or a personification,” and much, much more. Apparently nobody that shared this thought it was a bit radical and checked the sources, because the blog that posted it has a disclaimer page that says right at the top “The original content on this blog is largely satirical.” I had a friend ready to change his beliefs because of what this article had said. A bit naïve, perhaps, but how much of what we read influences, subtly or overtly, what we believe? How much of what we hear influences how we vote, which has a very real impact on the direction of the nation? Coincidentally, here’s an article fact checking the 2012 presidential debate in Denver. You’ll notice there are quite a few ratings of half true, mostly false, and false. Surprisingly, not even our nation’s top leaders are above leveraging tricky statistics.

Know trends

Frankly, I had to put this in because the TED talk embedded below was just so entertaining and powerful to me. When you have a broad spectrum of knowledge, it’s much easier to contextualize things related to that knowledge. You can’t know everything about every topic, but thankfully, we have a great ability to synthesize and puzzle out predictions of things based on what we know of other things. They’re not always right, but again, they’re a sanity check that helps us from constantly being blown around in the wind when the next “convincing study” comes out.

The TED talk below is from Hans and Ola Rosling, and is talking about global trends regarding poverty, education, and death from natural disasters, among other things. Give it a listen after you finish this post.

The real data, not the sensationalized stories you see on your homepage or on the news, paints a different picture.

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In conclusion, let me add that in no way am I trying to convince you to be unmoved by things that happen in the world around us. Every person affected by involuntary unemployment is worth thinking about. Dogs having health issues that can be linked to a particular brand or type of treats is worth considering and taking action on. Rape is awful, and resulting conceptions are horrible situations that deserve an answer. Taco Bell really does sell a whole lot of Doritos Locos tacos, and we should all be blown away at the amount of faux-cheese they’re pushing.

The point is to become more informed, and in particular, more rational about what’s presented to you. There’s a lot of noise produced in today’s world, but little communication of reality through a sane and accurate representation. I hope these little tips and examples have been helpful and entertaining, and will lead to you being a little wiser, a little more positive, and far less often tricked by statistics!

Soul Mates Don’t Exist

If you’re one of the many men or women out there waiting for your Prince Charming or Fair Maiden, I’ve got bad news for you. They don’t exist.

At least, not in the sense of “one perfect person destined to be your lifelong, trouble-free partner.” “Happily ever after” is much easier to say than it is to accomplish.

If you’re reading this blog, I believe you’re a reasonable, grounded person. You probably acknowledge that no relationship, whether marriage, dating, friendship, or family, is without its struggles, arguments, and disagreements. I won’t belabor that. You already know that relationships require investment and are always susceptible to damage or ruin. Trust is an egg; easy to break, really hard to put back together.

But I do think that even very intelligent, emotionally mature people can get distracted by the idea that “the one” is out there, just waiting to be unearthed like a rare gem. In fact, we tend to think that these “silver bullets” exist in a lot of areas of our lives. Maybe this diet is the one that will finally get me healthy. Maybe this job is the one that will be fulfilling as well as profitable. Maybe this person will be the one that I can love and cherish with ease for the remainder of my days.

This notion, this pervasive belief that courses through our cultural veins, is not surprising. Consider the following reasons why this infectious lie of chance solutions to our biggest personal issues persists:

  • It’s external. It allows us to blame our environment for our failures, rather than our own action or inaction. “The job market is bad,” “the diet plan was debunked,” and “they just weren’t the one for me,” are all statements that reflect this environmental blame for a lack of personal success.
  • It’s romantic. Not in the sense of “kissy kissy” romantic. Affection, intrigue, longing, those are all fine and well. When I criticize the notion for being “romantic,” I mean definition number two: “suggestive of an idealized view of reality.” This applies to all of our examples. An ideal world is of course desireable. It would be wonderful if the best jobs, perfect health, and wonderful partners would fall from the sky into our laps. But that’s just not how it is.
  • It’s popularized. Both fiction and non-fiction media flog us with dreamy stories of perfect couples that magically fall in love. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t translate into the real world. The ridiculous turnover rate of celebrity marriages is why the end credits roll on romcoms after the “perfect” couple realizes they’re soul mates and get together. Then, because we’re relationally sadistic in our culture, we derive pleasure from gossiping about the breakup too. Drama at the beginning and at the end of a relationship sells two sets of magazines, but it won’t make you happy in your life.

There’s little I can do to dissuade you from being influenced by #3 (popularity) other than to tell you to stop reading and watching that crap. It’s part of our culture and I’m not here to start a revolution, just to help you live a better life. The only way I can address #2 is to tell you that if you want to daydream, go ahead, but if you want to actually make things happen, whether getting a better job, getting fit, or getting into a healthy, long-term relationship, you’ll be best served by shattering your idealized perception of the world and adopting a more realistic view. If it’s any consolation, even if the reality is more difficult, it’s much more fun and fulfilling.

But really, it all comes down to #1 (externality), and that much I can definitely attempt to persuade you to intellectually abandon. Not long ago, I posted the following statistic from Richard Koch’s book The 80-20 Principle, which might just change the way you think about the idea of externally destined “soul mates”:

20 percent of those who marry comprise 80 percent of the divorce statistics (those who consistently remarry and redivorce distort the statistics and give a lopsidedly pessimistic impression of the extent of marital fidelity).

Moreover, CDC vital statistics data paints a picture even easier to understand:

  • 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce.
  • 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce.
  • 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce.

It seems clear from long-running statistics that the answer is not, as Journey said, “paying anything to roll the dice… just one more time.” When it comes to the notion that the person you picked was the problem, they just “weren’t your soul mate,” it is time to stop believin’. Soul mates don’t exist. There’s another answer.

Been pretty heavy so far, huh? Let’s talk about the real solution.

What inspired this post was a conversation with my wife. We’ve been married 3 years and have been a couple for 8. We’ve had many discussions on the subject, and we both agree on the following: we could have made it work with someone else.

Sound terrible? Maybe, but I think it’s just realistic. I love my wife desparately, more than I ever have. Each year we spend together I fall for her more and more. Every experience, every laugh, every argument, helps us know each other, and ourselves, better and better. I’ll be committed to her and her alone until death pries us apart.

And yet, the reason for this passionate commitment isn’t magical romantic butterflies or some fate that underpins the universe. It was a choice to make a long-term commitment and continual investment in her and our relationship together. We’ve been making little deposits in our relationship for over a decade. For many years, we made deposits of friendship and familiarity before there was ever a “relationship” (although at least on my end there was always attraction). It was these active investments that allowed us to have a meaningful romantic partnership.

Just as importantly as investments in our relationship were the investments we made in ourselves. The best couple isn’t made of up two complementary puzzle pieces that aren’t whole without the other. The best couple is made up of two independent, self-sustaining people who would be just fine without the other, but can be great with the love and support they receive from their spouse.

Emotional maturity. Spiritual solidity. Financial literacy. Physical fitness. These are all things that you should do for you before you even consider pairing up with someone else for the long haul. You owe it to yourself, much less your future partner, to be a whole person on your own, without them to “complete” you. That’s placing an undue burden on anyone, even a dedicated husband or wife.

If soul mates don’t exist, you are responsible for making yourself an attractive candidate, for going out and meeting people, and for being insightful and wise enough to choose to invest in someone worth investing in. Only when you acknowledge that you own the problem can you begin to create the solution.

Master Interpersonal Skills with One Sentence

“When we meet someone who’s humble, we’re attracted to them. When we meet someone who’s arrogant, we’re repulsed.” -Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church

Interpersonal relations in a nutshell.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Think of someone you really dislike.

Maybe it’s someone you’re forced to be around, say, in a work situation. Maybe it’s a family member who always rubs you the wrong way. Or perhaps it’s a customer that you absolutely cannot please, no matter how much effort you invest. Now, ask yourself, why is it that you don’t like them?

In my case, I work in proximity with an individual who, among many idiosyncrasies, only engages in conversation to disagree. This person never agrees, never aims for concensus, and never has neutral conversations. The result? Whenever they jump into the discussion, everyone else is looking for the fastest, most painless exit possible. How does that relate to the One Sentence to Rule them All? They never receive information, presumably because their opinion is always superior and the inputs of others are inferior and worthless. Even if that’s not the true thought process behind it, it’s certainly the way it appears in context.

How about the person you thought of that you have a hard time getting along with? Is it because his issues always trump the conversation? Is it because her opinion is always loudest and least relevant? Is it because he refuses to be part of a conversation and would rather give you a lecture? Whatever the specifics, does it lead back to a lack of humility? A lack of interest in the needs, desires, and lives of others? Does it stem from a sense that they think they’re better? Smarter? More interesting?

Now, flip the tables. Think of somebody you do like. What makes those interactions positive?

There are probably a few characteristics, no matter who you’re thinking of and no matter what context that relationship is in. There’s a reasonably even amount of give and take from both parties. She listens when you present your points and isn’t just waiting for her turn to talk. He presents his side as if it’s valid, but not the ultimate, sole truth that only a fool wouldn’t believe. Her responses to comments and questions are focused on what you said, not her counter-scenario.

Nearly every bit of relational advice points back to this one idea.

  • In See You at the Top, Zig Ziglar says you can get everything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.
  • In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie presents dozens of time-tested principles for becoming skilled socially. Among them: become genuinely interested in other people; be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves; talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  • James 3:13 says to show your wisdom by acting in humility.

You could fill the page with examples from different authors, different works, different philosophies, different historical periods, and they would all sing the same song. Likeable people are humble, interested in others. Difficult people act and speak solely in self-interest. Consider this excerpt from Dale Carnegie:

If you want to how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence.

Do you know people like that? I do, unfortunately; and the astonishing part of it is that some of them are prominent.

Bores, that is all they are – bores intoxicated with their own egos, drunk with a sense of their own importance.

…if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.

Remind you of anyone you know? Probably so. But more importantly, is it something that could be said of you? We’re all about honest introspection around here.

There are several practical ways to identify if you’re guilty of excessive self-interest and start to master interpersonal skills today:

  • Count the number of questions you ask versus the number of statements you make
  • Become aware of how many times you say “I” or “my” versus how often you use “you”
  • Focus on withholding negativity and speaking positively

You just might find the world to be a brighter place when you acknowledge the other people in it!

Do You Like Getting Angry?

I’ve never understood horror movies. Seriously, why would anybody watch something whose sole purpose is to scare you? For me, there are two outcomes to a horror movie:

  • It’s lame and boring, and you’ve wasted your time and money watching it just to scoff it off
  • It actually gets to you, and you spend the next week sleeping with one eye open, scared of any dark corners of your house

…both of which are tremendously unattractive to me. So no Mississippi Flamethrower Carnage for me.

As a casual student and observer of human psychology, I’ve looked into this, and have entertained several theories on why people like scary stuff. My favorite is the idea that there’s a thrill associated with surviving a dangerous situation, and scary movies in particular are a way to give ourselves that primal thrill of survival within a framework that our conscious brain knows is safe. You get a little dose of the thrill of surviving the axe-wielding masked maniac without any chance of actually being axe-murdered. Just a theory.

There are other mysteries and “glitches,” if you will, in what people like to subject themselves to. For instance, the unsolved murder shows they air all the time right before the news. Why? Just… why? The only possible result from watching those is perpetual fear of something that has an incredibly low chance of happening. In the United States, you’re more than twice as likely to commit suicide as you are to be murdered, but if we subject ourselves regularly to programming that highlights these rarities, we begin to accept them as eminent reality.

One thing I’ve noticed that the internet brings out of people is the desire to align themselves with a cause and engage in debate in defense of that cause. That’s the euphemistic way of saying that the internet can make people jerks. Folks seem to like being angry, and more and more, popular sites are baiting people by posting inflammatory articles with overblown titles to prey on this odd preference.

To pick on someone from both “sides” of the political aisle, The Huffington Post and The Matt Walsh Blog are both serious offenders on this front. Here’s what happens: they post something with content, title, or both, that’s very polarizing. You see it, and you just HAVE to read it. Because it’s naturally divisive, you’ll likely agree strongly or disagree strongly. And, because all of us want to take part in social justice, we get caught up in comment wars, fueling continued traffic to the site.

In short, you’re being manipulated.

These types of authors don’t necessarily care if what they’re peddling is good for you. That’s none of their concern. What matters is getting traffic and attention, which increase their influence and their financial incentive. Whether or not it’s good for you is irrelevant. You’re giving them what they want just by playing their game.

There are two ways to take this. one is to manipulate and abuse it. People by and large aren’t going to stop clicking on clickbait articles, and if they do, the clickbait will adjust to what people have shifted to. If your interest is renown or financial gain, you might as well. As I thought about this post, I realized that some of my most read posts have been those that have been a timely perspective on a vogue divisive topic.

The other way to take this information is to use it to bolster your resistence to that same manipulation, and to refocus on engaging with content that is actually positive for your heart, soul, and mind.

In See You at the Top, one of the most foundational books in my own development, Zig Ziglar talks about this phenomenon from both sides. On the content consumption side, he talks about how you wouldn’t let somebody walk into your living room and dump a barrel of festering garbage on the floor, and yet, when we watch, read, and listen to garbage, that’s exactly what we’re letting happen to our mind and spirit. Not all content is good for you. Not all opinions are worth listening to. Just because you can eat candy all day doesn’t mean you should. Don’t make the same mistake with your thoughts.

On the content production side he offers something that has encouraged me for years as I’ve posted my thoughts and ideas for growth and betterment. Zig basically says that although feeding people “candy” can give you fame, or money, or renown temporarily, eventually people will get sick of it. The winners in the long term are those who speak with authority, honesty, integrity, and mutual interest, genuinely desiring to provide valuable and helpful content to their audience. I hope it’s true for me, but even if it’s not, please, look for those people. You’ll know them by a consistent message, low levels of hype, and high levels of impact on your life. The content will also be personally challenging. A blog can’t change your life unless you change your behavior as a result of the content. Look for the hard path, and you’ll grow.

Be very wary of the many out there who want to manipulate you. If they can get you curious or angry or scared, so much so that you visit their site and rage at the content, they’ve already won. Protect yourself. Don’t let someone dump garbage in your living room. Consume content with nutritional value for your mind and soul. Read, listen, learn, and grow!

Everybody is Realistic

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a respected colleague, who was replaying a conversation they had with a coworker. Their talk went something like this:

“If you’re always negative and keep letting the bad things from your past keep you down, you’ll never be able to make a better future for yourself.”

“I’m not negative, I’m just realistic.”

Now, the person telling me about this is fairly positive and leads a pretty successful life. We went on to discuss exactly what was meant by “realistic.”

See, it seems to me that lots of folks use “realistic” as a synonym for negative or pessimistic, and “positive” people are simply naiveinexperienced, or flat out ignorant of the bad things that happen to themselves and others.

Now it’s true that sometimes the reality is less positive than it’s perceived to be. We’ve all been on projects where someone sets an aggressive schedule for us that is in no way achievable. You know the feeling, and you’ve probably said something similar along the lines of “They can put whatever they want on the schedule, but they’ll be forced to square up with reality sooner or later.” So I understand that there’s positivity and then there’s putting on rose colored glasses.

But particularly when we’re thinking about our future, the scope of our entire career, and our long-term dreams and goals, there is a massive benefit to positivity. Positivity breeds proactivity. That sounds a little bit heady, so I’ll say it another way: if you think nothing you do will change the outcome of your future, you won’t do anything. And you can be darn well certain that if you don’t do anything about your future, it’s not going to be what you want it to be. This realization led me to the title of this post:

Everybody is realistic.

If you think you’re going to have a crappy future because of this and that — your upbringing was difficult, you’ve had disadvantages, bad things have happened to you — then yep, you’re realistic. You’re going to continue to allow yourself to be anchored down by all the baggage you carry.

On the flip side, you could see a bright and awesome future for yourself where you accomplish your goals and dreams, so you remain positive about your prospects and take action to make them a reality. And you’re also realistic.

Whatever you think you’re going to get, you’re probably right. So envision a better tomorrow and start getting after it today.

How To: Point Out Problems and Not Sound Like a Jerk

Someone asked me an interesting question after a large group event the other day. I attended a meeting talking about the roll-out of a revamped leadership development program at my workplace. As you’d imagine, I’m very interested in the subject, and on this occasion I was more informed than most people since I’ve been working a side project related to the program over the last few months.

At the end of the meeting, during the Q&A, I stood up and asked a pretty pointed question (cuz I ain’t afraid). The presenter gave a… less than satisfactory answer, so I asked a quick followup, which was dodged with artful verbal dexterity. It was frustrating, but I knew I’d keep working on the project with my sub-team and hopefully be able to help out in that way. Didn’t think much more of it.

When the presentation dismissed a few minutes later, a gentleman I’ve never met before approached me. He asked me something really interesting:

How did you learn to ask critical questions like that without sounding like you’re baring your teeth?

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In other words, he wanted to know how I was able to be critical of something without sounding like a critic. Or one more way of putting it, how to criticize an idea without sounding like a jerk.

Guess I hadn’t really thought about it specifically before. In an uncharacteristic moment, I fumbled around and gave him exactly the kind of half-answers he was ultimately complaining about. He asked me if I had taken classes or practiced in front of a mirror or joined a speaking club or read books about it. Unfortunately, in the moment he asked, I hadn’t formulated anything solid. Even though I didn’t have a good answer for him then, and even though he’ll probably never see this post, I thought it would be a good thing to post for the rest of us. Down to business: how do you ask pointed questions without being too edgy?

  1. Don’t aim for destruction. I think many peoples’ default mode when asking tough questions is to shame the recipient so they look like they’ve “won” the exchange. In this case, I did disagree with the presenter, but I also understood that she was most likely just like me, trying to do the best job she could. She didn’t want me to fail, and I didn’t want her to. When you adopt a team spirit and keep your perspective on the best answer for everybody and not just your ego, you’ll talk differently than if you see it as a word contest or debate.
  2. Avoid indictment. The presenter may have been the leader of the program, and yes, she had some stake in both the successes and failures of it. But had I been out to incriminate her for her failures, the question would not have been nearly as effective as it apparently was. One of the classic rules of criticism in Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People is to let people save face when being critiqued. Even better, avoid making them feel defensive by avoiding the word “you” entirely. You points a finger. It puts people on the spot. If you want to be effective, you need to challenge without overtly blaming. Focus on the situation at hand, not the people involved.
  3. Know the difference between passion and emotion. Passion makes for a great argument. When you care about the subject, you’re going to speak much more genuinely and say more important things. Passion makes people want to listen. But when you get emotional and let the issue shake you instead of facing the issue with confident concern, you’ll be less influential.

It’s all in the approach. You don’t necessarily have to be a wordsmith to bring up the big questions. Truthfully, a short, poignant question can be even more impactful than one drawn out and eloquently stated.

Be familiar with your own style. Be aware of your personal tendencies. Look for opportunities to use and develop many different approaches. And always keep in mind the tips above. Now go out there and ask away!

How to Get Great Customer Service

The late great Zig Ziglar made it a habit to greet people with a friendly “Good morning!” no matter what time of day it was.

Why? 90% of the time, he said, he got “Good morning” right back. This little trick reminded him of one important truth: what you send out is what you’ll receive back.

I had a great example of this principle just this week. I’m refinancing my mortgage and had some inconvenience (yes, I still have a mortgage — don’t worry though, I’m working on it with more intensity than the Jersey Shore cast works on their tans).

If you haven’t read a news article about housing in the last 20 years, you might not know this, but lots of folks aren’t exactly pleased with the mortgage industry or the service they receive from mortgagors. You can find images all over the internet of flowcharts regarding the ownership of an individual’s mortgage. Large banks are not typically known for their stellar customer service anyway, and the heat gets turned up quite a bit when it’s a person’s biggest expense that’s on the table. So when I say I “had some inconvenience,” that could be a precursor to a lengthy tale of misery and torment.

So what happened to me? When my wife and I got married, we purchased a house, mortgaged through MetLife. We were very conservative since it was a big commitment and we were just settling into post-college working life, so we got a 30 year term. We’re more comfortable with our finances now (thank you, budgeting) and mortgage rates are ridiculously low, so we decided to refinance to a 15 year term at a much lower rate.

Well, during the refinance process, MetLife decided to stop servicing mortgages, so all existing mortgages were sold to Chase (ugh). This means not only do I have to deal with the details of refinancing, I also have to track down new mortgage information from Chase just so it can be closed. If only MetLife had waited another month, this would have been a whole lot easier. Poor me!

And yet, you know what it took in the end to resolve the situation? Two phone calls, about 5 minutes long each. I called Chase with my previous mortgage information, got my new mortgage number, asked a few clarification questions, then called my new broker and relayed the information. On both ends, I got fast, effective customer service. Why do you suppose that is?

I’ll tell you, thanks for asking. First, instead of getting emotional about the inconvenience, I just did what needed to be done. Sure, I could’ve been upset about the situation. I could have complained to any party involved about just how put out I’ve been. But what does that accomplish? Nothing. It just makes it harder to do what I would have had to do anyway. Second, I was nice to the people I talked to, and they were friendly and helpful right back. Common sense, right? The Golden Rule? And yet you’d be surprised at how livid people can get at how bad their life is and how the world owes them a favor.2013-03-06_Customer_Service_Representative

Trust me, I know all about this. I was a customer service representative for over a year (although I don’t look quite as stunning as the dude in that picture). I talked to 1,000 people a day for a year. I know better than most that the way you approach a service interaction majorly affects the service you’ll receive. I also learned how to diffuse anger and keep people calm. It’s a powerful skill on both sides of the equation. I don’t think I’ve had a bad customer service experience in the last 5 years. I’ve even gotten compliments from representatives about how easy I am to deal with. Compliments from customer service representatives. Who knew they were people too?

The point is, you know how to treat people well, so just freaking do it. When we get overly emotional or personally offended about little things, we forget the most basic rules of courtesy and decent communication. Give kindness to get kindness. Give service to get service. It’s as simple as that.

Hurts So Good

Today’s post is brought to you by Boundaries, the book I started this week and that you’re therefore stuck with for the next several posts. Enjoy, and welcome to November!

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Have you ever been hurt?

Your answer to that is without a doubt “Yes,” but there are many different ways of taking it. Someone may say yes — I broke my arm when I was 10. Somebody else might say yes — my partner was unfaithful. Hurt runs the gamut from minor to major, from physical to emotional, from harmful to beneficial.

…wait. What?

Have you ever dislocated a joint? Your arm is a-floppin’ around out of socket, can’t do anything, and is in immense pain. Then they set it. I’ve never experienced this, but I take it from action movies that it’s about the most grueling pain ever. Sylvester Stallone can probably shrug it off but most of the rest of us can’t.

How about dental work? When the dentist has to drill out that cavity, it sure hurts. Of course, the purpose is to prevent your tooth from rotting out and causing the Black Plague epidemic in your mouth. On the flip side, did the candy that caused the cavity hurt when you ate it? Nope, it felt pretty good, didn’t it? But it sure wasn’t what you actually needed.

Now, have you ever been told your attitude was poor? Maybe you’ve been told that the way you’re handling something in your life is immature or self-destructive.

When dealing with our own hurts as well as with our ability to inflict hurt upon others, we need to separate temporary hurt for the eventual good from hurt for the sake of hurt. In other words, we need to separate hurt from harm. Hurt is a fleeting feeling, something short-lived and ephemeral. Harm is a long-term consequence that can change your life.

When you’re feeling hurt, especially when it’s an emotional or relational hurt inflicted by a friend or loved person, you should investigate whether the hurt was meant in love, for your eventual benefit, or for your harm. If someone is willing to put the truth on the table, they’re willing to sacrifice your opinion of them in the moment for your benefit later on. That’s a mature action. That’s a true friend. Listen to them. If someone hurt you with the sole intention to harm, then they’re petty and childish, and shouldn’t have any control over your emotions or your future. Ignore them. Develop the personal maturity to recognize the difference.

Sometimes being told that something is your fault helps to remind you that you’re in control. Maybe you screwed up. That’s okay, if you had the power to get here, you have the power to get out.

A good friend in high school once grabbed me by the collar, threw me against a wall, and told me he loved me, but my attitude lately had sucked. What were my options in that moment? I could fight back… who was he to tell me off? Or I could ignore him… who cares what he thinks? But this was a trusted friend, and I knew he had my best interests in mind. In light of that truth, I had no option but to investigate my attitude. He was right. It sucked. And he was willing to risk hurting me and our connection in order to benefit my future. These are the kinds of people we need to associate with. Luckily I got to return the favor to him (and probably back and forth several times over the course of our friendship). Having accountability with your friends, coworkers, and romantic partners is key in good relationships and in developing yourself.

So, when dealing with friends, peers, people in general, whether you’re the hurtee or the hurter, remember to be aware of the difference between hurt and harm. It might not happen exactly in the moment of conflict, right when the doctor pops your arm back in socket or drills your cavity, but remember that sometimes hurt can hurt so good.

Causality and Contrarianism

Catchy title eh? This week’s discussion is a bit philosophical in nature, but basically, the point I want to make is to not do normal things if you do not want normal results.

Simple concept right? To understand, yes, but to live according to, less so. Mob mentality is a form of survival, and it’s gruesomely effective. In college there were bunches of times when you’d get back a rough test and the first thing you’d do was look over at your pal’s paper to see how you stacked up. If enough people did badly, you’d argue the test. If a majority did poorly and argued it well enough, you could get a curve or some other mercy.

Much of life is the same way. We hold to statistics and averages because often they release us from personal responsibility. As the phrase goes, when a bear is chasing you, you don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than somebody else.

The average net worth of people under 35 is just over zero: about $3,000. If you don’t know, net worth is assets minus liabilities, so what you own minus what you owe. A house, for example, is usually a break-even on net worth. If you mortgage a house purchase, you have the mortgage value as a debt, but you also have an asset that would stand for that debt if it was called in: the house itself. Cash in hand or in a bank account or in investments is positive, obviously, as an asset without any liability. Student loan debt (which I suspect is the cause of the aforementioned figure) is a liability without a value-bearing asset, insofar as an education is not a measurable asset.

Does the fact that the average net worth of people under 35 is around $3,000 put you at ease? How would you perceive someone who was well in excess of that figure? Lucky? Greedy? A mere statistical anomaly?

Let’s go back to the test analogy. Inevitably, somebody in the class would pass with flying colors. Depending on their personality, their perception of the test difficulty, and a host of other factors, they’d either sit there silently while people asked for extra points, knowing with the bonus they’d surpass the 100% mark, smile while the proles asked for a curve knowing that with his score it’d be a small handful of points, or, the most entertaining (or infuriating), he’d actively mock the others who couldn’t pass “such an easy test.”

I found that very few tests were so difficult that they produced no winners. Life is much the same way. Even something so statistically overwhelming as the lottery spits out a winner every now and then. So, since there was and is almost always an outlier who passed, due to sheer brainpower, total luck, or just good old hard work and principle, the fact is that IT WAS NOT IMPOSSIBLE. And furthermore, something they did caused their success. The next logical inquiry would be, “What caused the success, and can it be controlled or mimicked?”

In essence, you know that what causes outliers is behavior that is not normal, so the most strictly effective iterative process is to take an action outside the norm, judge if the results were positive or negative outliers, and act accordingly. This was the Edison approach to the light bulb. It worked out pretty well for him. Back in high school physics (I was pretty good at physics), I had a friend who wanted to study together for the tests, so we tried something a little bit different. I went over to his house and he cooked dinner (this was not part of the studying, but he was an excellent chef), then while we ate, instead of reviewing the homework or notes, we would read straight through the chapter that the test was over. We would stop at any experiments and do them if they were feasible. We would do any example problems found in the chapter, but none of the homework problems. The first time we tested this method, we both got over 100%. Fair enough, so we did it again for the next one, with similar results. Once, a third friend joined the party. We were the three highest scores on the following test. We had stumbled upon a study method which, for one reason or another, had almost perfect accuracy. Also I ate a lot of good rice that year.

Even better is when you can make an educated guess at what kinds of irregular behavior will result in positive irregular results; let other people’s experience eliminate some of the iteration for you. This is what I try to teach: ways to be weird that will set you apart from the crowd in a good way. This is the basis of all my reading, studying, and testing; find out why normal people stay normal and exceptional people rise from normality to greatness. Jim Collins says simply that good is the enemy of great. Finding comfort in “average” precludes you from being “excellent.” There are NO stories of heroes or revolutionaries who were for the most part just satisfied with the status quo because their friends were or their culture was and their friends and culture got along “just fine.”

Warren Buffett says to be greedy when everyone else is afraid and afraid when everyone else is greedy. Once again, this contrarian thing seems to be pretty worthwhile. I’ve found it actually encouraging when people disagree with me on things that I know for a fact have worked for my good in my own life. When angry, unsatisfied, broke people say that I’m stupid, I get a big smile. If being smart makes you common, poor, and spiteful, I’ll take stupid any day of the week.

Are you unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your life? Complaining about it or burying the emotion is normal, taking action on it is not. Let’s all strive to be a little bit more abnormal.