Avoiding Stories That Undermine Your Credibility

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

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Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.

One place that crap easily enters our writing is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.

The infamous boiling frog

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Those legendary earners from Yale

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.

The moral of this story

Only tell stories that you can verify based on:

  • Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
  • Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
  • Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format

 

How to Avoid the Bullshit Industrial Complex

I wanted to cheer after reading Sean Blanda’s post about The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex. His main point: “Don’t fall into the trap of being an expert before you’re ready. We have enough of those.”

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As editor of 99u, Sean gets pitches from people who want to write for the website or speak at company’s conferences for creative professionals. In the worst of these pitches, he says:

…there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.

Sean also presents a continuum that goes from credibility to bullshit. He identifies four levels:

Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.

Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.

[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]

Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.

Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.

Our path to freedom from the Bullshit Industrial Complex is to remember that Group 1 sources exist in every field. And, our job is to find them.

If you’re a critical reader of self-help material, for example, Group 1 includes researchers who write well—academics who stay close to the data and have a source of income beyond speaking fees and book royalties.

Notable examples include Martin Seligman, Richard Wiseman, Sojna Lyubomirsky, Tal Ben-Shahar, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Timothy Wilson, BJ Fogg, Orin Davis, and creators of evidence-based psychotherapies.

I trust such people because they abide by the ethics of responsible scholarship.

They go beyond anecdotes to test their ideas with well-designed studies.

They know the professional literature and cite their sources.

They distinguish between hunches and statements that are supported by evidence.

Most of all, Group 1 sources openly acknowledge the possible objections to their ideas and state the limitations in applying them.

This gets to the heart of the scientific method, which includes a deliberate search for evidence that refutes your hypothesis—and an admission that nothing is ever proven.

Our constant challenge as writers and speakers to dwell above the “line of bullshit demarcation.” Our daily job is to create original work that goes beyond aggregating the content of other aggregators—even when mindless aggregation wins shares, likes, and other hollow dings of social approval.

This is hard work. It means cultivating the timeless virtues of honesty and humility—qualities that easily go down the toilet when there’s a book to promote or a mailing list to build.

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Avoiding bullshit is one of my favorite topics. For starters, see the only-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek Anecdotes Are Sexy But Not Conclusive. Also check out:

Using a Commonplace Book to Incubate Ideas—The Power of “Zero Drafts”

Of the many benefits of keeping a commonplace book, the one I find most powerful is allowing ideas to simmer, develop, and build  over time.

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In a masterful post, Tony Schwartz describes this as incubation—a crucial stage in creative thinking:

The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can’t seem to solve it. Incubation involves mulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions. After writing for 90 minutes, for example, the best thing I can do to jog my brain, is take a run.

I recommend that you do more than take an exercise break. When you set up your commonplace book, create a section for zero drafts that you incubate over time.

How to create a zero draft

I got the term zero draft from Christian Tietze, coauthor of a wonderful blog about commonplacing. “This draft isn’t meant for reading,” he notes. It’s even worse than the shitty first draft we all need to embrace. This is Frankenstein’s monster turned into text.”

A zero draft is midway between a collection of random notes and the first draft of an article or book on a specific topic. More precisely, it is a growing collection of notes about a single topic grouped into a flat outline.

By flat, I mean just two levels of content:

  • The title of an article, blog post, presentation, or book chapter that you might create
  • Subheadings—one for each major point you could make or story that you could tell to flesh out the title

To create a zero draft, simply “dump” (copy and paste) any relevant notes (facts, anecdotes, quotes, examples, and other information) under the most appropriate subheading. (To get ideas for subheadings, consider some common frameworks for nonfiction writers.)

Note: This process of dumping notes is much harder when you have a “deep” outline with two or more levels of headings: Each level adds another layer of decisions to make about where to place an individual note. By keeping your outline flat, you eliminate all those extra decisions.

Always be researching, always be writing 

Always have several zero drafts in process. Each one might start simply as a note with a working title for something you’d like to publish or present in the future. Add subheadings as they occur to you. When you run across a relevant fact or quote, paste it under the appropriate subheading.

To get the most benefit from this process:

  • Allow plenty of time for adding notes to your zero draft.
  • Review your zero drafts weekly, revising them as you see fit.
  • Remember that zero drafts are not even “shitty first drafts.” They’re simply collections of notes without introductions, transitions, or conclusions. Zero drafts acquired their name because they come before any draft, even the first one.
  • Allow your evolving creations to slowly shape themselves. Some zero drafts naturally fall away and fade into your archives. Others will flourish and expand into projects that you commit to finish. In either case, your zero drafts will speak to you and tell you how they want to be developed. It’s as if your notes have a mind of their own.

Two benefits of zero drafts

This approach allows for incubation, as Tiago Forte explains:

Too often, we force ourselves to take an idea from blue sky ideation to practical execution in 48 hours flat. We call it a “rapid prototyping sprint,” and pride ourselves on how little time was spent, as if a new idea is something to be excreted and moved on from as quickly as possible.

But again, this is not how our mind works. I don’t need to tell you anecdotes about how the brain continues working on problems through the night, or as you do household chores, or take a shower, or do grocery shopping.

The post from which I took the above quote offers an example of incubation. Tiago describes it as the product of a “slow burn”—a process of collecting notes from more than 25 sources over the period of a year.

In addition, zero drafts help you separate the tasks of researching and writing. Every time I try to combine those tasks during one sitting, I end up frustrated and ready to quit. The mental effort required to switch tasks between gathering notes and crafting notes into a first draft is just too great.

Above all, approach zero drafts with a sense of play. See them as mini-experiments and works in progress. Create them to have fun and guide your learning—independent of any deadline. Allow the slow burn to sizzle and then explode into your next big creation.

For more on this topic, see: