Wisdom//

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Reveals a Brutal Truth About How We Argue (and Criticize) That Few People Are Willing to Admit

One that matters in politics, but that matters even more in how you approach your business and your life.

Jim Bennett / Contributor / Getty Images
Jim Bennett / Contributor / Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has plenty of ideas. The Green New Deal. Reducing the wealth disparity. Creating a single-payer health care system. Paying staffers a living wage. She wants to think big and “swing for the fences.” 

Having ideas, proposing those ideas, sparking discussions that create change — that’s her job. (That’s every politician’s job.)

Many people agree with her ideas.

Many don’t — but the way people tend to disagree points to a larger problem, one that affects every organization, every business, and, at times, every one of us:

It’s easy to focus more on the “quality” of the person who has an idea or proposes a change than on the quality of the idea itself.

As Adam Grant says:


Or, to put it another way, I’ll listen closely if Richard Branson gives me advice about whether to invest in a certain start-up. But if the very same advice comes from the kid who bags my groceries, I won’t — especially if that advice doesn’t line up, at least initially, with my own perspectives and viewpoints. 

“What does he know about start-ups?” I might think. “He’s young. He’s inexperienced. He doesn’t know how things really work.” 

By reflexively criticizing the messenger, we fail to evaluate the idea on its own merits. Sometimes that means placing too much credence on the actual message. Other times, not enough.

Either way, that means we fail to engage in a dialogue that might help turn a seemingly bad idea into a good one.

It’s natural to like an idea more if you like the person who proposes it. Just like it’s natural to dismiss an idea if you don’t particularly like — for whatever reason — the person who proposes it.

It’s too easy to miss the quality of the forest for the personality of the trees.

In all sorts of settings.

The Messenger and the Message

A man wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap walked into a D.C. Metro station and took out his violin. He left the case open on the floor to invite spare change. He played for 43 minutes while almost 1,100 people walked by. During that time, only seven stopped — briefly — to listen.

Twenty-seven of the 1,100 tossed a total of $32 into his case. Everyone else hurried by, many passing within feet of him.

Does that sound like what you would expect for a street performer? Probably so.

Except the violinist was Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest violinists.

Yet some people didn’t even notice him at all. (Here’s the Washington Post article.)

A few days later, Joshua headlined a concert tour in Europe. Then he came back to the U.S. to receive the Avery Fisher Prize as the best classical musician in America.

The Power of Context

Joshua was like a tiger in a zoo; commuters experienced him outside his natural habitat.

Put him onstage at Carnegie Hall and the opposite would probably happen: Even on his worst night, the audience would probably still walk away feeling his performance was incredible.

After all, I just saw Joshua Bell at Carnegie Hall! How could he not be awesome? Yet if I see Joshua in a Metro station, he’s just a guy trying to score a little cash.

How could he be awesome? 

The problem is that we naturally add extra weight to advice we hear from the people we admire and respect. And we all naturally subtract a little weight — or even disregard — advice we hear from people we don’t admire, don’t respect, or don’t know.

Totally understandable — yet also a huge problem.

Maybe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right about, say, creating a single-payer health care system. Maybe she’s not.

Either way, what really matters isn’t that she proposed a fundamental change in U.S. health care.

What matters is the fundamental value of an idea. What matters is the dialogue an idea sparks. What matters is the quality of an idea, the quality of the counter-arguments, the quality of the back-and-forth that turns what might seem like a crazy idea into something not only possible but valuable. 

But that can never happen if we don’t listen to, consider, and discuss the idea itself — not the person who proposes it.

Commuters didn’t ignore Joshua Bell’s music because it was terrible; they ignored his music because they focused on what they saw — not what they heard.

Focus on the Argument. Not the Person

Most of the people you see on a daily basis aren’t recognized as thought leaders. Nor are they wildly successful.

So you don’t automatically hang on their every word.

But you should always take the time to listen — especially if you intend to respond to their ideas, their proposals, or their suggestions. Just as you should never reflexively embrace a message because you admire the messenger, nor should you reflexively reject a message because you discount the messenger.

Opinions, advice, information — it’s all data, and the more data you have, the better.

Strip away the framing you apply to the source. Strip away the setting or environment. Consider the advice, the information, or the opinion solely on the basis of its merits. 

Sure, the quality of the source matters, but ultimately the quality of the information, and its relevance to your unique situation, matters a lot more.

The more you listen, and the more people you are willing to listen to, the more data you have at your disposal to make smart decisions.

Put aside the messenger and focus on the message.

You don’t have to agree, but you should always try to listen.

(In case you’re wondering, I don’t like or dislike Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. How could I? I don’t know her.)

Originally published on Inc.

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