I had recently turned fourteen when the 1985 movie, Teen Wolf ran its course. The only line I could now quote back to you from the film would be this one.
“Never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city — Coach Finstock, Teen Wolf.”
I don’t know why that line has stuck with me thirty-three years later. Even at the age of fourteen, I knew the coach in that movie was there for comedic effect, and it was not intended to be taken as sage advice. As absurd as the idea sounded, I often quoted it back to friends who played cards. It wasn’t until ten years ago that I stopped to consider and realize how ridiculous I sounded.
The Worst Advice Ever
There have been more recent examples of my impressionable nature.
Fifteen years ago, a mentor gave me this rule.
“It doesn’t matter whether a belief is true or false, only whether it is resourceful for you.”
I believed that advice without question up until a year or two ago. In some cases the guidance might be helpful, but if you consider the possible permutations of this advice, you realize how destructive it could be — not only to you but others as well.
There were a few other long-held beliefs I jettisoned the last two years. Once I experienced these epiphanies, I realized there might be a slew of nonsensical convictions worth questioning. It also brought about an embarrassing revelation.
There. I said it. I knew that already. I had spent several years in sales, marketing and copywriting. I know that most humans are gullible, some more than others. I’m apparently on the more extreme side of the continuum.
Here’s the good news.
The Antidote For “Gullibleness”
This realization sparked something in me. I began a new routine in my nightly journaling.
I reserve one line in my notebook to write down one instance where an external idea or belief challenged my position or worldview. Then I force myself to answer this question.
How did I come to that belief?
I’ve found through this informal exercise that I cemented many of my steadfast convictions in childhood. These early childhood beliefs come from the most unusual and unreliable of sources: peers of the same age, movies, snarky adults making offhand comments. Most of my other long-held beliefs came from well-known or respected figures, like mentors and media personalities. Never, had any of these beliefs come from rigorous analysis and study.
In many cases, I had reinforced these beliefs through research, but that cannot be trusted. I’m as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else.
It’s embarrassing to admit that most beliefs and worldviews come from the influence of others. We like to think our identity grows from discovery, logic and thoughtful consideration.
Only by accepting how impressionable you are, and questioning every idea that claims real estate in your brain, can you gain enough awareness to escape this scourge.
Sorry, We’re All Gullible
When I was in sales, I’d sometimes come across the loud, know-it-all guy.
“You’ve got you’re work cut out for you, Barry. I have a fine-tuned bullshit meter.”
These guys were the easiest sells. Once they had decided to buy, they would reframe the narrative so that it was their idea all along, and I had just happened to show up at the right time.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’d come across this kind of guy.
“I’m a big fan of [insert any product/service]. I’m interested in anything that will improve [fill in the blank].”
As a novice salesman, I would think. “Slam dunk. This guy has already sold himself.”
Those guys never bought. There would always be some excuse that sounded reasonable. They were always on the cusp of saying “yes,” but never did. If you’re in sales (or have been), you know the person I’m describing.
By the time I left sales, I knew that the ones who claimed they were discerning judges of salespeople were the most gullible. The ones who seemed like a sure thing were near impossible to sell.
Were the latter folks more self-aware, and therefore more guarded or over-compensating for their perceived flaw? I have no idea. Maybe they were just sadists who had nothing better to do than toy with unsuspecting salespeople.
Overcoming our gullible tendencies is difficult. Most of us will never admit that we’re one of those suckers. If you can accept that you are one of us, then you have a chance to counteract it.
Start with the exercise I mentioned earlier. Write down one instance a day where someone questioned or challenged your belief or worldview.
Ask yourself how you came to that belief. You might answer that a parent or teacher seeded your mind. You might recall a conversation with a friend. Let’s not forget the cringe-worthy possibility — a now discredited media figure spouted some nonsense on television or the big screen. Of course, you also may have forgotten the original source.
Regardless of where your belief germinated, the information leads to insight. You realize that you’ve been carrying around a belief based on what someone told you — often someone you now deem unqualified. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll understand that someone or multiple people influenced you. It is a rare event where you discover an idea and form a belief on your own, shielded from outside influence.
It’s difficult to surrender a belief, even if you want to, especially if it’s part of your identity
Sometimes you realize immediately that your initial influence was unreliable — like in the case of a movie quote.
If it came from another human being, question the veracity. The person might have been trustworthy, but it doesn’t mean their all-knowing. If the source is unreliable, then maybe you’ve been led down the wrong path.
Permit yourself to question if you’ve been wrong. Give yourself an opportunity to put aside the “experts” who persuaded you, and do your own homework.
I’m not suggesting you give up a belief. It’s difficult to surrender a belief, even if you want to, especially if it’s part of your identity. It’s a slow process. The emotional part of you needs to catch up to the logical part of you.
This practice takes guts. It takes courage to admit you’re susceptible to the influence of others, even though none of us are immune. It takes courage to admit someone led you astray, even if it was unintentional. And it takes courage to change a belief, especially when it’s become part of your identity.