In the good old days – I turned teenager in 1961, and 18 in 1966 – we had a generally accepted process for establishing truth. First, we generally distinguished opinion from fact. Second, when fact was in doubt, we turned to evidence. And evidence, once presented, was accepted. Evidence ended arguments. But data killed that, politics killed data, and now poets predict politics.
Data undermined simple truth
The decline of truth started with data. Huge masses of overwhelming and conflicting data forced us to choose truth from streams of incoherent evidence. For example: Is margarine is good for you? Eggs? Coffee? Those are just three simple cases, regarding food. We have ample streams of evidence on either side. We can find data to support any answer. And those are just easy food and health arguments, not nearly as controversial as, say when ISIS started, who supported what war and when. Evidence doesn’t end the argument because we’re overwhelmed with conflicting evidence.
Talking points undermined evidence
And then came talking points. First, the overabundance of conflicting data undermined the weight of evidence. After that, political strategists discovered that repetition of well-packaged spin, half truth, and lies could be taken as truth. And now we accept political talking points as truth, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Millions of people firmly believe absurdities in the face of clear and unambiguous evidence to the contrary.
We’re left with truth in poetry
Somewhere around 1790 William Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. That lengthy and sometimes bewildering work includes a section called the proverbs of hell, which includes the following:
Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth
No I’m not suggesting Blake foresaw or forewarned us. But what he says there does fit today’s reality. Right? We’ve got wide ranges of diverse and discordant images of truth. Of course, Blake included that in the section framed as proverbs of hell, not heaven, so maybe he mistrusted its direct meaning. But in the poem, he likes hell, so who knows. I suggest it here as food for thought, nothing more.
And then there is this, written 100 years ago by William Butler Yeats in a short poem called The Second Coming. It seems disturbingly like what we see around the world today:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That’s towards the opening of the poem. It gets even darker as it closes. Sadly, that too sounds a lot like mainstream politics today. Did you watch that debate on Monday?
Fifty years ago, a generation of college kids thought we had the power to change the world. The age of aquarius, the greening of America, the global revolution. How did we do?
Fifty years ago, back in the sixties, farsighted people started warning us all about the damage humans were doing to earth. and it happened pretty much as they warned. Climate change, species going extinct, air and water fouled. All major cities near water are planning for sea levels raising.
Fifty years ago, back in the sixties, farsighted people started warning us that the difference between “haves” and “have-nots” was the biggest threat to the worldwide long-term peace. Since then, we’ve made it worse. In the U.S. we changed laws, changed the tax code, and even changed politics to exaggerate the wealth of a few. Worldwide, the difference between wealthy and poor, developed and underdeveloped, got steadily worse. And technology made it visible. Is terrorism just religious extremism? Would Jihadism been able to take roots in prosperous societies with jobs for all?
Fifty years ago, back in the sixties, laws and courts changed to outlaw blatant racism. Institutional racism became illegal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related legislation. The courts and the presidents desegregated the schools. And yes, of course things got better. We don’t have institutional racism like we did. We elected a black president. But don’t we also have a serious relapse of open racism, now called, simply, “not politically correct?”
Fifty years ago, back in the sixties, women’s liberation became a movement. Women demanded equal opportunity. Yes, of course things are better now, but how much? There’s still a salary gap and a glass ceiling. Fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Fewer than 20% of US legislators are women. 7 percent of investing partners at the top 100 venture and micro-venture firms are women.
Conclusion: Generation X, Millennials, take the baton. And good luck.
Something happened to truth in the last 50 years or so. Where once we had the ideal of objective truth based on evidence, we now have contentious argumentative truth, based on opinion and belief. And I miss the old kind. Let’s look at two divided nations, ours in 1968, and ours in 2016, and how they deal with truth. I like the old way better.
1968: truth, evidence, and facts in a troubled time
Let me take you back to 1968. I was in college. The U.S. was in the throes of the war in Vietnam. The country split apart over the war, civil rights, free speech, the military industrial establishment, and a presidential election. President Lyndon Johnson faced opposition inside the Democratic party from Robert Kennedy, first – but Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated that same Spring, and we had riots in a dozen major cities. Newspapers and television news called them race riots, but they echoed the frustration of an entire generation all over the world. There were riots that year in Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, and many other cities. Johnson stepped away from re-election. It became Hubert Humphrey, the liberal senator, vs. Richard Nixon, the former vice president.
And in the background, we, as a society, believed in old-fashioned objective truth. We actually argued over evidence, with the shared conviction that evidence and validation of facts mattered. For example, those of us who opposed the war in Vietnam believed the government was hiding the objective evidence related to casualties, progress of the war, raids on Cambodia, and so on. Those who supported the war believed the government’s press released described the truth. Those of us who believed in sweeping change on civil rights believed that separate could not be equal, and those who fought for status quo insisted it could.
So we argued about the evidence, which we believed was a matter of finding the facts. Were we winning the war in Vietnam, or not? Were we supporting a government that represented its people in Vietnam, or not? Had we invaded Cambodia, or not? Was separate but equal acceptable, or not?
2016: Truth as repetition of opinion
Please notice the difference between then and now. Back then we believed that objective truth, which we called evidence, or facts, would end arguments. Today we don’t. The U.S. economy today isn’t growing or not, healthy or not, based on gross national product growth rates, unemployment, or other objective numbers. Instead, we nurture two radically different truths, depending on where we stand in polarized politics.
As you read this, you know exactly what I mean.
For example, unemployment is down to about 5% now, from more than 10% seven years ago. The economy is producing jobs now, hundreds of thousands per month, instead of losing jobs seven years ago. Those numbers prove something to some of us, and prove nothing to others. Each side has its arguments.
For another example, a recent poll showed that significant numbers of Americans believe President Obama was not born in the United States. And significant numbers believe he is Muslim. A couple of generations ago, arguments on those points would have been ended by what we then believed were objective facts, also called evidence. Today, however, evidence is discounted. There are no objective facts. Everything is based on what we believe.
Back then we looked to statistics and reliable middle-of-the-road journalists. Now we look for crackpots. If you don’t agree with me, my sources are crackpots to you. And your sources are crackpots to me.
I noticed the other day in a comment stream on my local newspaper. One commenter challenged another for evidence. The other responded with URLs of blog posts by crackpots. The act of publishing used to imply fact checking and reliability, and, therefore, factds and evidence. Opinion was there too, but set aside as opinion. Now opinion (of crackpots) is pushed forward as evidence. We seek what comedian Steven Colbert called “truthiness.”
The business of fractured truth
I studied Journalism in grad school in 1970 and 1971. Journalistic ethics were a big deal back then. The country generally depended on a slowly declining number of newspapers and three major television networks for news. The journalists of that time generally recognized that objective truth, based on evidence, was technically impossible but still the ideal, the goal. They strove to disclose their bias while still aiming for objective truth. They wanted evidence. Opinion was rampant, but there was the idea that opinion and truth were different things.
One thing that has happened, since then, is that the market for truth split into segments. In 1968 any major news source could only make money by uniting an entire audience around the goal of objective truth based on evidence. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley need to stay in the middle, to seem unbiased, to optimize the audience and the potential revenue of news. Today the market is so much bigger, so much more splintered, that even large news organizations can make money by addressing only specific segments. So the phenomenon of segmentation that used to drive a few niche magazines can now drive entire news networks. Roger Ailes showed the world a new way to make money in the middle 1990s, with Fox News.
It’s now a common behavior: opinion, repeated often enough, serves as a surrogate for truth. Evidence is discounted, ignored, or manufactured. People are citing blog posts with wild claims and bizarre opinion as if they were evidence.
And that’s bad. I miss arguing over evidence. And I miss arguments that end with facts.
My Friday video for this week is one I did a while back, the truth about all those well-publicized business failure statistics. Most of the clichés we read everywhere are just often-repeated guesses. Nobody really knows.
I found this last week in my Twitter feed, embedded in an Ad Age article about the advertising conversation around this viral video. You probably already saw it. I could say that the objectification of women is important to me because I have four daughters, but no, it’s not just that. It’s because it’s right. It’s because I’m human. And objectification of women is bad for all humans.
I was writing an email to these folks and I just stopped and deleted the draft. Why waste the time raising entrepreneurs I don’t even know.
My complaint? I got to my office this morning after a few weeks elsewhere and found the results of a concentrated campaign for me to write about a certain entrepreneur and his startup. He’s all about how he’s so successful as a college dropout. I have one package containing a coffee mug with chocolate drops, and another with a copy of his book. Both contain a personalized letter from him, with what looks like a signature. Both contain business cards that are ‘sort of’ from him, but not exactly. And the only contact info I get is an impersonal email address info@[company omitted].
So, let’s get this straight: You want me to write about you, but you don’t even give me your email address? Is that just me, or is it insulting?
I connected this to multiple emails from somebody in his company, pitching me talking to him or interviewing him, also without including his email address. I’d say WTF, but I’m more mild mannered than that, so only WTH.
Besides, the college dropout theme ticks me off. The illustration here is taken from the cover of his self-published book. And the email campaign spins off the college dropout thing. I think that’s building your image around what’s essentially bad advice.
One thing is all the reasons like you or the next person or anybody else had to drop out of college — too bad, but common enough, and nothing for me to judge — but quite another is purposely building your entrepreneurship pitch around you having dropped out of college. Yeah, sure, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, I know. But none of them ever made that his secret sauce; the college dropout thing just happened. Bill Gates regrets dropping out of college. Steve Jobs hung around Reed College for the education, even after he dropped out. And Zuckerberg? OK he had a tiger by the tail, who can blame him? But does he go around bragging about it?
Sadly, formal education becomes a luxury for some. I wish it were available for all. But I’m sure anybody who can get an education is better off with it than without it. And that goes for entrepreneurs too. No, you don’t learn to be an entrepreneur in courses. But what you do learn doesn’t hurt. And there’s a whole life outside of business.
Some of the best and brightest, some of the most educated people I know, have decided that it’s cool to use the word “sh*t” to replace the old-fashioned words “things,” “stuff,” “work,” and so on. That’s too bad.
Of course I remember “get your sh*t straight,” a phrase that’s as old as the golden age of hippies in the late 1960s. That was as common as “groovy” back in the day. So, millennials: you hate “groovy,” right? Yeah, that feels old to me too. And I’m old. But did you have to adopt shit?
But, damn! Google “do epic sh*t” and you’ll find a meme that could have been — (but way less cool) — do good things or do good stuff. Except, of course, that then it would never have been a meme.
I guess it’s my age — baby boomer, I admit — but I can’t make the leap.
Back in the late 1990s I saw one of my favorite editors ever, Teri Epperly of Palo Alto Software, cringe when our website appeared one morning with the promise of “good stuff.” That, back then, was awkwardly informal, colloquial. And Teri was (is still) a really good editor. I helped her through that, then, as just a sign of the times. But she and I would agree completely on the use of “good sh*t.”
Shit, to me, sounds like shit. And it isn’t good, let alone epic. I don’t want to get sh*t done, I don’t want to do good sh*t, and I don’t want to make sh*t happen.
If you’re curious, compare Barry’s tone in that post to mine in some of my (somewhat confessional) posts on me and my wife and entrepreneurship: My biggest startup boost, for example; or this true story on relationships vs. new business. And yes, my wife and I have been married 44 years, in a relationship that has survived years of scraping to support a startup, and sending five kids through college; so maybe I maybe I know something about this.
It’s not that Barry doesn’t offer some good advice within his post. He does. For example, if you’re dealing with cash flow problems, Barry advises:
Don’t give your spouse a daily cash report, since it’s always changing. Instead say, “Money will be tight for the rest of the year.” You will be right most of the time.
But there is no excuse for the multiple references to the spouse as “she” in that post. I know Barry and he knows better. This is nasty stereotyping. The whole “don’t worry your pretty head” motif is 1.) offensive and 2.) obsolete. Ironically, all of Barry’s advice here has nothing to do with gender so there is no reason whatsoever to make the spouse female. Making the advice gender specific dilutes it.
And secondly, regardless of gender, keeping a spouse in the dark about serious business issues is a really bad idea. Specifically, Barry’s suggestion about what to tell a spouse when a major investor pulls out …
Don’t say anything, and work privately to learn to project your cash flow better so you can survive the bumps in the road.
… is really bad advice. What a terrible thing to suggest. First of all, that idea makes for an incredibly lonely entrepreneur. Nobody normal can help fretting over that kind of situation. Not to share it with the most important person in your life, who is by definition a person who is going to share the consequences if you go under is horrendously bad advice.
And here’s another piece of really bad (well, maybe just insulting) advice on what to say when you have a buyer for the company:
If you do tell her about any pending deals, make sure she understands that nothing is set in stone until the money is in the bank. Also, don’t give her the dollar details; when the deal closes and the money is in the bank you can say: “Honey, what can we do with an extra $100 million?
The first part of that advice is not bad, but condescending, and unfortunately also gender specific. The second part is insulting.
My apologies to Barry for a bit of a rant, but I’m the father of four daughters and this stuff really gets my goat.
I’ve discussed this topic in other posts and in my opinion it’s best to be open and honest with your partner. In fact, being candid has immense benefits. Here’s an extract from one of my previous posts that illustrates how essential my partner has been in helping me to succeed:
[This was the] biggest boost to starting a business: My wife said “go for it; you can do it.” And she meant it. At several key points along the way, she made it clear that we would take the risk together. There was never the threat of “I told you so, why did you leave a good job, you idiot!” What she said was “if you fail, we’ll fail together, and then we’ll figure it out. We’ll be okay.”
Please: before you send somebody an email about bundling your product with theirs, do your homework. Look at that target product’s specifications. Look at how and where it sells. Go to the company website. Look for ways that your product can enhance their product. Figure out ways that both sides can win with what you’re suggesting.
Don’t waste your time or anybody else’s proposing useless bundles. I really hope that I never again have to look at a proposal from somebody suggesting that I take my content, that I own , and substitute that for their content, that they produced, instead.
In a way it’s like children. Yours may be brighter and better looking and more accomplished than mine, but I will still always like mine better.
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