Looking back, I’ve written a lot of content. I’ve been letting my fingers do the walking on this blog since the glorious days of last June. This doesn’t count the countless articles, brand strategies, “For Dummies” books (available on Amazon) and a manuscript in a Google Doc that would reach halfway across a football field (For the record, that manuscript will be converted into a memoir, available for you when I decided the time is right). Most of these writings contain an overwhelming supply of opinions, something my critics say I’ve had no short supply of since birth. Opinions have their place, but they are not regarded as highly as their kissing cousin, facts, especially if they are going to be written down for future criticism.
If I had a dollar for every word I wrote each week, I’d have a living wage, a decent retirement plan, and most likely, a little bit left in the budget to go out to eat. As a writer thrusting content onto the internet, rife with opinions, advice and try-hard punchlines, the most challenging part of the job is not editing or proofreading (although I do have a verry good editor). Having fresh topics isn’t tricky either thanks to the politicians goading the news cycle to capture a few headlines. No. The hardest part of the job is being right. All the time.
If you measure my years in inches, my time invested in the pursuit of correct dissemination might amount to the height of a small clown. But as much effort as I have put in, I’ve not likely managed to hold a record of never being wrong. While my valiant effort could have earned me an extra sprint around the playground at recess, it might not get me to graduation.
There’s no doubt of the obstacles. I’ve been faced with moving targets, shifting narratives and a plethora of new data from the CDC. Heck, I’ve written an essay clocking in at a Bison’s weight in words, offering an analysis of entire countries and their respective histories only to be rendered fully irrelevant because a leader among those countries made a decision that changed all of the world's plans, including my publishing schedule.
Being right is hard.
But as I’ve mentioned, I committed a complete Ninja Turtles set worth of decades to the craft of not being wrong, and I’m convinced that there is an objective approach and some mathematical equation that can guide the process. But like rocket science, it’s complicated and you probably need a really big chalkboard. What I’m hoping to provide here in this article is a poor man’s approach to not being wrong so that this is something that we can all apply at some point.
Don Draper of Mad Men said “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Advice that is considered brilliant in the advertising industry, and considered a Monday in politics.
Russia’s President, Valdimir Putin has been able to successfully change the conversation, of course with a little of his own flair. He started by first isolating himself from the rest of the world, perhaps for fear of catching an illness, and subsequently being dislodged as one of the most powerful people in the world–but also out of paranoia. He’s managed to reduce his circle of trusted advisors, firing anyone that disagreed with him. Outside of his chambers, he’s made it illegal to report anything contrary to his narrative in Russia’s public media. Ultimately, if there’s no one to disagree with you, there’s no way to be wrong. This formula is what I’ll call isolationism, and has ultimately benefited Putin, by inflicting a point of view on the population of his country with success.
Being Isolated from Being Wrong
Imagine walking into a coffee shop and talking about how evil Ukrainians are, and how brave the special military operation is as Putin liberates the country’s people–and imagine everyone in that coffee shop agrees with you.
Who would tell you you’re wrong? The consensus seems to support your thinking. This is what appears to be the case in Russia, according to recent polls which say its citizens support Putin and the war in Ukraine by a landslide. Putin’s support has been surging in recent days. Putin himself, after a couple months of sitting at a giant conference table with “yes men” may even believe his own false claims. It only takes a handful of positive reports and a decent infographic to assure you that you’re winning a war and that your motives if you never hear anything to the contrary.
Meanwhile out here in Western Society, most of us think this is ridiculous, based on scenes of bombed residential neighborhoods and detailed reports of war crimes. Since Putin has changed the conversation, the whole Russian society is largely isolated from this news, by intentional omission, with little, if any exposure to an alternative to Putin’s narrative.
Perhaps this is worth looking at as analogous to the isolation we bring on ourselves. Join a political party where you are removed if you dissent, a civic or religious group that demonizes questions or alternative views. Or simply live in a suburb where the inconvenient truths happening on the other side of the tracks are conveniently removed from your matrix of facts.
A recent study by David Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley and Joshua Kalla of Yale found isolating people from narratives has powerful results. The two political scientists paid regular Fox News viewers to watch CNN instead for a period of time. Naturally, the candidates had to be paid to abandon their source of Truth from Tucker Carlson, but assessments before and after the experiment showed notable shifts in their views on prominent public issues.
The fact is, the media we consume and the people we hang out with have a clear impact on what we believe to be true. So long as you are safe in that social setting, there is no reason to question the truth claims. By nature, we will find ourselves believing what we hear most often, and what protects our social acceptance.
Of course, when everyone around you agrees, it boosts your confidence in how right you are about your views. It’s not surprising that voting trends have a geographical concentration, with large urban settings likely to lean left and rural and suburban areas likely to lean right.
Being right is easy.
That is, if you practice isolation, you can be confident that your alternate reality and social network will keep you in a blissful delusion that your beliefs are correct.
A reader recently wrote to me to comment on some of the week's material. He said “I seriously do enjoy your stuff. I don't agree with all of your stances, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating your writing and sense of humor.” After my blushing, he said “Please don't tell anyone I said that because I don't think it's legal anymore to associate with anyone who doesn't agree with you 100% of the time.”
I get it! I don’t even agree with myself 100% of the time! But I’d still hang out with me if I were you (you on the other hand will have to decide that for yourself).
Another method of never being wrong is to never use numbers, unlike the above reader who’s made a numerical claim of absolutes. If you avoid the objective and measurable, you always have plausible deniability of any precise meaning of what you were saying, should someone differ with you. For example, my age, height or the length of any manuscripts I might have, not considering font size. Don’t mention this to my attorney though, who turns a conversation over a beer into a book with more contingencies and definitions than a weatherman with a dictionary. The practice of being a lawyer is to examine a situation between two parties (which hereafter will be referred to as The Situation) and identify every possible unexpected outcome and write a comprehensive passage to navigate The Situation and ensure The Parties have an instrument for every dispute. That’s much different than the Putin approach of changing the conversation.
Changing the conversation can be sinister, especially when the other side of the story is labeled a threat.
Sometimes, changing the conversation is necessary. Perhaps it is the side you have been missing. In fact, it might be the case that the conversation that you’ve been avoiding is the very one you need to talk about. Perhaps it makes you uncomfortable. But sickness comes from avoiding the conversation entirely. From banning the books that feature important history, or banning conversations about real people with real families, and covering up the story that is taking place on the ground. Perhaps you need to hear that side of the story that you are not so sure you agree with.
Maybe my attorney brings up a good point. There are countless things we can’t be certain of. The only way we can really ever be right is when we have the humility to admit that we just don’t know everything. Maybe it’s time to listen.