At the start of boxing matches and UFC fights, the referee tells the combatants to protect themselves at all times.
The myth behind the saying is that long ago, at an Olympic boxing event, they used to run them tournament style, with three fights going at once in the same arena, with the rings close to each other. The favorite to win the whole thing was winning his match, the bell rung, and he put down his hands to claim victory and move on to the next round. But the bell that rang was for a ring next to his — his round hadn’t ended, and his opponent seized the opportunity and knocked him out just as his hands went down.
Ever since, fighters have been warned at the beginning of every fight to protect themselves at all times.
Not only is this good advice for the ring, it’s good advice for life.
A little more than ten years ago a professor of psychiatry had just finished writing his book, “Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It”. The irony? He was about to learn that he had invested his money in the biggest ponzi scheme of all time. What happened? If you ask me, it’s simple. He put his gloves down.
And this isn’t just about scams — many people stop defending themselves because it means they’d have to ask somebody to clarify themselves, and that can be uncomfortable. This is often as simple as being asked to take on a daunting assignment at work. The person asking you to do it may not have any idea how much time it will take you, or be aware of a similar result you could produce with 20% of the effort, but because it risks your reputation (perhaps coming off as lazy) and their reputation (not knowing the time or options involved), many people just take the punch.
This concept applies far and wide and on many issues, you have more incentive than anybody else to make sure you are protected. Mechanic says you need some expensive work on your old car? It’s very normal to get a second opinion on that, but it carries the implication that you don’t trust your mechanic entirely. Many people put down their guard at the slightest threat of making somebody else uncomfortable, despite the great discomfort it is likely to cause them down the line.
How can we combat this? Two ways.
Be honest about who you trust and who you think is excellent at what they do. They need both of those things to let you put your guard down. These types of people are invaluable, but most people rush to put people into this category and do it far too soon. But, when you have an accountant or a hair stylist or a personal trainer who you know will give you what you need and you can trust them to have your best interests at heart, you should value them immensely. They are the friend who you can ask a question to and get an honest answer. They’ll tell you if those jeans make you look a little too chonk.
The real benefit of those people is mostly overlooked, though. They are experts at what they do, and they are well calibrated (a word of caution here, most people, including ‘experts’, are not well calibrated, and that’s a requirement for trusting somebody’s judgment). When they tell you something that is surprising, you should ask for more detail and ask how certain they are.
I work with a bunch of highly competent people. We all work in the same field, but all have different specialties and experience. I’m known to frequently ask “are you sure?” or “is that right?” when somebody tells me a surprising fact. Why? I want to know if they are pretty sure they are right or absolutely damn sure and I’d be wasting my time double checking. It will often prompt them to explain the major exceptions.
In most areas of life you will not have these people, and that leads to the second thing you must learn how to do. You must learn how to figure out the right questions to ask.
A lot of people give up right away on the task of finding the right questions, because ultimately it means you’ll have to ask them, either of yourself or of somebody else — it’s hard to say which is worse!
It is easier now than ever to find the right questions to ask about anything, but that’s a double-edged sword. It’s also easier than ever to find the wrong thing that sounds just right.
The task is hard, and some people who put in the work will seem to be able to find the answer to everything (we all know that person), and it’s because they’ve developed a talent for finding the right questions to ask.
The right way to find the questions to ask is often domain specific, though there are common threads. If someone tells me about something medical or health/fitness related, I’m going to see if I can find anything on PubMed that agrees with it. Of course with that you have to learn that a study done on rats might not apply to humans, and a study using untrained college students might not apply to elite athletes. You are looking for both confirmation or disconfirmation and reasons why that might not apply to the scenario you’re looking for.
The main thing to look for is somebody who is considered an expert by many others — learn what they think. But more importantly, learn where they get their information. Find their primary sources. You can often find the root of a disagreement among experts in the source.
When you understand where the experts disagree, that’s where you can start to make your decisions. Why? If the experts disagree, there isn’t a lot of use in spending your time trying to parse those areas yourself — you’ll have years of catching up to do. Instead, find one expert or school of thought whose reasoning you can follow, understand where other people disagree, and make your decision.
A word of caution here — there are clear distinctions between the value of different experts. The value of somebody considered to be an expert by somebody I trust to have the ability to identify an expert is worth more to me than somebody with a million twitter followers.
Finally, remember that we are all susceptible to the Gell-Mann effect. It is far easier to trust a person in an area we are unfamiliar with. If we hear something surprising we should see if other people disagree with that. If they do, we should want to know why.