A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” L. Mencken, American Satirist
During a recent conversation with a close friend about a high-profile politician’s motivations, my friend said, “You’re a cynic.” I corrected him and said, “No, I’m a skeptic.” It turns out, neither of us were quite right. When it comes to politicians, I am very much a cynic, but in most other regards, I’m a skeptic.
Distrust And Verify
“It takes a clever man to turn cynic and a wise man to be clever enough not to.” Fannie Hurst, American Author
We’re all skeptics and cynics in some aspects of our lives. Having a jaundiced view of politicians is understandable, but in a business (and in your personal relationships), cynicism can be a deathknell.
A skeptic questions the world about her, seeking the truth, yet basing her opinions on the most recent, most credible facts. In contrast, a cynic feels no need to seek the truth because they believe they already possess it.
I recently read Island, Aldous Huxley’s final book. In contrast to his other dystopian novels, it explores a fictional utopian society located on a South Pacific island called Pala. The book’s protagonist is a young Englishman, a self-proclaimed cynic who proudly describes himself as, “The man who can’t take ‘Yes’ for an answer.” He knows with absolute certitude how the world operates.
Throughout the novel, the natives of Pala share their philosophies and insights with the jaded young man. At one point, a villager explains the difference between faith and belief, saying: “Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Faith… can never be taken too seriously. Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know.”
Huxley was referring to knowing oneself. However, his comments also apply to optimizing business decisions made with limited information and a bias to changing direction when presented with additional information.
Cynics are without faith, yet they have absolute certitude of the validity of their beliefs. Skeptics are doubtful believers, always questioning the legitimacy of their certainty. Skeptical entrepreneurs operate on empirically justified faith, not unchallenged beliefs.
Be A Flexible, Skeptical Contrarian
“There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.” Maya Angelou, American Poet
Skeptical contrarians question conventional wisdom, where appropriate, but not as a reflexive response. They zig when everyone is zagging. A skeptic accepts conventional wisdom until presented with information that leads her to a differing opinion. In contrast, a cynic rejects conventional wisdom outright, without analysis or a studied critique.
Being skeptical of conventional wisdom is healthy and can lead to the discovery of massive entrepreneurial opportunities. However, cynicism that automatically rejects conventional wisdom is intellectually lazy and foolish.
Be A Self-Skeptic And Prove Yourself Wrong
“I discourage passive skepticism, which is the armchair variety where people sit back and criticize without ever subjecting their theories or themselves to real field testing.” Tim Ferriss, American Author
The highest form of skepticism is to be a self-skeptic. Successful entrepreneurs accomplish this by overcoming confirmation bias, which psychologists define as, “A tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to errors.”
Savvy leaders reject dogmatism and doubt their own suppositions. This mindset allows them to focus their energy on making intellectually honest decisions which consider all the available information, rather than seeking to “be right.”
Unlike a cynic, who is certain everyone is wrong, the only thing a self-skeptic is assured of is that they might be wrong. Like the inhabitants of Huxley’s utopian island, self-aware entrepreneurs rely on their fact-based faith to seek the truth, without regard to unsubstantiated beliefs.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse