Six Ways to Find Clarity in Conflicting Information
The early bird gets the worm. Good advice, unless you’re the worm. And if you are the worm, you might be following very different advice: “haste makes waste” or “all good things come to those who wait.”
We have a lot of these sayings. Often, I find myself in situations where saying them sounds natural.
You should dress appropriately for the job you’re doing, after all, the clothes make the man. Then again, you can’t always judge a book by it’s cover.
Look at the world! The corruption! The poverty! No wonder, money is the root of all evil. Then again, you’ve got to have money to survive. After all, money makes the world go ‘round.
Working as a team, we will knock this out in no time. You know what they say: Many hands make light work. On second thought, let’s work on some of this individually and check back tomorrow morning. You know what they say: Too many cooks spoil the soup.
At first, I was a little skeptical about working together, but now I’m really happy we are. It’s true, opposites attract. Different day, different person: This project is coming along great, I’m happy we see eye to eye on so many things, birds of a feather flock together.
Scratching your head? Me too.
There’s something very human about giving advice or words of assurance. Aside from colloquial proverbs and idioms, it gets confusing when we are actively seeking advice and can’t pin down an answer. For example, there are numerous resources, many of them conflicting, for the most important questions: How do I find a job that I love AND pays the bills? Is it ok to cut out carbs and eat high-fat and protein foods? Is going to college really “worth it”? Should I stay with or leave my partner? I’m not happy, is something wrong with me?
Are there any reliable, straightforward answers? Or are we doomed to read blogs and books that debate each other and ride the merry-go-round of misinformation as answers fall in and out of popular opinion? In the past, I’ve felt like it’s a lost cause, like trying to catch the wind. That’s exactly what this post is about: deconstructing contradictions so you have the tools to make informed decisions about your life and your future.
The Six Reasons Why We Have Conflicting Information
Lack of Clarity
Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third--
Costello: That's what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team.
Abbott: I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third.
- From Abbott and Costello's comedy routine Who's on First?
Language isn’t perfect, and neither are the people who use it. Someone may use a less descriptive word when the situation calls for a robust one. This vagueness can lead to a lot of different interpretations, a strategy sometimes used by politicians—that way, if an opinion falls out of favor, they can recontextualize their words later.
Going back to one of the opening examples, when someone says, “the root of all evil is money” what they are really saying is “the root of all evil is greed.” Likewise, when someone says, “money makes the world turn ‘round,” what they are really saying is, “commerce makes the world turn ‘round.”
When in doubt, always ask questions. When there is a conflict of clarity and a piece of information doesn’t make sense, ask the speaker specific questions, or ask them to explain it in a different way. Another strategy you can use is something communication scholars call “reflective listening.” Reflective listening is when you summarize the speaker’s message in your own words and then ask if you’re understanding them correctly. Sometimes, you can’t rely on the words alone; you have to listen to all the signals you are receiving, including body language and tone of voice. If you’re still confused, listen for the big-picture message instead of looking for it in the details. And then ask questions.
If the information is online or in a book, look at how the information is being portrayed in the context of the article or chapter.
This doesn’t answer the big question: does this information apply to me? Is it true? Is it helpful? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that. This first point is only about clearly understanding the message that is being transmitted to you.
Not Enough Information
Failure is only feedback, and it teaches us where our skills are, where they need to be, and what areas we should work on.
- Yours truly, in many blog posts and in Age of Agility
If I listened to feedback, I would have quit. Don’t listen to feedback, be yourself.
- Seth Godin, in his blog post The trap of listening to feedback
I was recently called out for not having enough information and inadvertently misleading readers. Here’s what happened.
When I write about failure, I write about how failure is only feedback. It reframes the event from something negative to something we can work with. A few days after posting this in a blog, and sharing it on a private social media site, a blogger (who has WAY more followers than I do) responded with a post of their own, saying that you shouldn’t listen to the feedback you get from others. He wrote: “If I listened to feedback, I would have quit on the first day.”
I didn’t clarify, did I? One problem with writing for an audience is writers can only write so much before they lose their readers (if I make an accommodation for every scenario, my post would be long and confusing: listen to this feedback, but not this feedback…but there might be exceptions… bla bla bla) and sometimes, as writers and speakers, we think we’re being clear when the idea needs to be fleshed out or have a little more commentary.
I could have written: failure is feedback, but don’t listen to ALL of it, because if you have a true passion for what you are doing, you will keep moving forward, no matter how many people cut you down or try to squeeze you into a box.
What I do know is that when there’s confusion due to a lack of clarity, it’s not helpful to assume the opposite is true, which how the blogger responded to my post.
My advice, which is unclear: “Failure is only feedback, and feedback is helpful”
Their advice, which is also unclear: “If I listened to feedback, I would have quit. Don’t listen to feedback, be yourself.”
A combination, which is a little more clear: “Failure is only feedback, and this feedback can be helpful when it works alongside your passion and inspires you to be the best you can be.”
It’s All About The Context
A few years ago, Grant Cardone’s book The 10X Rule was very popular. Let’s say, hypothetically, I picked it up because I was trying to answer a very hard question I had been wrestling with for years: I want to follow my passion but I keep on hitting roadblocks. What should I do? Grant? Are you there? Can you hear me?
“Don't be a little b*tch…champions dominate”
– Grant Cardone.
I wasn’t impressed.
We’ve all been there. Someone is passionately sharing advice they wish they had heard when they were your age or in your position. Problem is, they’re not you. And honestly, you don’t really like them. You’re nodding your head, waiting for the one-sided conversation to be over (hopefully you’re not on an airplane) and all you can think is, this is practical advice…for someone else. I would never follow it, I’m not that kind of person.
Great advice. Wrong person. (Or, wrong situation.)
Another way to look at situational biases is to look at the context. For example, what worked in the past isn’t always going to work in the present. Experience teaches us a lot, and one of the best lessons I’ve learned is to treat each scenario as unique. Sure, there may be some overlap (maybe a lot of overlap), but I am careful about what I can afford to assume and apply elsewhere.
There is no perfect advice for every situation. What might be great advice for a major corporation might bankrupt a small business. What might be perfect advice for someone working in the skilled trades may cause someone working at a desk job to lose their desk (and job). Perfect advice for finding a career might help extroverts and totally backfire with introverts. You get my point. Advice doesn’t always apply to everyone, that’s why you need to look at:
Who’s giving the advice?
What is their background?
What are they gaining by sharing their advice with you?
Don’t put your eggs in one basket…unless you’re willing to go big or go home. Right?
Context is everything. And because context is everything, you should be careful when using absolutes.
When I say, "Ignore Everybody," I don't mean, Ignore all people, at all times, forever. No, other people's feedback plays a very important role. Of course it does.
- Hugh Macleod, from his book, Ignore Everybody
There are few true absolutes. When someone makes a claim there is one, investigate. Here’s a mistake I recently made when using an absolute.
In my book, Age of Agility, I write about Stanford professor Carol S. Dweck and her research on mindset. I write about the benefits of having a “growth mindset” (someone who sees their skills as something they can grow), and how having a “fixed mindset” (someone who believes skills are part of their identity) can get you into trouble. When it comes to children, we should place an emphasis on praising their effort instead of the results.
For example, if a child earns 100% on their spelling test, we should praise their dedication and studying instead of saying the thing we want to say: “You’re so smart!” This leads to children taking on “smartness” as an identity. When they fail, students whose effort was praised are likely to rebound and see the failure as a challenge they can overcome. Students who were praised for being smart are likely to feel defeated and throw up their arms and say, “I’m no good at this and never will be.”
I am a huge fan of Dweck and always praise effort. When I can, I even try to sneak it in when I’m praising my adult colleagues. Until last month when I read the book Originals by Adam Grant. Grant writes about how psychologist Christopher Bryan uses an appeal to identity to change behavior. Children are more likely to help clean up if they are asked to be “helpers” instead of simply asking to help. And adults cheat less when they are asked: “Please don't be a cheater” instead of “Please don't cheat”.
Modifying behavior by appealing to identity does work, and it works in a different way than Dweck describes to avoid in her research. Therefore, Dweck’s findings cannot be applied to all situations, but only the few she had tested. This means that what might be the case under some conditions may not be the case under similar conditions. Many hands make light work may apply to one situation, but not every situation.
After all, the customer is always right, the grass is always greener on the other side, and the bread always falls on the buttered side.
When someone states a truth, as in, it is always this way and always will be this way, it doesn’t leave any room for revision. All good advice has some wiggle room, so it can adjust to a change in conditions or new evidence.
I do remember one formative influence in my undergraduate life. There was an elderly professor in my department who had been passionately keen on a particular theory for, oh, a number of years, and one day an American visiting researcher came and he completely and utterly disproved our old man's hypothesis. The old man strode to the front, shook his hand and said, "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you, I have been wrong these fifteen years". And we all clapped our hands raw. That was the scientific ideal, of somebody who had a lot invested, a lifetime almost invested in a theory, and he was rejoicing that he had been shown wrong and that scientific truth had been advanced.
- Richard Dawkins, from the documentary The Root of All Evil? (Part 1, 00:13:32)
I like to think of myself as a type of science writer. I back nearly all of the concepts I write about with studies conducted by researchers who follow the scientific method (I have nearly 50 pages in my Notes and References section in Age of Agility). For theories that have not yet been tested, I tread lightly, and write about how I have observed them in my own life. That said, every theory I write about is subject to change if new, better data becomes available.
Data can be intimidating. To someone who is not familiar with reading research studies, it’s hard to make heads or tails of the results. If the results of a study are interesting, popular media likes to chime in and echo the results. The problem with this is that sometimes the results are misinterpreted. After all, many journalists are not science writers. Before believing the headlines, here’s what you should do:
Go back to the source. If it’s a credible popular news site, they will link back to the original paper. If they don’t cite their source, it may not exist. Some news sites play a game of “telephone” and write an article about an article that was written about a manuscript. Don’t trust these sources.
Read the results portion of the paper, first, to find out what exactly happened.
Read how the study was conducted in the Methods portion of the paper. Specifically, look at how many people were in the trial. The more participants, the better. The longer the study was observed, the better. The more studies cited, the better. Sometimes, you’ll find that there were no human participants—the study used mice! This doesn’t mean the results are not worth your time. It only means that this is the limit to our understanding. We can speculate how this applies to humans, but it’s only an informed guess at this point. Too often, I read in a pop-magazine a headline that goes “Cure to Death Discovered by Boston Scientists” only to track down the original paper and read that the study was conducted three years ago on six mice in a lab, not to mention what an extremely broad statement this is. How do you “cure death”?
Look at who funded the study. If a sugar manufacturer sponsored a study about the effects of drinking sugary drinks every day, researchers my have a slight leaning towards only reporting positive correlations.
Do a literature review of similar studies to see if there are corroborating results. If not, why? Most papers published by peer-reviewed journals will cite similar studies and discuss their results and how they differed from the other studies.
It’s an Opinion and Not Falsifiable
In just the same way, the warrior of light knows that everything around him—his victories, his defeats, his enthusiasm and his despondency—form part of his Good Fight. And he will know which strategy to use when he needs it. A warrior does not try to be coherent; he has learned to live with his contradictions.
- Paulo Coelho, from his book, Warrior of the Light: A Manual
Be careful of anything labeled as “truth” if it cannot be disproven. This is called falsifiability. It means that the statement/theory/belief can’t be proven false because there is no way we can test it. Philosophy, like religious beliefs, spirituality, some empowerment books, and anything else that cannot be tested by the scientific method, can be a lot of fun to talk about, but it’s not going to hold up in court. For example, what I believe is going to happen when I die might be different than what you think. And since neither of us can be proven false, it’s inherently a contradiction.
Religion, politics, and who the greatest football player of all time is—aka the conversations that often happen when you get together with family for a holiday gathering—are only opinions. Even if facts can be cited, people are mostly debating very strong, emotionally rooted opinions. There’s no winning. Or losing, for that matter. It just is. I call this type of contradiction the “BuzzFeed Contradiction” because it’s all opinion, from “The 10 Best TV Shows From the 90s” to “What Dog Breed Fits Your Personality.” It doesn’t have much value, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.
This even stretches out to the intellectual types who seem to always have some inconsequential theory rolling around in the back of their head. In a philosophy class I took on the collected works of Nietzsche, the professor told us that Nietzsche was aware of the contradictions in his oeuvre, but stood behind them, because it is only through contradictions that life makes sense. Martin Heidegger ran with the idea and created a technique called sous rature, which is the act of crossing out a word within a text but allowing it to remain legible, to signify that a word is "inadequate yet necessary” to understand the meaning of the text.
For example, let’s take the expression “God is love.” The word “God” has a lot of baggage associated with it, and what you believe is God is probably different from what I think God is, which is probably different from what Richard Dawkins thinks God is. We can talk about God in theory as it applies to a higher deity, but we cross it out to denounce how it is used by others. The thought being, we need to use the word, though it is not perfect, there isn’t a better one. Likewise, we can say the same thing about Love. There are different types of love: the way Romeo loved Juliet, is different from the love I have for my cats, and those types of love are different from love I have for my wife, my son, my family, or the way I love chocolate chip cookies. Because I cannot think of a better word, I will use it, but I cross it out.
In the same sense, the word “is” isn't always straightforward. What does it mean for one thing to “is”? It is hot. Is it? Philosophers can deconstruct the word to show that it doesn’t do a good job linking concepts. So, we use it, but it’s not very strong, so we put a line through it. Then, we finish by saying that ̶G̶o̶d̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶l̶o̶v̶e̶, and this is the most perfectly imperfect saying I can think of in language. Hurray. (Did we accomplish anything?) Jacques Derrida later popularized the technique, crossing out words like ̶t̶r̶u̶t̶h̶,̶ ̶d̶a̶n̶g̶e̶r̶,̶ ̶r̶e̶c̶o̶v̶e̶r̶y̶,̶ and subsequently delayed many 20-year-old philosophy majors from meeting potential partners at college parties. Needless to say, some philosophy is full of contradictions and missing information.
Deciphering information is tough, but looking out for these six pitfalls will help you decide what’s worth listening to and what’s better left on the table at family gatherings. To ensure your message comes across without error, you should make sure that what your saying is clearly communicated. Take a moment to fully engage with the situation. Ask: who is my audience? What specific result am I seeking? Will the people I’m communicating with understand my message? Do I have all the information? Is what I’m saying misleading? Is there a chance that what I’m saying could be taken out of context?
There are always going to be people who disagree with you. That’s life. You can’t please everyone. What you can do is be confident in what you believe, while always being open to revising your beliefs.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt