activist Greg Mortenson honestly thought it was OK to make-up stories
about his exploits and efforts to build schools for girls in the
Taliban-controlled areas of Central Asia in his best-selling nonfiction
book, Three Cups of Tea
(required reading for all US service men and
women bound for Afghanistan). President Obama donated $100,000 of his
Nobel Peace Prize proceeds to Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia
Institute (full disclosure, I donated as well). CAI has received over
$60 million in donations. Mortenson’s made-up stories, flawed
accomplishments and his personal mismanagement of donated funds (many
sent in by school children) were only exposed years later. In 2012, he
continues to be in denial.
Filmmaker and founder of Invisible
Children, Jason Russell, also probably thought he was telling the whole
truth and nothing but the truth about the exploits of the intensely evil
Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony in his short film Kony 2012
went viral on the Internet earlier this year. It took way too long for
Invisible Children to be criticized for exaggerating and revising
history, spending too little of the donations it received (also many
from school children) on actually catching Joseph Kony and spending way
too much on the running of the organization itself.
Hitler and Eugenics (where there was no truth, only twisted logic),
Daisey, Mortenson and Russell each had enough facts to tell a pretty
good story. And, in all of these four examples, it was shock and awe
that captured the imagination and attention of the audience-in vast
numbers. If you add up the number of people who suspended disbelief in
all these four cases, it would be well into the billions. In all cases,
the audiences “cooperated” by pulling others into these belief systems,
by spreading memes about them, by never doubting that these men were
totally truthful and therefore trustworthy. (I honestly believe
everything I write is true so I urge you to challenge any of it.)
CHECKLIST FOR THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC
Plausibility—Is this an exaggeration?
Research—How can I double-check this?
Images—Are the visuals meant to manipulate me?
Motivation—What is theirs? What is mine?
Absolutes—Is it too general a statement to be useful?
fool ourselves constantly. Healthy skepticism requires systematic
scrutiny, awareness and discipline. Charles Darwin was
charming in his humility. And he would attach himself to someone if they
could help him. He saw Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle
perfect in every way. The Beagle was the ship on which Darwin famously
sailed on the voyage that led to his now ubiquitous theory of natural
selection. Yet later, when Darwin became famous and could afford to, he
adjusted his views, seeing Fitzroy as a deeply flawed human.6
we are all as deeply flawed as Darwin and Fitzroy.HIVE MIND
phenomena of “group think” comes from our ancient mind, from a time when
our species’ survival counted on everyone pulling together. In the
late 1940s Madison Avenue giant Alex Osborn of Batten, Barton, Durstine
& Osborn (BBDO) decided to share all his creative secrets in a book
called Your Creative Power,
which became an instant best seller and
introduced the concept of brainstorming to the rest of the world. The
basic idea, which we all probably know and many follow, is to throw out
as many ideas as possible, without judgment. Freewheel it. Get goofy.
Write ’em all down. Don’t nip creativity in the bud! Above all, suspend
We see this technique played out weekly on the television
show Mad Men
, about a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s. At
the real-life, modern day industrial design firm IDEO, and indeed many
others, brainstorming is practically a religion. Yet in experiments at
Yale University as early as 1958, brainstorming was discredited as the
idea igniter it had been cracked up to be (these experiments have since
been replicated with the same results). As we see on Mad Men
, the ideas
the team comes up with at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (based on BBDO)
are often shot down by the incisively brilliant Don Draper, creative
partner, while “the creatives” look on in awe. Then Draper, a far better
critical thinker, comes up with the winning idea all on his own, saving
Those of us who have used the process know that
brainstorming generally results in mediocre, crazy ideas. And that it
definitely doesn’t encourage critical, on-your-feet thinking nor effective
and persuasive communication skills nor does it build stronger teams.7
Yet, since it’s also been proven that most people do work better on
teams, a more efficient tact may be to constructively, respectfully
critique ideas as they emerge—while employing healthy skeptic skills,8
challenging assumptions—building on the best of the best ideas by
interacting intelligently within a trusting, non hierarchical
group-while accessing your inner
We tend to conform to the norms of the team, we establish a
status quo through our habits and routines. We want to be accepted and
appreciated. We want to cover-our-collective ass. So we get trapped in a
web of assumptions that would perhaps not occur to somebody outside our
sphere, which is why it’s so threatening to bring outsiders in. They
would not follow the unspoken rules that hold us back. So sometimes we
need to gird our loins but open our minds, acknowledge our blind spots
and prejudices. Let “the other” in, access the genius of the janitor or
the it guy or the intern to get a totally different point of view. Shake
things up while trusting that it will all work out. Pry back open our
minds clapped shut by conformity and the desire to be considered “just
one of the boys.”
3M, the company that brings us the most mundane but
essential of products—Post-it and Scotch tape—has one of the highest
rates of innovation of any company with a uniformly successful product
line of 55,000 items. That is a one-to-one employee-product ratio. Its
policy is to move people from team to team. It embraces
diversity—bringing an engineer onto a team with no expertise in the area
in question—because it is open to the notion that the most gnarly of
problems may be best solved by the new guy. The best idea wins.9 CAEditor’s note: Part 3 of Cooperative! will run in the next issue. Notes
1. Tom Shadyac, I Am, Shady Acres Films.
2. Steven Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature, Viking.
4. Paul Zak, The Moral Molecule, Dutton.
5. David Samuels, “Wild Things,” Harpers.
6. Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, Viking.
7. Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker.
8. Jonah Lehrer, “Better Than Brainstorming,” The New Yorker.
9. Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.