This last year has been a rather interesting case study in my effort to help people. During this time, I’ve probably had my greatest success and greatest failure. I’ll start with my failure, the co-founders of the company I was working with. They’re in their 50s and very much seasoned social justice warriors. They are of the perspective that feminism can do no wrong, big corporations are inherently evil, and all white people are racist. I got the impression they held some of these views but they never really came up as we had so much else to focus on. When they did come up, I did my best to challenge them respectfully. For example, I would say something like, “I was raised as a feminist, but it doesn’t seem like I have very much in common with the more radical feminists of today.” or, “Within all of feminism, have you seen anything that you wouldn’t support?” These questions weren’t well received. The fact that I was even asking them was enough to show that I wasn’t loyal to their cause.
When we first got into these conversations, I thought I was making headway. Someone would bring up a topic, someone else would agree, someone else would double agree… then someone like me would try and introduce a difference voice into the echo-chamber. Not for the sake of changing minds, but for the sake of engaging with differing perspectives. Once people were engaged, I’d say something like, “From what I can tell, melanin can only tell you two things about someone: The color of their skin, and how likely they are to get a sunburn.” Which would be supported by something along the lines of a, ‘YAASS QUEEN!” Then I’d follow it up by saying something like, “this idea that you can determine how much privilege someone has experienced by the color of their skin is just silly.” The response would be much less enthusiastic. But it did open up more serious conversations, which was my intent.
The more serious conversations usually took place in smaller groups or one-on-ones, and in person or across chat. When they didn’t understand my perspective, I provided sources. I’d suggest something like reverse racism wasn’t going to be the solution to racism, and use a well-known quote from MLK to show that he understood the same thing. Or I’d suggest that not all big corporations are evil and point to Tesla which is arguably doing more for climate change than any individual or small business. I was hoping that these would be the challenges that would open them up to another perspective, but I was wrong. Instead, they just stopped engaging with me. Many of these conversations stopped dead in their tracks because they never responded. If asked why, they were busy.
This dynamic came to a head this summer. After they had already established that I wasn’t ‘their kinda people’, we had one more clash. Twice in two weeks, the founders had showed up 15-20 minutes late for our weekly meeting and instead of apologizing and getting straight to work, spent the first few minutes testing out new healing crystals they were given. The first time, I was given one and asked if I could ‘feel’ it’s power. I humored them, held it and followed instructions, and felt nothing. I was told that I just didn’t have ‘it’. I laughed it off and and we proceeded with the meeting. Later that night, rather than playing to my own bias, I thought it would be better if I did some research on crystal healing. Turns out it’s probably placebo and nobody has ever been able to demonstrate otherwise. The second time they brought out healing crystals to start a meeting, I mention it. I don’t come out and say that crystals are fake and they’re silly for believing in it. I say that after the other week, I didn’t want to hold a biased perspective so I went and looked up some studies. I asked if they’d be interested in hearing what the studies said. They said sure, so I did. The founders snap back and I’m told that they’re just scientists and that science is just another form of religion so it can’t be relied upon. I challenge that view saying that the difference between science and religion is that with science, you’re encouraged to accept new evidence so that your perspective can evolve, whereas with religion, you’re discouraged to accept new evidence so that you can maintain your existing perspective. Both of them started going on about personal experiences with crystals and said something along the lines of ‘you can’t tell me that what I felt wasn’t real’ to which I say, “you’re right, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that those feelings came from the crystals and not your body.” They start aggressively asking how do I explain psychic mediums and astrology. I tell them it’s psychology, primarily the Barnum effect and that I’d be happy to show them what’s going on there too. They end up getting really frustrated with me and snap, “Don’t challenge our beliefs.”
I thought I was helping. I really, really did. I thought I was being nice.. and reasonable.. and supportive.. and understanding.. and none of it seemed to matter. We never fully recovered from that disagreement and I’m no longer in a leadership role with the company as a result. But what was my alternative? Contribute to their echo chamber to make them feel more comfortable around me? Not say anything because we disagree? Not be motivated to help them? Not find solutions to the problems I’m faced with? None of those seem like reasonable solutions.
The second example is someone who I met earlier this year, but I’d like to spend a few minutes on where.. I met her at a personal growth seminar which a mutual friend had invited us both to. Heading into the seminar, they asked that we choose something that we’d like to get out of the seminar. My request was learning how to tell people what they need to hear in a way that they want to hear it. I never made the assumption that I would always know what someone needed to hear. I only accepted that there were times where I saw an obvious solution to an obvious problem and wanted to effectively communicate that to another person. Since it was a weekend seminar and acted as an intake program for their bigger package, there were a lot of people who arrived skeptical. By the third day, most of the room trusted the facilitator completely… to the point where many of them were willing to shell out close to $10,000 for a week-long leadership camp after a, “and if you sign up now, for a limited time, we’ll give you the super discount which won’t be available later!” kinda pitch.
I learned the same thing from that seminar that I’ve learned through watching politicians for years, it’s not about what you say, it’s about making the other person feel good about what you say. The seminar absolutely presented a lot of good information, including a few hard truths. But following each of these exercises, their senses were bombarded by positive affirmation. The affirmation showed up in a variety of ways, including applause from the crowd, personal touch in the form of hugs, words of affirmation from your peers, even the kinda music you’d hear from a Disney movie when your favorite character has their big breakthrough. It’s as if they understood that they could explain things to their crowd logically, but that it wouldn’t be as well received without an element of emotional reinforcement. There’s a great book about marketing by Simon Sinek called ‘Start with Why’ which suggests (quite accurately) that people don’t buy your product because of your product, but rather because of how they feel about you. When crafting your marketing, it’s not about what you do or how you do it, but rather why you do it.
When I first saw Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the topic, I thought it was genius. I still think it’s genius, but now I think it also highlights a deep flaw in our ability to analyze and be critical. Sinek, is effectively saying it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, as long as people agree with why you’re doing it. As long as people agree with your why, they’ll be willing to overlook the how or what. I gotta say, that explains a lot of the world right now. Trump supporters don’t seem to have any consistency on approving what he’s doing or how he’s doing it… but just about all of them agree on the why… “Make America Great Again!” Just about every major Trump policy has been rebuked for good reasons and from real experts. Almost all of Trump’s policies are ultimately going to be counter-productive to making America great again. But it doesn’t matter.. because it isn’t about the how or what, it’s why.
Taking that another step further, does everyone who cares about why over how and what? Not really. The engineering crowd, the coding crowd, the legal crowd… these are careers that are built on the how and what. These are also careers that require a deeply logical mind. How and what are functions of logic and therefore functions of the brain’s neo-cortex. The why that Sinek seems to refer to isn’t a philosophical why (a logical why), but rather one which is designed to invoke a strong emotional reaction. That emotional reaction sits in our limbic brain and is a very powerful driver of behavior. Arguably the only stronger drivers of behavior are our most basic of instincts, fight, flight and sex. When you consider how often and how effectively sex has been used in marketing, this starts to make sense. It seems as though a very real approach to marketing is triggering the more primal parts of the brain into adopting a positive stance on a product or service, in the hopes of it driving purchasing behavior. If sex doesn’t sell, use emotion. Why are we so reluctant to communicate with our customers based on the merits of our products or services? Well… probably because it doesn’t work very well.
We spent a lot of time angry at corporations for what they do to us with very little consideration for the fact that they reflect our demand. I don’t think it’s fair to be upset at companies for marketing to our baser instincts or the lowest common denominator when that’s how we insist on shopping. Just like it’s not fair to be upset with those who choose to support their friends by just listening and trying to make you feel better. Because that seems to be what we’re looking for. Personally, I put the responsibility on the individual. If you’re shopping, don’t abandon the why, but don’t ignore the how or what either. In fact, once you find a why you like, feel free to be very critical about the how and what to give yourself the best chance at being happy with your purchase. Similarly, when you’re going through something and want input from a friend, don’t abandon the value of getting something off your chest or speaking your mind, but don’t expect that friend’s input to only be things that make you feel good. Being presented with a hard truth is very uncomfortable. If you accept it, it forces you to realign your entire reality with something you just learned. This is not easy. But consider the alternative.
And now we actually get to my second example, the friend who I met at the personal growth seminar in the spring. From my understanding, she lived a fairly sheltered childhood, then went off to university for a business degree. In her early 20s, she got a decent paying corporate gig and partied her heart out. As she started to grow beyond that phase, she found that Yoga had played a very positive role in her life and started the journey of becoming a Yoga teacher. When I met her this spring, she was most of the way through that training and actually off to Costa Rica for another Yoga camp. We got along really well during the seminar, and started hanging out a bit afterward. I’ve now known her for about 8 months and I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone grow as much as she has in those 8 months.
When I met her, she was still somewhat sheltered, but clearly very smart. As we started chatting, I found that she had really committed herself to the ‘spiritual’ side of yoga. It wasn’t that she was already there but rather, she was trying to learn and fit in. Some of it made sense to her, but as she put it, some of the other stuff seemed ‘witchy’. For example, it made sense that we all had a deep connection to nature which we don’t understand all that well. It made less sense to pour the blood from your menstruation in a clockwise fashion under a tree during a full moon (I hope I got that right). She knew that there was wisdom in some of what she was learning, but also had some serious reservations about the rest. Because of the tribal dynamics in those groups, it was an all-or-none kinda thing. Either you’re in, or you’re out, and I got the impression she wasn’t sure.
In response, I told her that from my perspective, there was a lot of wisdom in spirituality.. that it was a metaphorical way of understanding things that science hasn’t figured out how to explain just yet. I gave examples that resonated and let her know that she could still be a great yoga teacher knowing this… and that perhaps this would be a path for her to become an amazing yoga teacher. Considering that she was targeting men and the corporate crowd, a greater emphasis on the how and what might be just as valuable as the why. This made sense to her, and it led to a lot of great conversations between us. And then it didn’t.
One of the things I’ve complimented her on endlessly, and deservedly so, is her open mind. I think it’s an absolute gift and responsible for her not being rooted her in beliefs. But I’ve noticed a downside to that open mind, and it’s that it changes often. On more than one occasion, she came to me with a new perspective, which was much more in line with her old beliefs. Because it was be such a pivot from our last conversation, it wasn’t hard to notice that she had been talking to someone else who had a strong opinion on what she was doing. In each case, it seemed like someone from that tribe saw that they were losing a member and did their best to reinforce the tribe’s beliefs. She would come to me projecting strength and confidence but all I could see was conflict and lack of clarity. It’s why I’ve done my best to never tell her what to think, only how to go about understanding her world more accurately.
In these conversations, I challenged her beliefs, called her out on her nonsense, and encouraged her to make thoughtful decisions over emotional ones. All the kinds of things I would hope for from a good friend. Sometimes the conversations were difficult. Sometimes there were tears. Sometimes she was legitimately upset with me… but I don’t think she ever doubted my intentions. I really did see someone who was taking just about everything that I was throwing at them… all the things that it took me years of blood, sweat, and tears to learn… and was just chewing through them all. A little discomfort here and there seemed like a very reasonable price to pay for this level of progress.
A couple weeks ago, she came to me with the biggest smile on her face and said that she finally listened to some Jordan B Peterson and Neil Degrasse Tyson. While from vastly different perspectives, both speak to the value of truth, reality, and developing the tools to understand them better. She spoke like the entire universe had opened up to her in the clearest of ways, and I knew exactly where she was coming from. It was something I had been through.. and something I was trying to help her get to. I was confident that once she was here, she would have the foundation and tools necessary to arrive at her own understanding of the universe… not one based on beliefs borrowed from others.
That big breakthrough wasn’t the result of some strategic link I sent her or a witty thought I had planted in her mind months ago. It was her. I had encouraged her to listen to these individuals before but for whatever reason, they didn’t stick. Then months later, she rediscovered them on her own and there it was. That didn’t upset me in the least as the breakthrough itself was the ultimate goal and I was just super happy she had arrived. And she thanked me for my part in helping her get there. That moment is exactly why I do what I do. We both had big smiles on our faces and were excited about what this meant for her in the bigger picture.
It was in that moment, I reflected on a dynamic I’ve been trying to improve. She would arguably be a best case example of me trying to help someone grow as an individual. She and I had differing perspectives when we met, but (I think) we were always respectful of one another and eager to approach things with an open mind. While most of our conversations were academic, some became very emotional and led to discomfort and tears. In those moments, I did my best to be supportive while also maintaining the point I was trying to communicate. While I suspect this made those moments more difficult at the time, I also think that this was imperative to her stepping outside her comfort zone and truly challenging those beliefs. Maybe this can be understood as me forcing her to face her beliefs. Maybe this can also be understood as her forcing me to accept her beliefs and me standing my ground – in the interest of her future well-being and our friendship. Either way, there had to be a better way of going about this. An approach that didn’t risk giving up the breakthroughs she’s had, but also an approach which doesn’t risk what happened with the co-founders. It’s easy to say that someone’s mind must be open before it can be changed, but I’d like to put the responsibility back on myself.
A few nights ago, she texted me asking for moral support after she had seen some disturbing pictures. As she had spent so much of her life sheltered, she managed to avoid knowing about some of the atrocities going on in the world. I told her that her naturally positive attitude towards life is a quality that I admire, but it’s not the same if you arrive there while ignoring the darkness in the world. I think it takes an enlightened mind to remain genuinely positive while being aware of humanity’s greatest misdeeds, and that it’s something we should all strive for. As someone who had just looked at pictures of things like decapitated children, she was having a very strong emotional reaction. Considering that she had texted me, and was asking for support, I thought I should probably start by listening and let her calm herself down by articulating what she felt. Then I asked her why she felt that way, knowing that if she could turn these emotions into thoughts, she would no longer feel the way she did. Even better, as thoughts, you retain all the same advantages of that emotion, without having to deal with the burden of such intensely negative feelings. Despite trying to listen and understand, I was reprimanded for not giving the kind of support that she needed. She was looking for emotional or moral support, and this clearly wasn’t it. I was so confused.
She said things like why couldn’t I just be there for her this time and look to help her next time? I responded by saying that sounded like a dick-move. If I had the option of helping you get through this in a healthy way this time or next time, why would I wait until next time? Wouldn’t that mean you would have to go through something like this twice? Why would a friend want that for you? Why would you want that for yourself? We had a good laugh… I think she understood where I was coming from.. but it still didn’t feel the way she wanted it to. So I had to ask, how do you tell someone something that they need to hear, in a way that they want to hear it?
I pointed out that even with her, there was plenty of pain and discomfort in our conversations. While the end result seems to be something we’re both very happy about, I’m hoping to learn of a better way of getting there. Given the nature of the conversation, she was still upset with me for not giving her the kind of support she had wanted. As a result, she challenged me saying that I’m not always right, and that I subscribe to my own story, and something along the lines of I’m too confident for my own good.