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What Mark Twain Knew About Life (and Business, Love, Work, Travel)
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. – Mark Twain
When engaged in an argument with someone, there are a number of lines of reasoning which I tend to reject out of hand. For example, if someone argues that such and such a policy is virtuous based on the fact that Wall Street has responded positively and stocks have risen, I will call foul. Or, if someone were to give me business advice based on the fact that they have an MBA and therefore know better, I would tell them I could give a hoot about their Master of Business Administration.
Similarly, the moment someone tells me that such and such a behavior or belief must be correct because it is what the majority of people do or believe, I tune out. It’s usually just not worth continuing the discussion.
Truth be told, Mark Twain’s wise words have gotten me through more than a few dark times in my life. There was that time when the majority of voters in America re-elected a certain president to a second term (I’ll let your imagination run with which one I’m talking about). I consoled myself with the idea that the majority of voters who had re-elected this fellow were likely to be wrong in their judgement, even if they were the majority.
There was also the time when I decided not to go to a well-regarded Washington D.C. university — where I was set to study international relations and business — and instead to attend an out-of-the-way graduate program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to study philosophy and the Classics. I bet the majority people would have said I was crazy to give up the chance at such a marketable degree to spend my graduate degree years reading Aristotle and Kant. But I did it anyway.
By now you probably get the picture: I have a certain disdain for the majority opinion.
There is a fantastic scene in Mad Men where Don Draper voices a similar disdain. His public opinion guru, Dr. Faye Miller, has concluded after focus testing a group of young women that the best way to market a beauty product is to link it to the promise of matrimony. Don had wanted to run a campaign based on the women’s desire to pamper themselves and appear beautiful, but according to the focus group, women just want to get married. “I’m not going to do that,” replies Don, when confronted with the majority opinion.
“I can’t change the truth,” says Dr. Miller.
“How do you know that’s the truth? A new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to come up as an option. Put my campaign on TV for a year, then hold your group again, maybe it’ll show up.”
The fact is, there a whole lot of people out there who don’t know what they want until someone tells them. Most people look to their peers to decide what to think and do. It’s a natural way to think, and social norms are an immensely powerful influencing force in our lives — more probably than we care to acknowledge. We look to our peers for guidance on any number of mundane and significant life matters, from what to wear, to what career to pick, to what sort of woman or man to marry.
What Mark Twain knew in his time, as he wrote American classics like Huckleberry Finn (or my personal Twain favorite, The Mysterious Stranger), was that any time you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. Think on this the next time you are tempted to enter a market that is already crowded with dozens of startups. Or the next time investors dump a particular stock en masse. Or the next time the NY Times travel page recommends an “off the beaten track” vacation destination. Because trust me, if the NY Times is publishing it in its travel section, it is no longer off the beaten track.
At this point I must note the customary disclaimer that yes, in some instances the majority will indeed be in the right. But that doesn’t mean it’s still not time to pause and reflect.
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