Weekly 3: How to hone your bullshit radar

Idea Journal Weekly 3



Idea Journal Weekly 3

June 20 · Issue #196 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Detecting bullshit is a key life skill. It can save you time, help you avoid unproductive relationships, and bring you closer to the truth. This issue explores three ideas to help you hone your bullshit radar.
(~4 min read)

#1. Actions matter more than words
In an interview on The Knowledge Project podcast, author Robert Greene says that a key aspect of better detecting bullshit is reducing the influence of people’s words.
People can talk a lot, so the question you want to ask yourself when trying to determine whether someone is sincere or competent in some area is: What has this person actually accomplished?
After all, “you can’t bullshit your achievements in life.”
As Greene notes, this is what Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, referred to as “ the effect of truth.” 
This is the lens Machiavelli used in his own time when evaluating Pope Cesare Borgia. Instead of focusing on what the Pope said about Christianity and being a good person, Machiavelli looked at his actions. And what he found was that Borgia was “a rapacious warlord.”
And yet, we can’t fully escape bullshit. As Greene points out, “it’s a part of social life.”
The key is to be aware of it.
#2. Mind the gap in your knowledge
Author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli writes in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly that there are 2 types of knowledge: 
1. Real knowledge: you see this in people who have committed a large amount of effort and time to understand the complexity of a topic.
2. “Chauffeur knowledge”: you see this in people who have learned to put on a good show, but the knowledge they espouse is not their own: “They reel off eloquent words as if reading from a script.”
The term chauffeur knowledge comes from the following story about the physicist Max Planck.
After receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918, Planck went on a speaking tour across Germany, and at each stop he delivered the same lecture on quantum mechanics. 
Over time, Planck’s chauffeur learned the lecture by heart, and suggested: “It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That’d give us both a bit of variety.”
Planck liked the idea, and that evening his chauffeur delivered the same quantum mechanics lecture in front of a distinguished audience. 
Later, a physics professor in the audience stood up and asked a question. 
Shocked, the chauffeur responded: “Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it.”
Some people are great actors, and as Dobelli points out, it can be hard to distinguish between those who have real knowledge and those who are more like Planck’s chauffeur. 
For Dobelli, the best indicator is that true experts recognize the limits of what they know, and what they don’t know. When they find themselves outside their range of competence, they will confidently and unapologetically say: I don’t know.
On the other hand: “From chauffeurs, we hear every line except this.”
#3. Are their words and demeanor consistent?
In her book Sharktales, entrepreneur and investor Barbara Corcoran writes that when you’re trying to gauge how genuine someone is, it’s important to look for consistency between what they say and how they say it.
For example, people who are naturally aggressive and competitive won’t simply describe themselves as such — they will act that way if you challenge them.
To illustrate her point, Corcoran describes her experience interviewing sales candidates in the early days of her company The Corcoran Group.
Here’s how she recalls her dialogue with the first interviewee, a “well-coiffed” woman named Mary.
After chatting for a while about Mary’s family and hobbies, Corcoran redirected the conversation.
Corcoran: “Mary, I’m so happy you’ve spent all this time telling me about your family and friends. But would you mind if I’m totally honest with you?”
Mary: “Please, of course not.”
Corcoran: “Well, Mary, after working with so many different people, I guess I’ve concluded that great salespeople have a few things in common. The first is empathy … it’s obvious to me that you’re very, very good with people. Would you agree?“
Mary: “Yes, of course. Yes, yes, I’m very good with people.”
Corcoran: “But I’ve also found that the other thing all great salespeople share is a real need to succeed – I’d almost call it a killer instinct. And for whatever reason, I’m just not getting that from you.”
Corcoran paused, sat back and waited for a response.
Mary spent several long minutes explaining how she really was aggressive. But as Corcoran puts it, Mary’s “words were right, but I knew her music was all wrong. So, I bade her good-bye and promised to call if a position became available. I knew it never would.”
A dozen interviews later, a candidate named Emily marched confidently into Corcoran’s office.
As Corcaran tells the story, when she reached her standard I-don’t-think-you’re-aggressive line during the interview, “Emily was so insulted I thought she’d leap across the desk and grab my throat. And as she yap-yap-yapped in my face, I knew Emily was the right gal for me.”
Quote of the week
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit-detector.”
- Writer Ernest Hemingway in a 1958 interview with the The Paris Review
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