A friend who will remain nameless was called up for jury duty a couple of years ago. He really didn’t want to do it.

When you’re called up, you get a letter telling you to show up at a particular court at a particular day and time. My friend thought:

Hang on a minute…they have no way of knowing if I received the letter. People change address all the time. It could have got lost in the post. I could have died recently. So they must just send out letters to far more people than they actually need, and hope enough people show up. Therefore nothing bad will happen if I ignore it, and it’s highly unlikely they’ll have the resources to bother finding out why I didn’t turn up.

My friend (who I absolutely promise in all seriousness isn’t just a device to avoid saying “me”)

He asked a few friends, and all – except me – said that not turning up for jury duty was very serious and he’d probably be fined at least.

However, my friend Googled the matter and noticed a few national news stories about people being fined – meaning it can’t happen all the time, otherwise it wouldn’t be newsworthy. And all the people in the stories had originally replied to the letter, then later not showed up or repeatedly deferred: they hadn’t just ignored it in the first place.

He then asked a family friend who was a highly acclaimed lawyer – one of the very top in his specialism. The lawyer also said that ignoring the letter was very serious and you could definitely expect to be fined at least.

My friend ignored everyone, and ignored the letter too. Years on, no-one has contacted him and there have been no consequences whatsoever. (Except the slight erosion of the underpinning of our criminal justice system that people have fought and died for, but that goes beyond the purpose of this anecdote.)

Doing something that “can’t be done”

Another friend (also not me) recently raised a fund to take his company public on the stock exchange. Companies of his type in his sector basically never go public, and certainly not at its current size.

In the process he was told many, many times over that what he was doing couldn’t be done. He was told this not just by concerned business associates, but by expert lawyers and accountants who specifically specialise in taking companies public.

He was given lots of reasons why it couldn’t be done, but they all seemed a bit made up on the spot – as if all they knew was that it usually wasn’t done, and felt the need to give a plausible reason why when questioned.

He pushed on regardless and eventually built a team to make it happen. He successfully raised the money, and his company is now publicly listed.

Why will people give you the wrong advice?

Unwillingness to consider change

Many people operate on the principle hasn’t been done before → can’t or shouldn’t be done.

If you’ve ever tried to change anything – including something tiny, like how an unimportant process is done at work – this won’t come as news to you.

My fund-raising friend’s lawyers and accountants were highly experienced in what they do, but they always did it in the same way. When presented with a different way, they defaulted to “no, that’s not how we normally do things so there must be something wrong with it”.

Unthinking belief in authority

In the jury service example, everyone believed that because it’s something very important that you’re very much meant to do, there “must be” some mechanism for making sure you actually do – or some consequences for punishing you if you don’t.

Logically, my friend thought this couldn’t be true. Would tracking down non-respondents be a good use of resources? If they did, how could they ever prove you received the letter and it hadn’t just got lost in the post?

When presented with this logic, no-one had a good response. But they continued to believe that there “must” be a way that the rules are enforced, just…because.

Most people’s belief in the power of authority is strong, even though whenever you encounter authority it rarely seems to have its act together.

Experts only have expertise in a very narrow area

Shouldn’t a lawyer know about the legal consequences of ignoring a jury service letter? Shouldn’t a a fund formation specialist know about every possible way of forming a fund?

You’d think so. But as it turns out, most of the foremost experts only have expertise in a very narrow area. If asked to step even slightly outside that area, they’re more informed than the average person but nowhere near as much as you’d expect.

When to listen to others, and when to trust yourself

So asking an expert doesn’t necessarily work, and nor does asking lots of people and trusting the answer that comes up most frequently. How, then, can you know when you’re on the right track and when you should listen to objections?

  1. Give yourself a basic education in the subject. You need to know roughly how things work in this area to execute the next steps.
  2. Listen to the objections you hear. You probably won’t know enough to know if they’re valid, so just listen for now.
  3. Learn more to assess the reasons you’re given. You can now do a bit more research to either validate the objections or question them.
  4. Question objections that you don’t trust. By now, you have the knowledge to gently push back or question when you hear an objection. This is the point at which you’ll often hear a lot of bluster, as it turns out the person doesn’t really have a solid position. Use your judgement to determine whether you believe the judgement, and repeat steps 3 and 4 if necessary.
  5. Default to trusting yourself. It’s hard to be 100% confident in yourself when you have experts and/or multiple people telling you you’re wrong. But by the time you’ve been through these steps, you can default to trusting yourself: as these stories have hopefully demonstrated, you’ll be right far more often than you’d expect.

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