Friday, June 26, 2009

Trust No One, Trust Everyone

Lately I've been thinking about the operational implications of trusting people. I don't mean trusting their intentions or their sentiment; I mean trusting what they say as being accurate, factual and useful. On the one hand, trusting someone completely can produce amazing relationships and can accelerate learning and acquisition of new skills; on the other, trusting someone completely can result in belief systems that are houses of cards.

Let me explain...

Trust Everyone
When you're first learning to do something new, it's useful to trust your teacher. For example, if you're learning to ski and fearful of falling, it's exceptionally useful to trust the teacher who tells you that leaning down the mountain will give you more control than leaning up the mountain. Why is trust necessary? Because everything inside of you is screaming "lean up the mountain".

(Note: trust doesn't actually come into play until you disagree on what to do; prior to that you're not trusting, you're just agreeing.)

In the case of learning things that are new and challenging, trust takes the form of abandoning our own beliefs and buying into the beliefs of the person teaching us. This form of trust can be particularly useful in learning things that run opposite to our intuition and experience.

Rather than looking at something new and different and dismissively saying, "I don't get it! Why is so-and-so doing that?" We can say the same words engagingly with an emphasis on I don't get it.

Rather than taking the attitude of "prove it to me, and I'll believe it", we take the attitude of "I'm going to go with whatever you tell me to do."

This approach has served me really well. I've been able to learn and understand concepts that would have eluded me; I've been able to acquire new skills and capabilities very quickly. Quite often, I've ended up with a better understanding of what I was taught than that of the person teaching me.

Trust No One
So, what's wrong with trusting?

Trusting what people say as being accurate or "true" simply because they've said so lacks intellectual integrity. It's cheating.

Rather than thinking everything through and understanding what's been said, we just accept it without full and thoughtful consideration. If we build new beliefs on a foundation of beliefs that we've never fully understood, we effectively construct a house of cards. If the person we trusted later proves to be untrustworthy, the foundation fails and the house crumbles.

For example, I used to be a charismatic evangelical christian. I was totally and wholly bought in. I read the bible from cover to cover (repeatedly) and memorized verses. I donated a tenth of what I earned to the church. I volunteered every free moment (and then some). I participated in all the services, bible studies, outreaches, and so on. I actively told everyone I met about Jesus.

The foundation of my beliefs had been based on trusting those who taught me. Whenever I uncovered inconsistencies in my own studies, I attributed them to my lack of understanding.

Over the years, I discovered flaws in the people who taught me. I found inconsistencies in their teachings and inconsistencies in their lives. I uncovered case after case where the teacher didn't actually believe what they taught.

I started to doubt everything I believed, eventually ripping apart my entire belief system and rebuilding it from the ground up. I ended up in a completely different place.

For a long time, I was bitter and resentful about having been led down the path, so to speak. I didn't own up to the fact that it was I who chose to believe and trust. Yes, my foundation was flawed, but I was the one who had built the foundation, not my teachers.

The Truster's Dilemma
So, on the one hand, trusting someone with complete abandon makes it possible to learn things that we might never have learned, and to learn things quickly. On the other, it can lead to avoiding thoughtful consideration and full understanding of what we believe, resulting in a fragile belief system built on a vulnerable foundation.

What's a person to do?

Over the last couple of days, I've come to the conclusion that I've frequently confused belief and truth.

When I look at what is being said as a belief, then it's easy to temporarily adopt it so that I can fully engage what is being taught. I can quickly get to the heart of what is being said and view it from the perspective of the person saying it.

When I look at was is being said as truth, then it's kind of difficult to temporarily try it on. I mean, it's either true, or it's not true. Once you make it true it's pretty tough to drop it.

Essentially, beliefs are mutable and truths are not.

What to Do
So, step one is to treat trust as an activity of engagement in new beliefs. It's not unlike going to a science fiction movie and abandoning our beliefs about time travel so that we can fully enjoy the movie. The question of time-travel being true or not doesn't come into play. I'm just going to believe in time travel for the next two hours.

Step two follows closely on the heals of step one. If I'm trying on a belief simply because I want to understand it, not because it's true, then, I place no responsibility on the part of the teacher for the teachings being true. It's my decision to try it on, and my decision to adopt it or not. I have no one to blame, but me.

The Benefits
First, I don't have to go through all the rigor of proving something to myself before I try it. This is particularly useful as there are many things that are impossible to prove before trying them. I can simply try them and see if they work or not. (This gives me a great learning advantage over Europeans and Missourians).

Second, I'm never limited by the skills and capacity of my teachers. I can learn from them in a manner that is fully engaged, and yet, gain insights that they might not yet have. It's all up to me.

Third, I'm never, ever going to feel bitter about someone having taught me something that didn't work out. It's always my decision to believe or not. Truth has nothing to do with it.

This is going to work. Trust me.


  1. I like this Mark: "treat trust as an activity of engagement in new beliefs" like going to a science fiction movie!!! Yeah, hmmm it's so easy, enjoyable and relaxing to "trust" a film because it's a safe abandoning of my beliefs! There are no real life consequences that tend to come of doing so...
    I can relate the movie watching example to real life in that I TRUST myself to keep me safe. I know I always have a choice of staying for the whole "film"(activity) or not so the part I choose to stay for I can relax and enjoy and therefore get the full effect!

    I didn't know you were a Christian! Cool, it's interesting to know that background about you...I too have been "saved" when I was 5 years old! I'd love to know more about your spiritual beliefs now, do you believe in God? Are you atheist?

    Thanks for this post Mark!
    Have a lovely weekend

  2. Hi Jeannene,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my post.

    I'd love to share some more about my spiritual journey. I've changed my beliefs quite significantly.

    In a nutshell, I'd describe myself as a happy existentialist. I believe that we're here and that meaning is not something that is thrust upon us; instead, it's something that we create.

    I believe there is much more that I don't understand than I do understand, and I'm open to learning more and understanding more.

    There may be higher order beings and perhaps even, a single ultimate one. However, I don't believe that I have the capacity to nail down what that means or who that would be.

    As I write this, I can run through the litany of responses I might have made to my own statements back when I was involved in the church. I've gone through all of them so many times.

    I'm really happy with where I've come to be.


  3. Great post, Mark/Teflon; I could really relate with and follow you all the way. And I love the distinction you made between a belief and truth, and how that affects what we do with it.

    I'm also very interested in hearing about your spiritual evolution, if you'd like to share. I'm personally fascinated by the process by which an individual makes a large change in a fundamental belief system. One such change I have made, and a belief I am now comfortable holding is that I *am* capable of comprehending a reality deeper than the one people typically live in, and that this reality is not a 'being' in the sense of a human-like entity. However, I must say I'm still in the "trying it on" process :-).


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