confirmation bias

Our Own Worst Critic

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 3 Comments

WAKE UP YOU IDIOT! You’re about to lose your business, your best mate and your girlfriend. And you still don’t get it, do you?”

Gordon Ramsay was pulling out all the stops to talk some sense into the stubborn owner of the “Runaway Girl.”  The tapas bar in Sheffield was on the brink of collapse. In an effort to bring customers in, owner Justin Rowntree had sliced prices; served pre-cooked food out of plastic buckets and brought in live music. The result: runaway customers.

Instead of taking ownership, Justin refused to face the facts and dished out excuse after excuse. Unless he would start listening, his dream was doomed. But time was running out fast.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

If you’ve watched “Kitchen Nightmares” on the BBC or FOX, scenes like these are a staple ingredient of every episode. It’s very easy to think of this show as another formulaic piece of mindless entertainment. However, there might be more to it than that, especially if you are not too happy with the current state of your business. How would you react if Gordon Ramsay gave you a firm kick in the pants? Would you take his words to heart, or would you fight him tooth and nail?

“I’m always surprised at the reluctance of failing business owners to listen to Ramsay’s advice. I’m sure much of it is in the TV production, but it still seems silly,” commented one of the viewers online, after watching this season’s premiere. Well, what do you think? Is it all silliness, or are we witnessing the results of arrogance, denial and an innate inaptitude to self-evaluate?

MIRROR, MIRROR

I talked about denial  in my first installment, and today I’ll turn to our ability to look into the mirror and objectively assess our own behavior. But, is that even possible? Can we be brutally honest with ourselves? Should we even trust our own judgment?

First of all, it’s not something we can easily shut off (unless we’re masters of meditation). We’re constantly making judgment calls. Our business has developed in such a way that voice-seekers aren’t willing to pay for a director or a sound-engineer anymore. Instead, we end up directing, recording and editing ourselves. Not everyone is good at that. I’m willing to go even further: most of us stink at it because we can’t objectively listen to our own performance.

Thanks to years of conditioning, you and I suffer from selective memory, selective hearing, selective eyesight and selective reasoning. This commonly leads to ‘confirmation bias,’ a tendency to validate and reinforce our personal prejudices, regardless of the evidence.

Studies have shown that, even if these beliefs are debunked, the discredited proof is filtered out as “irrelevant,” and we keep on clinging to our distorted version or reality. And if you strongly believe that this theory is utter hogwash, I have to thank you for proving my point.

FROM MY KITCHEN

A few weeks ago, I knew for sure that I had nailed an audition. There was nothing I could have done to make it any better. I proudly submitted my flawless demo, and I thought it was just a matter of time before the voice-seeker would call me saying: “You blew me away. No need to re-record it. We’ll use your MP3 as is. It’s brilliant.” Of course I never heard back from the producer, and I was convinced that he had made the biggest mistake of his career.

After the holidays I decided to listen to my masterpiece again, this time with fresh ears and a clear mind. You guessed it: this year, my ‘perfect’ audition didn’t sound so good after all. I should have known. There is a reason why writers don’t review their own books.

A DIFFERENT ANGLE

When I first started in television, I once got a call from a very angry cameraman. He had volunteered to climb to the top of a very tall tower to get ‘the perfect shot’ for a documentary we were working on. When he came down, he was perspiring profusely and it looked like he was about to collapse. “This is pure gold,” he said, catching his breath, as he proudly handed me the rushes.

Having watched the end result on TV, my camera guy was not amused. In fact, he was livid and demanded an explanation: “I climbed over 500 *** steps to get you a picture from that angle, and you decided to cut it out! Is that your way of thanking me?!”

When he had calmed down a bit, I said to him: “I really appreciate you climbing to the top to get those shots. But when we looked at the footage in the editing room, it just didn’t work and we decided to use a close-up instead. You and I both know how much it took for you to get those shots. Ultimately, the public doesn’t care how many steps you had to climb. All they’re interested in is the big picture.”

I believe that we are our own worst critics. Usually, we’re too involved and too invested in our own efforts to see and hear what others are seeing and hearing. That’s why every translator needs a proofreader; every athlete needs a coach and every cameraman needs an editor. These professionals shouldn’t have to worry about hurting our feelings or massaging our ego. With the odd exception, I believe it’s best that these pros are outsiders with inside expertise. That’s the only way they can have any leverage at all.

ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…

Meanwhile, the days of the “Runaway Girl” seemed numbered, even though a knowledgeable outsider was brought in to save the business from going bust. Chef Gordon Ramsay had to overcome yet another obstacle that had nothing to do with the quality of the food, the location of the restaurant or the atmosphere inside. Once again, it all came back to the headstrong owner who suffered from “premature closure”.

Premature closure is a term sometimes associated with cognitive diagnostic medical errors. It’s a tendency to stop considering other possible diagnoses after a diagnosis is reached. The idea behind it is that humans solve problems by searching for an explanation that best fits, and then they stop searching. Coupled with confirmation bias, premature closure can be a fatal mix in any hospital or court room.

BLOCKING INPUT

In education, students who suffer from “premature closure” are commonly referred to as “know-it-alls”. They seem easily distracted; they rarely pay attention; their questions aren’t really questions but attempts to show-off how much they know about the subject. People who think they know better have no incentive to listen and learn. Justin Rowntree was their poster child. Ramsay appeared to be talking to a wall.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be well-informed. I am suggesting that it’s even better to keep the door open and to realize that there’s always more to discover. Albert Einstein put it this way: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” He also understood that knowledge in and of itself is useless unless applied in a sensible way.

CRISIS

There are at least two ways to break through these attitudes and patterns: the long road and a shortcut. The long road is based on the answer to the following question: “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “In very small bites”.

In other words, change is created through a gradual process of small, manageable steps. Most therapies are based on that model.

However, the fastest way to bring about change is through a Significant Emotional Event. A crisis. For years, the staff at the “Runaway Girl” had told the owner that he needed to make major changes. But it wasn’t until Ramsay came in, that the desperate situation reached a boiling point and the pressure became unbearable.

Something had to give…

Paul Strikwerda © nethervoice

PS Next time, we’ll take a look at the importance of relationships. Are you a one-man band on an island, or are you part of a huge network of professionals? Could you and should you run your business all by yourself?