Let’s Turn On our Brains!

If you haven’t seen it in the news, the US “Powerball” lottery jackpot reached epic proportions, for the first time exceeding the $1 billion threshold.

This news understandably created all sorts of hysteria. Beyond the mad rush to buy more lottery tickets, it has also led to circles in social media reframing the $1 billion-plus number into supposedly creative and “mind-blowing” reconfigured means of looking at that much cash.

Well, if I am mind-blown about anything, it has to be the number of supposedly bright and educated people on Facebook and Linked-In who blindly shared the simple post (in photo) that has been passed on already literally millions of times.

Now, in case you don’t see the issue, I would ask that you simply do the math.

It’s not $4.33 million for every one of the 300 million Americans. It is a mere $4.33. Take away the million. That’s how far the math is off!

It’s incredible how many educated folks passed this one on with their sentiments that this is a “great idea” and licking their chops thinking of what they could do with over four million dollars!

Research has shown that a person’s “first boss” is the single biggest factor of determining future success. Number one. The first boss sets the tone. Builds confidence. Lays the training groundwork. There is nobody more important. And all bosses reading this should fully understand the responsibility on their shoulders. Particularly if you are supervising new hires fresh out of school.

I was lucky in my career. I had a legend of a first boss, Tom Handley, who had an impeccable track record in developing talent. Tom taught me more about how to “turn on my brain” than anyone else and more, certainly, than university did. Far beyond rote memorization and cramming for exams!  The issue really isn’t brainpower. Or lack of math class. It’s simply a matter of whether one chooses to use their brain, to turn it on. Are they prepared to do the hard work Jung refers to?

Tom pulled me aside early on in my career and told me one day: “Jim, you are going to be inundated with reams of data in this job. Data is good. But you have to be careful not to just take it as gospel. Data can be wrong and often is. What you have to apply to any info you get is what I call, ‘A test of reasonableness.’ Does this data seem reasonable?  Does it make sense if you step back and reflect on it? Always use your head, and challenge data. Don’t just accept anything. Data comes from people and people make mistakes all the time. Apply the principle of the ‘test of reasonableness.’”

It was some of the greatest training I have ever received.

So let’s go back to the Powerball case. Let’s apply the test of reasonableness. Forget math skills. Forget IQ. Anybody can do this. Is it reasonable to assume a lottery is so big that it can really give 300 million people $4 million each? I mean, it’s only $1.3 billion!

If I apply the test of reasonableness to this, I would think for a moment. I would say, “Wait a minute, Bill Gates is worth $80 billion! Does this mean if Bill Gates were to give his fortune away to all Americans, we would each get 80 times 4.33 million, or over $340 million? Each one of us? So if I have five kids and am married, my family would get $340 million times seven of us? That would make me worth over $2 billion.

Forget the excitement of the number and think for a minute. If my family gets $2 billion, and Gates only has $80 billion, well, how does this work? I mean, that’s only enough money for 40 families the size of mine! We let the excitement of the answer turn our brains off.

No way can that math be right! And if anyone stopped for a moment, froze the zeal to just pass on a message we like (this is called judging!), and stopped to do one test of reasonableness, putting math skills aside, nobody would have forwarded this message. But it got millions of shares because people didn’t apply a test of reasonableness to it.

I have found the test of reasonableness to be the backbone of great strategic thinking in business. I see every day how powerful a tool this simple question is. It turns on the power of the human brain, a power each of us has. It’s not about intellectual capability. It’s not about where you studied. It’s not about whether you are good at math or not.  It’s about using the brain we have.

You meet a kid who slacks off in school, believing he will make it in the NBA. It’s not about yelling at him or coercing him. Teach him the test of reasonableness. Is this a reasonable plan? How many people does he personally know who made it this way? Wake up his brain, versus mandating yours onto him. Make him do the hard work of thinking.

It’s conceptually the same in a business. You are getting information all the time. Just like the Powerball math. It’s not gospel, it’s just math done by human beings, who are capable of making errors. Apply the test of reasonableness. Does this data make sense? Is it reasonable?

How many times have I received market-share data from a high-quality global vendor, a company full of PhDs in analytics and with an impeccable methodology. So they give you data and the inclination is to treat it as gospel truth. But kick in the test of reasonableness. And sometimes it gibes, and sometimes not. How many times have I challenged the data and said, “I just don’t believe it passes the test of reasonableness” and the vendor goes away, comes back, hat in hand, and apologizes for a “coding error”? Maybe 100 times over the years, maybe more.

Some people challenge everything as a matter of principle, but that isn’t thinking; it’s dogma. And that isn’t what I am referring to. It’s applying the test of reasonableness to what we see and hear. It’s a means of turning on the wonderful thing we all have called a brain. It’s the light switch.

And nothing is more crucial to today’s world. Our world is inundated with information 24/7. Data, statistics, people spouting all kinds of “facts” on media and the Internet. The only way to navigate this world is to become sharper in our thinking, to apply the test of reasonableness. If we believe everything we see and hear, we become nothing more than reeds in the wind, bending to whichever way the latest wind blows.

The more people do this, the less idiocy like the Powerball table gets sent around and recommended by otherwise clever people.

The people who do this are going to win in business, because they will navigate the data better than competition.

And, I suspect, the more people who do this, the less the odds of a Donald Trump ever being elected to any kind of public office.