Don’t trust everything you read

What an amazing era in which we live! We have the world at our literal fingertips. Science has changed the world from our own youth, no matter how old you are. And while this 21st century might be called a century of information, it is not a century of knowledge among the average consumer – and in fact, even those who consider themselves an above average consumer. 

This has led to some interesting cultural observations. The Dunning-Kruger effect tells us there are people who, while thinking they are smart, are not actually smart enough to know how much they lack in “smart”. On the other end of the spectrum, highly intelligent people tend to be more prone to bias and less able to see their narrowness. 

While you are surfing the world of motivational quotes, or listening to an inspired speaker (note, I did not say inspiring), you may be told that Maya Angelou once said “People will forget the things you do, and people will forget the things you say. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” And most of us nod our heads knowingly, feeling inspired that such an icon of poetry was the source of this profound quote.

Unfortunately, if one were to spend a little time tracking down the source of this lovely quote, one would find the first mention of this quote was attributed to one Carl W. Buehner. The people who have researched the origin have concluded that there is no evidence that Maya Angelou said this.

Recently, a post with an interesting title crossed my LinkedIn feed. The author is someone I respect, so I read further. One of her first declarations was “it takes 21 days to change a habit”. Since I had just heard this claim the week prior, I decided to do some digging.

Many years ago, I had read somewhere that it took 3 times for a child to learn a new habit, and 33 times for an adult. I do not remember the source and I have subsequently been unable to discover where I may have first read it. Unwittingly, I tested these numbers. I moved my trashcan from beside the fridge to beside my microwave. For the next (many) weeks, I found myself headed to the fridge with trash. If I really was focused on where the trashcan was, I’d get it right the first time, but that was quite rare. In the end, my scientific research proves that it takes 187 times to change/adopt a (read, my) habit.

The science on changing or adopting new habits does not result in a specific number. In fact, the 21 number is simply a misinterpretation of a note in the book Psycho-Cybernetics written by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Do your own digging and find the truth of it. 

This adds a quandary to all my future reading and listening to speakers. Who do I believe? While I do try to be original in all my presentations, I too may have discovered something that appealed to my sense of wonder and misattributed it. That won’t happen ever again. I will continue to read, to dig deep for knowledge, and always be sure to attribute wisdom to the correct source.

But how do I consider my respect for anyone who misattributes a quote in the future? Should I ignore everything else they spake? Should I stop listening at the moment of misattribution and miss all their other gold nuggets? Should I tell them? Should I just ignore their indiscretion?

The answer is not simple. If I were to misattribute a quote, I would welcome the information that would help me get it right. But not all speakers are that way, and I have experienced the wrath of a speaker who has been called out – in my case, for something as simple as a typo. 

I believe that intent should be the key here. Understand the message the speaker is offering. The attribution is not important to the meaning of the quote. By distracting myself with the misattribution, I may miss the point and lose the lesson. It’s like spotting a spelling mistake and missing the message from that moment. It’s the same as hearing an offensive (to you) swear word and completely shutting down and missing the point.

Will you continue to believe everything you read?

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Trevor Perry