Signals That Never Penetrate Our Immune System of Ideas

Our Own Immune System to Ideas

To some extent we all have an immune system to certain ideas. The things you automatically discount might be from a certain political persuasion, a certain family member who feels compelled to give you advice when you're just trying to watch the game, an employee who believes they always have a better idea, or someone who others view as an authority but who just annoys the heck out of you.

These filters block what would otherwise be useful feedback. But because you've inoculated yourself against those strains, the feedback never gets through the barrier.

When the Messenger Impacts the Message

Here's an example. Your significant other urges you to live differently, whether that's related to diet, exercise, or workload. You build up scar tissue to keep it at bay, but something happens to lend credence to the advice. You end up in the hospital and the medical staff tells you the exact same thing. But in this case you listen and behave differently (at least for a week) because you haven't developed an immune system to that person's ideas.

The immune systems we develop are not logical. Usually they are based on something personal about the source. By saying "he's arrogant" you can dismiss the advice.

And believe me, I am one of the world's worst offenders of this malady. I find sheer delight in finding ways to dismiss what Tim Ferris or Gary V. have to say, which is really a mistake on my part. I'm cheating myself by not keeping a more open mind and evaluating advice on its merits rather than on what I think of the source.

There's a limit to how open I should be about this, of course. I'm not going to listen as carefully to advice about interpersonal relationships from someone who doesn't have any friends and I'm not going to follow entrepreneurial advice from someone who never seems to achieve significant success.

But you can't listen to everybody or you'll just go nuts. There are too many competing voices, many of which disagree with each other. Here are some ideas for me and for you so that we can both learn efficiently.

Who I Listen To or Ignore

I'm not sure I'm really qualified to tell anyone who to listen to. All I'm going to do here is to offer my own personal ideas; the principles I use in my own listening.

  • I pay attention to people who have been significantly correct most of the time, year over year. I follow specific people more than topic experts. I trust a well-honed approach over a resident expert.
  • I pay attention to people who are self-aware and don't intertwine their own agendas in the advice they are giving. I don't get a spidey sense when I listen to them, thinking that maybe it's self-interested.
  • I pay attention to people who have demonstrated some personal success in the area to which they are speaking, whether that's financial, personal, managerial, or whatever.
  • I pay attention to people who are not always successful, because those people seem more honest and humble. This is especially true when the person is making wild claims about multi-million dollar exits, guru this and guru that, growth-hacking, and all the other internet BS that floods the etherwaves.
  • I pay attention to people who sometimes carve out a contrarian view, as long as there are solid arguments for it. Nearly every positive movement in our history as a species has emerged against the consensus, and I assume the majority could be in error. I'm looking for truth on the fringes, though it's a mistake to believe everything in the fringes.
  • I pay attention to someone who can lay out the pros and cons of both sides of an argument and who can rightly see how someone might come to a different conclusion.
  • I pay attention to someone who sees the whole world and not just their little slice of it. I'm more likely to believe someone who has traveled or who speaks to people of all different stripes.
  • I pay attention to someone who recognizes their biases and tries to manage the impact on their advice.
  • I pay attention to young-minded people, regardless of their age, who are always growing as people. I prefer to listen to someone who has changed their mind multiple times in the light of new evidence. Who ties different fields together and sees the patterns between disparate fields.

When We Could Stand to Listen More

Here are a few areas where we are particularly bad at listening objectively, in the context of running a digital, creative, or marketing firm.

  • We pay more attention to the signals that attract clients to us than the signals that repel them when they leave. It's a confirmation bias to say that "clients really think we do better work" because you're only listening to the clients who tell you that. EVERY client who comes to you is LEAVING a bad situation, and so--at least at the start--they think you invented sliced bread. But when they leave and go to another firm, they'll say the same thing to that new firm. But you won't let it register that this same client, whose opinion you adored, now thinks you do sh1t work.
  • We overweight the employees who have stayed with us a long time and seldom factor in the employees who left us after a month or two. We claim employee longevity (which isn't all good, by the way) with selective data.
  • We write off all of someone's advice who has wronged us in one specific area, depriving ourselves of the benefit that comes from listening. Our brains resort to efficient decision making: she's an idiot; I don't need to listen. The truth is that there is a fair bit of nuance and we have to untangle our personal feelings from the substance. When someone comes up to me and suggests how I could improve as a public speaker, I'll immediately look for ways to discount their feedback, whether it's their lack of apparent success, their personal mannerisms, or anything I can think of. But if someone adores me, somehow none of that matters.

The list goes on and on.

We do have to protect ourselves from bad advice, but it's worth revisiting those filters from time to time to make sure the good stuff is getting through.

Who are you consistently ignoring? Can you find a grain of truth in their feedback that you would do well to consider?

Some of us, for example, should pay more attention to consistent themes from our significant others and friends. And some of us should pay less attention. Our immune system of ideas are very powerful things. My own biggest struggle is a fierce defensiveness about personal feedback, and I'll still be fighting those bad tendencies until the last shovel of dirt covers me up and the small crowd walks away.

(Thanks to Nat Eliason for the idea for this article when he wrote about Unqualified Experts.)

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