Why It’s Nearly Impossible To Change Someone’s Mind
For fifteen years, I believed selfishness was the virtue of the noble, the principled, and the enlightened. And nobody could change my mind.
That belief took root at the age of 18 when I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Unlike my conservative cronies, I did not regard the book as fine literature. Even at my young age, I recognized its wordiness and lackluster characters. But that didn’t matter to me.
The principles the book expounded intoxicated me. These weren’t the ideas of a jaded author. No, they were commandments written on Moses’ third tablet, which somehow never made it into the bible because of some clandestine liberal plot.
When college ended, I returned home to look for a job. I popped in the VHS tape of the movie Wall Street and kneeled to Gordon Gecko. Full of unbridled confidence, I snagged a job as a stockbroker. While there, I watched with awe and horror, admiring their skill and despising their absence of moral restraint. They’d insult and hang up on the pikers — what they called people worth less than a million dollars.
But the rich folks…
First, they’d endure a minute or two of swears and threats. Then, they’d turn them, little by little, until they agreed to shell out thousands in stock for a company they never heard of. Only a few of the guys could do this. I didn’t have the stomach for it and struggled.
A part of me questioned the ethics, but as the bosses always said, “You’re never responsible for another adult’s actions.” But even if you lie and deceive to influence those actions? I never asked that, but should have.
As much as that experience soured me, I still wanted to be one of those guys. Many of my views had shifted left by then, and I struggled to reconcile my changing views with the person I still wanted to become.
Here’s the problem I faced.
You don’t give up your religion just because the rules don’t suit you. You still worship the god since it knows what’s best. And I worshipped the culture.
So, I rose out of bed each morning to watch those blowhards on cable television, the ones who gushed about the virtues of assholery and the evils of the looters like it was masturbation-worthy porn. These people were like family to me, part of the tribe.
Perhaps you can gather from my language, I no longer believe in that worldview. Nobody convinced me. Nobody changed my mind. And nobody ridiculed my beliefs until I surrendered.
The experience that changed everything
Filled with religion and arrogance, I journeyed into the world of entrepreneurship to claim my first few millions.
It nearly destroyed me.
A year later, my bank account hovered dangerously close to zero. Desperate, I scrambled to find a job. But I had been out of the market for almost two years.
A month of job searches turned up nothing, not even rejection.
What do you do when you’re desperate for help but your values tell you that asking for help is evil?
In need of advice, I called my former business coach. We no longer worked together, but we had become friends. I explained how I struggled to land an interview.
Out of embarrassment, I explained my financial situation only so he wouldn’t try to sell me on more coaching. I still believed in the virtue of never getting something for nothing, but I needed a lifeline and hoped he’d throw one.
And he did.
“Come to my office,” he said. “One friend to another. No charge.”
For two hours, we talked and strategized. He put together a plan for me. “Call your network,” he said. “No matter how thin the relationship.”
The thought of calling people and begging for a job sickened me. But in my desperate state, I did it. The next day, I scored a job interview with a former employer.
Down to one week of cash
The interview had gone well, I believed, but I heard nothing for days. My calls went unanswered. With no job prospects and only a few weeks of cash left to spare, I called my former mentor again.
Not ready to give up either, he told me to call them back, but this time he gave me a script, bold and borderline aggressive, but he promised they’d call me back.
With a shaky hand, I dialed the number. The voice mail picked up, and I left the message. An hour later, I received a callback. The hiring manager explained they were busy, apologized, and announced I had won the job. We negotiated a six-figure salary. With a week or two of savings left, I had done it, but with a ton of free help.
When old beliefs clash with new experiences
But now I had a problem. I had to reconcile my old beliefs with the generosity I had received. I could no longer look at the world the same way, not after needing a rescue. For the first time in my life, at the age of 32, I had felt the pressure of financial disaster.
But what about other people who had lived their entire lives on the precipice of collapse? I couldn’t fathom it, not when three months of it nearly killed me.
And those virtues I valued? Selfishness, greed, and letting people suffer when they fail. I couldn’t reconcile my conflicting reality with that grotesque religion cobbled together from Atlas Shrugged and Wall Street. The day came when I divorced myself from my old belief system.
How to change someone’s mind
Values define us, whether they’re ideological, religious, or otherwise. They underpin our self-identity. You may not like all the rules that form the basis of your values. They may not serve your best interest. But you still worship its god and defend it when it comes under attack.
During my early days in copywriting, a teacher taught me a lesson that explained this phenomenon.
“You can’t change anyone’s mind. And even if it’s possible, it’s so difficult; it’s not even worth trying. The best you can do is clear the debris, lead them towards the destination, and hope they follow.”
Nobody gives up on their religion because someone ridicules their deity. I had heard endless reasons, logical ones, why my values were misguided. It never registered. They were attacking my god, and I wouldn’t hear it.
But when the framework that underpinned my belief system no longer matched my reality, it forced me to acknowledge the truth. Someone had shown me kindness and generosity when I desperately needed it. His actions contradicted everything I had believed, and I could no longer reconcile my values with my life experience.
That’s how you change someone’s mind
You won’t do it with logic, ridicule, or pleading. You clear the debris and demonstrate how their beliefs contradict reality. But you don’t draw the conclusion for them. They need to do that themselves.
It’s hard, and many will still resist, but there’s no other way. You can’t convince anyone. They need to persuade themselves.