How Not to Fool Yourself...
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
Over the past week I’ve been having the fascinating experience of talking with the publishers who are interested in my new book. And I’ve been reading the ‘no thank you’ emails from those who aren’t interested (my agent, Jim, is wonderful in many ways—one of my favorite being his transparency about the process…whatever publishers say to him, he passes on to me).
You wouldn’t know they’re talking about the same book. The publishers who are interested believe (as do Jim and I) that the book is unique in ways that readers will find engaging and compelling in the crowded business book marketplace. They feel I have a strong, fresh voice and a good platform, and that the book can be a success for all of us—both in terms of readership and impact.
The others, not so much. Their response is, basically: Pretty well-written, but I don’t see anything here that grabs me. Sorry.
And it got me thinking about how subjective we are about most things. We take in information filtered through our own experiences and expectations, our pre-existing hopes and fears. Our reactions are affected by what others think, by what we’ve been told…sometimes even by how our day is going! Our subjectivity is especially pronounced in our reaction to others’ creative output—books, music, art, poetry, movies. Most successful artists and writers have had to endure their share of lukewarm-to-negative response (Whenever a publisher has passed on a manuscript of mine, I’ve consoled myself by thinking of the rejection note the Beatles got from the first record company they gave a demo to: “Your music is too simple—and guitar bands are on the way out.”)
But, unfortunately, we’re not just subjective in our artistic opinions: we’re much more subjective than we acknowledge in our opinions about each other, our work and our enterprises. And while thinking “This is truly hideous” when standing in front of a Picasso doesn’t affect your life in any substantive way, thinking “This guy is a total idiot” while meeting a new employee, or “This is a fantastic idea!” while listening to a new business pitch can dramatically affect your life and others’ lives, as well.
That’s why, when we’re coaching executives, we often talk about the skill of “becoming a fair witness” and how important it is. I borrowed the idea of ‘fair witnessing’ from the book Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. In the book, Heinlein invents a profession called Fair Witness. At one point, a character in the book is demonstrating what a Fair Witness does; he points to a distant house and asks the Fair Witness what color it is. She replies, “It appears to be painted white on this side.” A Fair Witness is trained to simply observe and report based on his or her direct experience, without inference or extrapolation.
In order to be a fair witness, you have to become conscious of your self-talk—the monologue that goes on inside your head. You need to cultivate the habit of observing your thought processes. For example, are you prone to wishful thinking—that is, do you only acknowledge those facts that support your hopes? Or do you come to conclusions about people and situations very quickly, based on limited input? Do you talk yourself out of pursuing new possibilities by focusing on all the things that could go wrong?
Once you start to get clearer about your own mental habits, and how they interfere with you being a fair witness, you can actually coach yourself to be more objective. For instance, when you find yourself saying to yourself, “This guy’s a total idiot,” based on a five-minute conversation with a new employee, you can encourage yourself to be a fair witness by thinking something like “Hold on—I don’t really have enough experience with him to say that. Let’s see what happens over the next few days.”
We’ve found that when people can encourage themselves to stay initially neutral in the face of new information, and then come to conclusions based on a more objective assessment of the situation, they end up making better decisions and building better relationships and businesses.