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Why are the Naysayers Always Right?

Review of 3 different types of detractors to understand their behavior and checkmate their critics.

Checkmate
Source: stevepb, via Pixabay (Pixabay license)

Everyone did face — at least once — a naysayer. Surely, you can remember this one person that kept objecting to your last idea, cynically denigrated your new project or bluntly opposed to any change, hammering it could not be done (usually, complementing it by the established “we have always done it this way”).

Chances are, they are right.

If you are an entrepreneur, assumably, you know that more than 90% of startups fail¹. Married? In Europe² and the United States³, more than 4 times out of 10, you will end up divorced. Enrolled in an online course to learn a new skill? Beware, the average completion rate is less than 7%⁴.

Opposing views are reinforced by the pressure exercised by your entourage, especially friends and family. The demonstration was done that an individual is, in all likelihood, willing to accept the consensus to be socially included in a group⁵, creating a downward spiral to failure and abandon.

At this stage, you can probably already hear the obnoxious “I told you so…”, can’t you?

The Provoking Naysayers are Right so long as you argue with them

One thing to understand is that no matter which activity you are pursuing, you will always face criticisms. It is difficult to have the mental resilience to endure these acerbic remarks and you should not weigh them identically based on their author. The first thing to assess is the credentials of your detractor. Did he or she successfully pursue your activity? Is he or she a subject expert? Where does his or her authority on the subject come from?

Eileen Y. Chou’s studies (summarised in her Harvard Business Review publication⁶), explained that one of our cognitive bias is to associate negativity with power, namely: “In actively criticizing, negating, or refuting another person or entity, naysayers could be perceived as acting independently […] — a key determinant of power”.

Consequently, by leveraging our bias, some naysayers, who have little to no expertise regarding your activity, object to it with the sole purpose of asserting dominance or feeling empowered.

In one of his talks⁷, Simon Sinek illustrates how you can avoid a pointless argument, as he staged the difference he observed — years ago — between Apple and Microsoft executives; the former focusing on outdoing themself, and the latter on outdoing the competition. Simon explained that when the battle was raging between two giants around their respective products: iPod and Zune, he was on his way back from a conference, sharing a cab with an Apple executive. He could not resist taunting his neighbor asserting the Zune device was “so much better than your iPod”, and was plainly answered: “I have no doubt”, immediately shutting down the controversy.

Attempting to present the facts with logical reasoning to someone that cares less for the topic than for their influence is futile. Your progress will speak volumes, let it fight for you and avoid the verbal argument. As such, they should only be answered: “you are right”, enabling you to promptly move back to what matters: stepping forward.

The Caring Naysayers are Right for themselves

Indeed, not all naysayers are uneducated internet trolls, squandering their surfeit of free time; maybe they are esteemed colleagues, loved family members or even your life partner — sharing a different perspective on the topic, based on their own experience.

Source: via Pixy (CC0)

People’s reactions to risk differ. Even the perception of risk changes from one individual to another. Presumably, you wouldn’t feel as confident skydiving as Andy Farrington, who completed more than 20,000 jumps⁸. Craziness for most of us might be a banality for the Red Bull adrenaline addict.

Naysayers frequently project on you their interpretations of a situation, extrapolating what they would do if they were in you. But remember, they aren’t! Why do we praise Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, and Steve Jobs? Because they were capable of seeing what others couldn’t, they were led by their vision (which ultimately led to radical innovations), enabling them to overcome all the obstacles in their way.

Attempting to get out of your comfort zone usually implies trials and exposes you to failure, which potentially turns into a loss (of money, time, etc.). Naturally, we evaluate the opportunity cost against maintaining the status-quo and, we unconsciously favor inaction as we fear more the loss than the gain. For instance, if by doing something I have a 50% chance of earning $100 and a 50% chance of losing $100, I will prefer doing nothing. Even if the bet is mathematically even, psychologically, we tend to outweigh the loss and prefer to remain in a neutral position⁹.

What? You left your extremely well-paid corporate job to be an “entrepreneur”? This is crazy! You are throwing up your career!” — Someone’s mother

Many naysayers, as caring they ought to be, do not correctly value your gain as they don’t have your vision, possibly surrender themselves to peer pressure (or societal conventions) and immediately see your new activity triggering their loss aversion bias. As an example, how could a corporate worker, who always felt at ease in this environment, fully comprehend the gain, someone else, who feels inhibited or depressed in such structure, obtains by leaving it to start his or her venture? The monetary drawback compared to a new lifestyle will be analyzed differently.

Remember you don’t always have to justify yourself to obtain your critics’ approval, especially if they haven’t done the effort to research the topic, articulate their thoughts and are purely rejecting your idea without any ground. Why should you spend your time arguing? In the absence of a constructive exchange, what will this bring to you, except inner conflict, doubt and procrastination?

Moreover, one’s beliefs tend to be resilient to opposing facts¹⁰ and, without the willingness to productively debate, you are better off ending the discussion and moving on. In case your detractor is a family member or your partner, it can be a painful exercise to shut down the conversation, thus I suggest you clearly state your conditions to bring the subject up such as having read resources, showing an open-mind. On the other hand, it is up to you to listen when provided with valid objections.

The Benevolent Naysayers are Right and you should thank them

Frank Stephenson, interviewed by Shane Parrish¹¹, explained how his father ended his professional career in motocross, even though he supported him from the beginning. As Frank’s competition results were stagnating in the Top 10, almost always out of the podium, the paternal verdict was that his son would never be the number 1 and should not be satisfied with these results. It was, without a shred of doubt, a difficult decision to relinquish his pilot’s life. Ultimately, Frank followed another of his passions (drawing cars), and nowadays, is known as one of the most influential contemporary automotive designers, with his work for Mini, Ferrari, Maserati, and many others.

The point of this story being, naysayers’ objections might not be invalid, and if so, give them credence for it. Do they even oppose your project, or are they just suggesting you consider a divergent approach? It is so easy to get lost in the details, forget to take a few steps back and check whether or not we are still stirring in the correct direction.

When confronting an original issue, you can always use an additional pair of eyes, even more so if they are fierce critics. General Stanley McChrystal developed a concept of “red team” whose sole purpose is to disrupt your plan, as “what happens […] as you develop a plan […] you fall in love with it. You start to dismiss the shortcomings”¹².

Some people, instead of finding why or how you can succeed, do the contrary, digging up all the reasons you cannot succeed. Seize this fantastic opportunity! Try recruiting your naysayers. Tell them you value their feedback and would like to work with them to navigate through the hurdles you do not foresee. Worst case, they will reject your offer and you will certainly not hear from them again. Best case, you get a fresh look and confronting advice.

The only way to find out if a Naysayer is truly Right is to try

Finally, as much as the odds might be in favor of the naysayers, I like to remind myself of a famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

In recent history, I believe one company symbolizes this quote: Tesla, Inc. an American electric car producer. The publicly listed company has seen its stocks being the most-shorted one in the US for months¹³ but kept delivering and beat consensus¹⁴. Naysayer will blame me for cherry-picking my examples, while companies graveyard is full of failed attempts and millions got their dreams shattered. Statistically, they are right, again.

Not to mention it took Tesla about 16 years to turn the tables. If resilience is indeed a key against your opposition, it is impossible to achieve without trusting yourself. For most of us, we are our most ferocious naysayer and it takes diligent efforts to overcome our limiting beliefs.

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” — Henri Ford

When in turmoil, find comfort knowing that only those who dare to try, have a chance of succeeding or as the advertising slogan for the French national lottery used to say: 100% of the winners did buy a ticket. Make yourself a gift of a lifetime, rise to the challenge and prove your naysayers wrong.


Resources:

[1]: Marmer M. and others, 2011, ‘Startup Genome Report Extra on Premature Scaling: A deep dive into why most high growth startups fail’, Startup Genome

[2]: Statistic Explained, 2019, Marriage and divorce statistics, Eurostat

[3]: National Center for Health Statistics, 2017, Marriage and Divorce, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[4]: Parr C., 2013, ‘Not Staying the Course’, Inside Higher Ed

[5]: Stallen M., Smidts A., Sanfey A. G., 2013, ‘Peer influence: neural mechanisms underlying in-group conformity’, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

[6]: Chou E. Y., 2019, ‘Why We’re Drawn to Leaders Who Emphasize the Negative’, Harvard Business Review

[7]: Sinek S., 2019, ‘The Infinite Game: How to Lead in the 21st Century’, online video: 5’52 to 7’17

[8]: Andy Farrington, n.d., Red Bull

[9]: Kahneman D., Knetsch J. L., Thaler R. H., 1991, ‘Anomalies — The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion and Status Quo Bias’, Journal of Economic Perspectives

[10]: Evans J., Newstead S., Byrne R., 1993, ‘Human Reasoning: The Psychology of Deduction’, p.243, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hove

[11]: Parrish S., 2020, ‘Episode 76 — Frank Stephenson: Pushing the Limits of Innovation’, The Knowledge Project podcast, Farman Street

[12]: Ferris T., 2016, ‘Tools of Titans — The tactics, routines and habits of billionaires, icons and world-class performers’, p.436, Vermillion, London

[13]: Reinicke C., 2020, ‘Tesla just became the most-shorted stock in the US, again’, Business Insider Australia

[14]: Assis C., 2020, ‘Latest loss by Tesla shorts: $2.5 billion on Monday alone’, Market Watch

All online resources were accessed on the 8th of April 2020.

Article initially published on Borderless Box

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