Your Truth vs. The Truth

I’ve been thinking about what “truth” means lately. With almost no effort I can find contradictory articles, thoughts, perspectives, statements, and opinions on almost everything being discussed today. I’m sure our election cycle is amplifying this, but I see this in a bunch of stuff I’m reading about tech as well.

As someone who views independent critical thinking as extremely important, this dynamic is perplexing to me. A few months ago I wrote a post about TruthRank vs. PageRank. It started me down a path where I began separating types of truth. Specifically, I’ve begun referring to “your truth” vs. “the truth.”

When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.

To understand this better, I’d like to use a classic example from tech – that of Steve Ballmer’s view of the iPhone, and subsequently his approach to the mobile business.

Let’s set the stage with a classic interview with Ballmer at the time the iPhone is announced in 2007.

Now, let’s look at Ballmer’s reflections about this in 2014.

As part of this arc, Ballmer’s big solve was to move Microsoft from a software only company to software+services and then software+devices. For many years, Microsoft was disdainful of Apple’s tightly coupled hardware+software business. In a final thrust of reactionary behavior, Microsoft bought Nokia in 2014 for $7.2 billion and then wrote off $7.6 billion a little over a year later.

Ballmer had “his truth.” It was stronger than an opinion. It shaped his entire view of the world. He held on to it for seven years (or probably longer).

And, at least in the case of mobile, it was completely wrong. It was not “the truth.”

I see this in all aspects of the world. It’s noisiest in politics right now, but it’s prevalent through all aspects of society. I’m running into it constantly in business and technology – both at a macro level (about the industry) and a micro level (within a company).

In the same way it’s different than an opinion (which can be wrong and/or invalidated over time), it’s different than strategy. I’ve always felt that a strategy was the framework for executing your truth. Strategies evolve and opinions change but your truth doesn’t.

And herein lies the problem. I’m seeing people hold onto their truth for much too long. They hold on too tightly. They turn an opinion into their truth. They extrapolate their truth from a small number of data points. The generalize one experience to create their truth. They react emotionally to something that they disagree with and anchor on their truth. They justify their behavior by holding onto their truth.

In many of these situations, individual critical thinking goes out the window. The internal biasing behavior of your truth dominates. You stop being able to listen to other perspectives, to process them, to think about them, and to evolve your opinion. Instead of deeply held beliefs, you end up with a shallow and self-justifying perspective that you hold on to endlessly rather than think hard about what is actually going on.

I embrace the idea of seeking the truth. I love the construct of deeply held beliefs as a framework for it. I challenge everyone to think harder about what the truth actually is, rather than just hold on to your truth to justify your perspective. Remember, the truth is out there.



Also published on Medium.

  • Mark Hopkins

    Agreed. The human brain, when it’s running a belief-based operating system, runs fast and easy. The critical thinking based OS is a lot slower and requires a lot of energy. The former structure is hyper productive for a leader whose beliefs happen to be right. Bad outcomes and silly decisions in hindsight for those who are wrong.

  • Sebastien Latapie

    Wow – what a post! So elegantly written. Critical thinking is something I try to get better at each and every day. Uncovering assumptions, asking why, and then actually doing research when I don’t know the answer are how I try to get there. As Mark says though – this is hard and takes energy!

    • Thanks. “Doing research” is so important. I just tweeted out a great line I heard in a podcast – – “It is not your fault. It is your responsibility to learn, but it is not your fault.” – Konda Mason. It’s from a different context but awesomely relevant.

      • Sebastien Latapie

        Nice – applies quite well here. I’ll check the podcast as well to get the full context.

  • Howard Witkin

    Hi Brad, Just discovered your blog. We met years and years ago when my company did all of the network infrastructure supporting your software at Bellflower Dental. Great to meet again. Even if only on a comments box on a blog post.

    There’s a post biblical book of ethics called “ethics of our fathers” that touches on the same idea. It says “when called upon to judge, don’t be a lawyer” – and “listen with your ears” (not your position/attitude/mood/biases). People tend to be lawyers – they have a pre-existing position that they advocate so they can’t hear anything else or see a truth that doesn’t fit. They become loyal to a position rather than to “The Truth”.

    You have to be mindful of the problem to avoid it.

    • Great to (re)meet. Are you still working with Bellflower Dental Group?
      I love the concept “when called upon to judge, don’t be a lawyer.” I will use that.

      • Howard Witkin

        I love the “don’t be a lawyer” line. One of the most difficult things for most people is to be loyal to truth, rather than loyal to their position. The goal should be clarity, not victory.

        I haven’t seen Bellflower in years, I sold my System Integration company years ago. Built an internet lead gen company next. Now I am part of the disruption of the distilled spirits market. Growing a cool little distillery, lots of gold medals, named to the top 100 spirits in the world. having a blast applying digital/database marketing paradigm to a fragmented market. Its really a blast having product that my friends can actually understand and enjoy. That’s how I found your blog. Saw your name at 1000Angels site. Followed the links to see what you were up to. Happy to send you a bottle as a thank you for having easy to support code all of those years ago.

  • JOhn Rokos

    Really good post. An incredible coincidence as one of the segments that John Oliver did on the most recent This Week Tonight (Episode 18) addresses this exact point. If you haven’t seen it it’s an amazing, and disturbing, illustration of what you wrote about. Since it’s John Oliver it’s in the context of the current political race.

    It’s about ½ the way through the show and the conclusion that Oliver comes to is this:
    Candidates can create feelings in people –> Feelings = Facts –> (by the transitive property) Candidates Can Create Facts.

    I think you will enjoy, and be horrified, as much as I did and see how well this relates to what you wrote, and is another example to use, for better or worse.


    • Yup – I saws it. Amy and I have been talking about the feelings = facts for the last few days.

    • Jay DeVivo

      My wife and I watched that episode last night, which began a similar conversation. My theory is that people hold onto beliefs that a dispassionate analysis would find are heavily flawed to avoid anxiety.

      Most important issues are complex, and complex issues necessarily involve ambiguity. When people start to explore this ambiguity they come face to face with cognitive dissonance, which causes anxiety. People don’t like anxiety and wish to avoid it, so they develop a belief system that washes away the gray and neatly place things into either black or white.

      I think that fervor with which people espouse these beliefs or “facts” is often (but not always) related to how much effort is required to suppress the inner voice nagging that their belief system is intellectually lazy.

      • MorganHoward

        @jaydevivo:disqus I could not have said it better. It must be repeated…

        “My theory is that people hold onto beliefs that a dispassionate analysis would find are heavily flawed to avoid anxiety.

        Most important issues are complex, and complex issues necessarily involve ambiguity. When people start to explore this ambiguity they come face to face with cognitive dissonance, which causes anxiety. People don’t like anxiety and wish to avoid it, so they develop a belief system that washes away the gray and neatly place things into either black or white.

        I think that fervor with which people espouse these beliefs or “facts” is often (but not always) related to how much effort is required to suppress the inner voice nagging that their belief system is intellectually lazy.”

  • Re: your point about some people that hold on to old truths for too long, this has been one of my favorite John Cage quotes lately:
    “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

  • sdso234

    Robert Cialdini’s book, “influence” talks about people’s need to be consistent. Once people follow up a belief with action, those beliefs become more deeply held, even if they are wrong.

  • Gustavo Melo

    I think one of the most important realizations towards a free mind is that although “Your Truth” is shaped by your core values – that is, the deepest principles that guide your analysis of the world around you – it is not those values. Any belief that is practical and tangible like “we’re software guys” is, by definition, an application of those values. You get in trouble when you internalize that kind of thinking as if it were a value, it’s a “lazy” habit we’re all guilty of.

    Just because a narrative feels true, or is based on facts, doesn’t mean you have to use that narrative to make decisions. For complex things like a megacorp’s strategy, or a country’s presidential election, the pool of available facts is too big to factor everything into your analysis. Picking the facts you’re going to focus on is just as important as the line of thinking you develop on top of those facts.

    A free mind can contemplate many truths, some of which may seem at odds with each other, and that’s okay. A strong spirit can also reject the truths that don’t align with its core values, even though they may be objectively valid. The ultimate struggle is maintaining the flexibility that lets you pick the right truth for the right situation.

    I don’t subscribe to the idea that trying to find “the truth” is the way to go. I’ve yet to meet someone who can systematically see “the truth” other than in hindsight, which suggests that execution (how well you execute on “your truth”) has a lot to do with whether it ever gets accepted as “the truth”.

    So rather than seeking the truth that will be, find a truth that’s worth spilling sweat and tears to turn into reality, and just pursue that. That’s all any of us can really do.

  • DaveJ

    What you are describing as “your truth” is pretty close to the epistemic notion of a “paradigm.” It includes organizing principles, metaphysical assumptions, rules of thumb, and sometimes values. In a pure paradigm there are no falsifiable claims, so the issue is whether the paradigm is an effective lens through which to seek truth. Invariably, though, elements of the paradigm are reified as truth claims, along with some of the difficult-to-falsify hunches. The process of shifting paradigms is called a scientific revolution in science, and there is a good map between the difficulty of an individual adjusting her paradigm and a larger sociological unit doing so.

    In my view the “your truth” terminology is suboptimal. It suggests alethic relativism and accords a status to the beliefs that is not justified. I would recommend “personal paradigm” or similar.

    If you are thinking further about this issue it is worth re-reading Kuhn but mapping it to individuals and companies while you read.

  • JAJones

    Perfect ending to a great post with the X files quote. Fox Mulder would be proud!

  • Roger

    Good article!
    But I have a small suggestion.I’d like to change the concentration from “truth” toward “axiom”.
    You probably know the axiom definition by wikipedia: “An axiom or postulate as defined in classic philosophy, is a statement (in mathematics often shown in symbolic form) that is so evident or well-established, that it is accepted without controversy or question. Thus, the axiom can be used as the premise or starting point for further reasoning or arguments, usually in logic or in mathematics.”

    If we can analyze, WHAT exactly are our own axioms, the evident basics for our buildings of thoughts, and what would happen if we exchange them (even a very little bit), then we may find completely different, again totally logical answers, new “truths”.
    If I totally differ with other people opinions then I try to understand what are their axioms, the unrequested basics of their logical buildings, that are different from mine. Then I try to analyze if and why their axioms may work for me too.
    So I prefer seeking the axioms. The truths are “only” the logical deduction of our axioms.

  • This is a powerful posting. I don’t know what it is that makes some more open to the truth vs their truth, but I suspect it has a lot to do with a flexibility born of great inner strength.

    It is so hard to admit that one doesn’t know, much less that one is or was wrong. I think that what we hold onto in this way often limits us.

    What I wonder is, we need core beliefs to function. How do we find these without making them a rose colored dogma impervious to discounting information?

  • There’s a Victorian building at the University of Toronto that has a conspicuous carving in its stone structure for all to see that says, “The truth shall set you free”. Love it

  • Pete H

    It reminds me of the saying – We see things not as They are, but as We are.

  • cavepainting

    Hi Brad, Love this post. Seeking the truth gets to the very core of everything. What works, what does not, why people or succeed fail, why founders fight, why big companies miss market transitions etc.

    I wrote more here on similar lines.

  • I was looking for an ultimate philosophical truth for too long. Now I consider myself agnosticist and believe that we are not able to get that “true truth”. Every truth is more or less “your truth”.

  • ebdem

    Thanks for the post! There is just no (single) truth. There are
    thruths or to name it better: standpoints of people or visions of
    people, that should in their eyes become reality. These people are in a
    battle on – in this case – market shares, profits, innovations,
    customers… to win fights people are claiming to have the truth.

    How the fight ended can measured afterwards by collecting the facts. But
    also collecting facts (by science or investors or…) is something, that
    is battled about.

  • Anny Smile

    What is truth, huh? Does it exist or not?..