Monthly Archives: October 2016

My Truth: The Dress is Really Gold

About a year ago, a craze swept the world: arguing whether this dress is blue or gold:


To me, the dress is clearly gold; to my daughter, it is clearly blue. We both swore we were right, and nothing either of us said could convince the other of bad eyesight. Truth is like that. Actual truth is largely irrelevant (the manufacturer claims the dress is really blue, although I don’t believe him); it is our perception of truth that really matters. That perception is the result of one’s prior experiences (or in the case of the famous dress, physical differences in the viewers’ eyes). And this is where we sometimes get into trouble. Different persons will interpret facts differently, based on their own prior experiences, which leads one person to question the knowledge, sincerity or credibility of the other.

The movie, The Truman Show,* tells the story of Truman Burbank, an insurance adjuster, who is an ordinary man living an ordinary life – or at least that’s his perception. The reality is, the place where Truman lives is a large TV studio with hidden cameras everywhere. All the people around him are really just actors playing parts in a reality TV show. But Truman’s reality is real to him, and that’s what matters. It is the only life he has ever known, being born on the TV show. For Truman’s truth (reality) to change, his perception of his life must change. Here is the final scene of the movie where Truman changes his perception of his entire life, and thus changes his truth:

If we want to change the world, then, we need to change our own or others’ perceptions of the world. Here are some examples from psychological studies of how our perceptions about ourselves can change the “truth” about ourselves:

  • Japanese researchers blindfolded 13 students and told them their right arms were being rubbed with poison ivy. The right arm of all these students broke out in a rash, even though the plant used was just a harmless plant, not poison ivy. More remarkable, the researchers rubbed actual poison ivy on the left arms of these same 13 students but told them it was a harmless plant. Only two of the students’ left arms broke out in a rash, although all were highly allergic to poison ivy.
  • Half of the cleaning staffs at seven different hotels were told how many calories their daily activities burned, and that vacuuming was similar to a cardio workout. The other half of these staffs were told nothing. During the study, those who had been primed to think of their work as exercise actually lost weight and their cholesterol levels dropped, even though they did no exercise outside of their work.
  • A group of Asian women were given similar math tests on two separate occasions. Before the first test, these women were told to think about the fact that they were women taking a math test (and so, according to the stereotype, worse at math than men). Before the second test, they were to focus on the fact that they were Asian (and again according to the stereotype, better at math than other ethnic groups). These women performed far better on the second test than the first.

As Christof, the creator of The Truman Show in the movie says, “We accept the reality of the world in which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.”

One potential problem with simply accepting the reality presented to us is that those perceptions often result in self-fulfilling prophecies. Because perceptions lead us to see the world in a certain way, we look for proof that our perceptions are accurate. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” The movie, Truth** portrays the attempts of newsman, Dan Rather, and his producer, Mary Mapes, to bring down a sitting U.S. President, running for re-election, by breaking the story that George W. Bush had gone AWOL while serving in the Texas Air National Guard. There was only one problem: the story was untrue. Rumors were flying that, thirty years previously, President Bush had joined the Texas Air National Guard to avoid the draft, and as the son of a former congressman who later became U.S. President, had received special treatment by the Guard. All Rather and Mapes needed to do was find evidence the rumors were true. Here is a short clip from the movie that sets out Mapes’ point of view from the outset of their investigation:

Mapes didn’t like men who abused their power. She saw President Bush as one of those, and set out to find the evidence that would confirm her perception of him.

Mapes and Rather found their evidence in memos written by Bush’s commanding officer, Jerry Killian, who was now conveniently dead. These memos showed Bush disobeying Killian’s direct orders to fulfill even minimal requirements of the Guard, followed by pressure from those higher up the command chain to let the infractions slide. But these memos were supposedly written in 1972, before the development of word processors, and a close look at the memos showed the words were proportionately spaced (which was impossible using the typewriters of the day). In addition, the memos were written in fonts that did not exist in 1972. And then it got worse. Another journalist noted that one of the memos mentions a commanding officer who had already retired. Another had an old address that Bush had stopped using before the memo was supposedly written. Killian’s entire family expressed doubt about their legitimacy. Even some of the experts that CBS had used to review the memos raised some concerns, but Rather, Mapes and all of CBS ignored them. As good reporters, Mapes and Rather should have easily noticed the flaws in their “evidence” but they didn’t because they had already concluded that President Bush was “guilty” and so saw the memos only from that perspective.

In the recent movie, The Girl on the Train,*** the suspense of the entire movie is based on perceptions of the truth versus actual reality. Since many of you might not have seen it yet, I won’t give away any of the details, but here is a scene where  Rachel (the girl on the train) and Detective Riley of the police have different perspectives about the same event:

You’ll have to see the movie (or read the book) to learn whose perspective is the accurate one, but both characters look for evidence that their perspective is the right one. Watch The Girl on the Train and watch or re-watch The Truman Show from the perspective of perspectives, and you’ll see how the truth changes when the characters’ perspectives change.

Unfortunately our actions are often no different than these movie characters. We are so intent on finding the evidence to prove our assertions that we often miss things that are right in front of us. Psychologists call this inattentional or perceptional blindness. A famous psychology experiment consists of a video of some athletes standing in a circle passing a basketball. Participants watching the video are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed between two of the athletes. As the video progresses, the task gets a harder when the athletes start switching places as they pass the basketball. After the video ends, the experimenter asks the participants how many passes they had counted. Then the experimenter asks what else they noticed in the video. Usually, the participants don’t notice anything else. What about the man in the gorilla suit who stands in the middle of the circle beating his chest? No one ever sees him. The experimenter plays back the video, and the participants are dumbfounded to now plainly see the gorilla they had missed before. When we take confirmation bias and add to it perceptional blindness, suddenly our perceptions of truth can lead us very far from reality.

So the next time you are talking to a family member, friend, neighbor or work associate about religion, politics or any other subject, and you think you are speaking THE TRUTH, remember the other person most-likely feels the same way about their side. Because everyone is different, with different backgrounds and experiences, our perceptions of truth are different. If you want to change someone’s truth, you must change that person’s perceptions. And that starts with understanding where the other person is coming from. But before you go about changing the world by changing others’ perceptions, keep in mind one of my favorite sayings, “Beware of half-truths, for you might have the wrong half.”


*The Truman Show

  • Production: Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions
  • Directed: Peter Weir
  • Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
  • Starring: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris and Laura Linney
  • Release Date: October 9, 1998


  • Production: Sony Pictures Classics, Echo Lake Entertainment, RatPac Entertainment
  • Directed: James Vanderbilt
  • Screenplay: James Vanderbilt (based on the book by Mary Mapes)
  • Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, and Dennis Quaid
  • Release Date: October 30, 2015

***The Girl on the Train

  • Production: Amblin Entertainment; DeamWorks SKG; and Marc Platt Productions
  • Directed: Tate Taylor
  • Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson (based on the book by Paula Hawkins)
  • Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, and Rebecca Ferguson
  • Release Date: October 7, 2016

Other resources:

  • Achor, The Happiness Advantage, Crown Business (Random House), 2010
  • McCardle, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, Viking Penguin, 2014
  • Covey, The Divine Center, Bookcraft, 1982
  • Banyai, Zoom, Viking, 1995

Misery is Optional

My father-in-law, Don Harris, had many sayings about life. One of his favorites was, “Trials and tribulations are mandatory; misery is optional.” He also liked to say, “Reality is for real.” Everyone’s life is filled with problems, some large, some small. As Forrest Gump would say, “It happens,” even when we don’t deserve it. And sometimes we turn small problems into large ones all by ourselves. It’s not avoiding trials that make us stronger; it’s what we do with the trials we face. As Henry Ward Beecher once said, “A cobweb is as good as the mightiest cable when there is no strain upon it.” So appreciate your problems. They are mandatory in this life. But misery is not. As the old sayings go, instead of crying over spilt milk, adopt the philosophy that a smile is a curve that will straighten out almost anything. Victor Frankl said it this way, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” Nietzche boiled it down to this: “He who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW.”

But effectively facing our challenges is not always easy to do. When it comes to dealing with the potholes of life’s highway, here are some great lessons I have learned from watching movies.

  1. Life is hard but we can do hard things. The movie, Unbroken,* tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, who survives 47 days in a raft after his plane is shot down during World War II, only to be caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, where he faces atrocity after atrocity inflicted by a sadistic Japanese officer. In this scene, Zamperini is first beaten by the Japanese officer, who then forces each of the other POWs to punch Zamperini in the face.


Like Zamperini, each of us has an amazing capacity to do hard things when we have to. If you think back over your own life, you’ll probably remember a time or two when, at the time, you were sure you couldn’t take any more, but somehow you did.


  1. Don’t say, “Why me? Say, “Why not me? Soul Surfer** is the true story of 13 year-old Bethany Hamilton, a champion surfer who is attacked by a shark and loses her left arm. She must re-learn everything using only one arm. In this scene, she wonders why her life had to change so radically. “Why me?” is a question we often ask when things go wrong:



When bad things happen to me or my family, I try to find someone else who is struggling with something much harder than what I’m facing. And that someone is usually pretty easy to find. Looking at others has at least two important effects. First, it helps me be grateful that my challenge is not worse than it is. I realize I can handle my own challenge much easier than I can handle someone else’s. So instead of asking why is this happening to me, I tell myself, well, why not me; this is a challenge I can deal with. Second, and perhaps more important, seeing others with challenges helps me focus on helping them rather than feeling sorry for myself.


  1. Use adversity as a chance to reassess and start over. Facing challenges usually brings along with it some kind of change – a change in a relationship, a new physical or mental challenge, or perhaps the loss of a job. Up in the Air*** is a movie about a group of consultants who are hired to do the dirty work of downsizing corporations – firing employees. In this scene, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) gives us some great advice about how to turn a job loss into something positive (sorry about the language):



  1. Focus on the big picture. In the original Karate Kid,**** Daniel, to protect himself from the local bullies, begins to learn karate from his teacher, Mr. Miyagi. But rather than practice karate, Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do chores around his house. He first must wash and wax all of Mr. Miyagi’s classic cars. Then he must sand his floors, stain the fence and paint his house. In frustration, Daniel complains to Mr. Miyagi, who then shows Daniel what has really been happening in this classic scene from the movie:



Like Daniel, we often see only the trial, task or problem right in front of us. It’s like a huge boulder is placed right in front of our eyes that we can’t see around. But by somehow finding the broader perspective, we realize we are gaining strength and learning skills that will help us later in life. Daniel finally realizes the tasks Mr. Miyagi has him do are not just work, but by doing them, he is learning all the major defensive moves of karate. In Soul Surfer, Bethany relies on guts and God to learn to surf again, and even competes in the national surfing championships. But more importantly, over time, she gains perspective. She realizes she can help others who are facing their own great challenges, concluding, “Surfing isn’t the most important thing in life. Love is. I’ve had the chance to embrace more people with one arm than I ever could with two.” So look for the big picture, but remember TTT (things take time). It may be years or even an entire lifetime before we develop the proper perspective about our experiences.


  1. Don’t try to go it alone. Louis Zamperini had his fellow POWs. Bethany had her family and God. Daniel had Mr. Miyagi. Each had someone to help them through their challenges. Burdens are lighter when there is someone sharing them. In Me Before You,***** Lou Clarke is hired by the family of Will Traynor, who, after a tragic accident, is a quadriplegic and has lost his will to live. Although she starts out as just an employee of Will’s family, her effervescent personally turns Lou’s and Will’s relationship from simple caregiver, to friends, to love, to the point where Will almost feels normal again. Will sums up their relationship by saying, “You are pretty much the only thing that makes me wanna get up in the morning.” Here is one of my favorite scenes:


The miserable, like misery, loves company. When life is getting us down, let’s find a teacher, a friend, a lover, and even God to share the burden. Better yet, let’s be that teacher, friend or lover who is willing to help bear others’ burdens. And remember my father-in-law’s motto for life: Smile always, except when laughing.



Production: 3 Arts Entertainment, Jolie Pas, and legendary Entertainment

Directed: Angelina Jolie

Screenplay: Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, and Domhnall Gleeson

Release Date: December 25, 2014


**Soul Surfer

Production: Enticing Entertainment, Island Film Group and Brookwell-McNamara    Entertainment

Directed: Sean McNamara

Screenplay: Sean McNamara and Deborah Schwartz

Starring: AnnaSophia Roob, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt

Release Date: April 8, 2011


***Up in the Air

Production: Paramount Pictures, Cold Spring Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Directed: Jason Reitmann

Screenplay: Jason Reitmann (based on the novel by Walter Kirn)

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick

Release Date: December 23, 2009


***Karate Kid

Production: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Jerry Weintraub Productions and Delphi Films

Directed: John g. Avildsen

Screenplay: Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita and Elizabeth Shue

Release Date: June 22, 1984


*****Me Before You

Production: MGM, New Line Cinema, Sunswept Entertainment

Directed: Thea Sharrock

Screenplay: Jojo Moyes

Starring: Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin

Release Date:  June 3, 2016

My Favorite Teacher: Experience

I have been blessed to have had many great formal educational experiences in my life. I am grateful for many school teachers who loaded my brain with knowledge. More importantly, I give thanks for those teachers who taught me how to think and to challenge conventional wisdom. And although I will always be indebted to great school teachers, the older I get, the more I especially appreciate one the greatest teachers of all – experience. Experience is the only thing most people get out of life. Unlike book learning, we almost always remember the lessons we learn from experience, especially when things do not go as planned. Said another way, we tend to learn a lot more from our failures than from our successes.

One of my many concerns about our current world is our paranoia over allowing those we love to fail. We give our kids trophies for merely participating in youth sports because we are too afraid they can’t handle not winning. We have become a nation of helicopter parents, as we hover over our children, not allowing them to experience the consequences of their decisions – if we let them make a decision at all. Megan McCardle, in her book, The Upside of Falling Down,* describes it this way:

This new generation was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.

McCardle points out some of the ramifications of this. One survey found that more than 45 percent of college freshmen had graduated high school with an A average. One high school had over 30 valedictorians because no one wanted to make a distinction among the kids. In poor schools, kids who can’t read are passed through to the next grade because it’s too much trouble – and an embarrassment for the teacher – to hold them back. But unfortunately, the world is different. There are winners and losers. The winners excel by setting themselves apart from the rest. The losers also set themselves apart for the rest, but the result is often the loss of a job, or worse, a loss of self-respect.

            As an old geezer, I realize we learn best through trial and error, especially when we fail, or at least when we get honest, accurate feedback. The movie, Ray,** tells the life story of Ray Charles, who started to lose his sight at age four as the result of glaucoma. He was totally blind by the age of seven. Under those circumstances, it would have been understandable for Ray’s mother, Aretha, to become a helicopter mom to Ray, hovering over him and helping him with (or actually doing for him) anything and everything he needed. But instead, as dramatized in this scene, Aretha let Ray fend for himself – and that made all the difference.

Currently, my favorite all-time movie is Slumdog Millionaire.*** There are many lessons I have learned from watching that movie (I will discuss some of those other lessons in later posts). But one great lesson from the movie is experience is the best teacher. Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of India, who plays India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Jamal, who has no formal education, is able to answer the game show questions by remembering certain experiences of his young life. In this clip, Jamal answers the second question by remembering how he became an orphan.

Let’s not be afraid to try and to fail, for every time you try and don’t succeed, you become an expert on at least one thing not to do.  As Aldous Huxley said it, “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” So try, fall down,  and get back up. Repeat as necessary.


*Megan McCardle, The Up Side of Falling Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, Viking, 2014.


Production: Universal Pictures, Bristol Bay Productions, and Anvil Films

Directed: Taylor Hackfield

Screenplay: Taylor Hackfield, James L. White

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Regina King, and Kerry Washington

Release Date: October 29, 2004

***Slumdog Millionaire

Production: Warner Bros., Celador Films, and Film4

Directed: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan

Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel by Vikas Swarup)

Starring: Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, and Saurabh Shukla

Release Date: December 25, 2008