Stay Paranoid

Do you trust other people? How about even when your livelihood depends on it?

It might be time to stop. I’m not suggesting you become a paranoid cynic, but it might behoove you to take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s book: Trust but verify.

Ronald Reagan's "Trust, but verify."

Of course, Reagan was dealing with the Soviet Union in arms-reduction negotiations when he said this, but the wisdom of the statement rings true no matter your politics (and I know a lot of people hate Reagan).

But even if you like somebody and generally trust them, you need to stay paranoid.

I say this not to foster fear and discord, but to ensure your general good nature doesn’t lead you into a world of trouble. This is something I don’t think enough young people are taught. Because who wants to be afraid of the world?

Even though trust levels are declining, people in the United States are still more trusting than our counterparts in most of the world. Maybe too trusting. And while I’m loathe to recommend that Americans become more like our fellow global citizens, a little street-smarts could go a long way.

Writing in USA Today, law professor Glenn Reynolds recently discussed the issue of trust:

America has been — and, for the moment, remains — a high-trust society. In high-trust societies, people extend trust to strangers and follow rules for the most part even when nobody is watching. In low-trust societies, trust seldom extends beyond close family, and everybody cheats if they can get away with it.

So I’m not just a naive. Trust is a part of our culture. But high trust can have its downsides, especially when a high-trust nation sees an influx of people from low-trust societies.

Note that “high-trust” and “low-trust” are not value judgments. The concepts are derived from several variables that shape and form a culture, a huge one being the level of corruption in a culture’s governing institutions. And lest you think I’m being pejorative here, as a Greek-American, I will be the first to tell you that, while America (and indeed any nation in the Anglosphere) is a high-trust culture, Greece is far more of a low-trust culture . . . not so much among family, but among everyone else.

Anyway, what does this have to do with your everyday life? Well, I’ve often said that I am living proof that God loves idiots. If anybody reading this ever suspected I was an idiot, well, read on for proof.

I’m not going to turn this into a “work” post or a “law” post, but this story touches on both, so bear with me.

Recently at work I’ve been embroiled in a huge project. You know the type: too many cooks, but no chefs. One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing and all of those cliches that seem like disposable until you come face-to-face with them. This project is exceedingly boring so I won’t get into details except to say that it has tax law implications.

I can already see your eyes glazing over. You’re contemplating closing this page. Hear me out.

The point is that, like much of the law,  the realm of tax is arcane, cryptic, and has more rules and exceptions than a game of Calvinball. Not exactly the kind of thing that fills you with confidence, but that’s the way our system is. I didn’t make the rules, I just have to work with them.

Lots of higher-ups in my organization are interested in seeing this project successfully executed. Figuring out this tax stuff would go a long way towards ensuring a smooth roll-out, and would make me look good in the bargain.

A picture of a gavel on top of a paper that says "Tax Law."

I did my own research. I thought I had the answer. This tax question seemed simple, really, a non-issue. How little I knew. The attorney I’m partnering with is very smart and experienced but, like me, has next to no experience with tax law.

But there was hope, a light shining in the distance promising salvation. A year ago, when this project was in the planning stages, another person in my group had written a short research memo that seemed to address exactly what I was looking for, and indeed bolster the results of my own work.

Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of a difficult task, the temptation to rely on someone else’s work exerts as strong a pull as an oasis to a dying man in the desert. But don’t do it.

But rely on this memo I did. Why wouldn’t I? The law can be like the Oracle at Delphi, ambiguous and open to interpretation. This memo and its answers seemed like manna from heaven.

This also demonstrates the cognitive biases argument from authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) and belief bias in action.

Triumphant, I reported my findings to our team. I had the answer! I was about to send our findings to the interested parties when–whoops!–unbeknownst to us one of the higher-ups had contacted another colleague, one who does have tax experience, about this same issue. The answer he gave turned out to be the correct one. And wouldn’t you know it, it was the exact opposite of the one I had come up with. I was leading the charge in the wrong direction. The impact of this on the success of our project would have been massive.

I relied in large part on work done by somebody else which was incorrect. Shame on me for not doing my own due diligence.

I am not going to get to into the legal weeds, because legal issues are incredibly boring and I know that you don’t care. But I had ignored a huge blind spot. I could use the excuse that I haven’t even been at this job for a year, but that’s weak. All that matters is that I was ready to plow full-speed into disaster based on someone else’s word.

As the cliche goes, life is all about timing.

If I had immediately sent out my initial response, I would have been providing blatantly wrong information. Then, when the higher up reached out to my experienced colleague for an answer, I would’ve looked like even more of a fool. This would not have been good. By dumb luck or timing, however you want to call it, I avoided a serious professional mishap that could have had serious consequences for my career.

See what I mean? God loves idiots.

I vow I am never going to let this happen to me again. I don’t care that the memo I relied upon was flawed. This was all on me.

Why did I almost walk into this trap? Am I overworked? (Aren’t we all?) Do I have to many projects going on? (Don’t we all?) Do I have other stuff going on in my family life that in the grand scheme of things are more important than work? (Who doesn’t?)

The problem is that I was too trusting. Especially when I have no reason to believe my colleagues are trying to pull a fast one on me. But a little shrewdness goes a long way.

I actually had a guy I interned for in graduate school tell me this. “You’re a smart guy, Alex,” he said, “but you need to be a little more shrewd.”

Shrewd . . . astute . . . showing good judgment . . . street-smart . . .

I think that when we are dealing with people that we know personally, we tend to trust them. This is a good thing. I’m not saying to that it’s better to become a hermetic recluse, but you need to stay paranoid.

Stay paranoid, or trust but verify.

A man with his hands on his cheeks and a worried expression in a black room.

Just because you like somebody and trust them in other areas of your life, it doesn’t mean that they’re always right. It’s like a different version of the halo effect, but instead of basing it on peoples looks, you base it on how you feel about them.

Stay paranoid, but strike a balance. Living in a high-trust environment is, I think, a good thing. Let’s try to keep it that way.

Well I fell asleep, then I woke feelin’ kinda’ queer
Lola looked at me and said, “ooh you look so weird.”
She said, “man, there’s really something wrong with you.
One day you’re gonna’ self-destruct.
You’re up, you’re down, I can’t work you out
You get a good thing goin’ then you blow yourself out.”

Silly boy ya’ self-destroyer. Silly boy ya’ self-destroyer

Silly boy you got so much to live for
So much to aim for, so much to try for
You blowing it all with paranoia
You’re so insecure you self-destroyer

There are benefits of living in a high-trust society and being a high-trust person, but that doesn’t mean you should abdicate all responsibility for your own success or failure. Do your research. Get your own facts and draw your own conclusions. Remember the five Ws and one H. Treat even people you like and trust with a healthy dose of skepticism. Your job might just depend on it.

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and @DaytimeRenegade

And check out my Instagram here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s