The Greatest Story My Father Ever Told (About Decision Making and Influence)
My father told me the following story when I was around twelve years old and it really stuck with me. It’s a wonderfully rich story full of life lessons, but I’m not sure where it originated. If anyone knows, please tell me. I’d love to give the writer credit.
Years ago, in a very small town, a large tractor-trailer truck got stuck under a low-hanging overpass. It was big news in the tiny town, so the citizens excitedly gathered around the scene to witness the aftermath of the event.
The accident caused a traffic problem because the road was now blocked. There was no exit to that overpass, so vehicles couldn’t get around the truck. Town officials tried several ways to remove the truck, but it wouldn’t budge. Out of ideas, the mayor asked the citizens gathered around for help. Ideas were offered, but quickly dismissed for one reason or another.
Then, a young man named Billy stepped forward with an idea. He was a quiet young man and the town thought him to be a little “slow.” It was completely unexpected when he assessed the situation with an intense gaze and said, “Let the air out of the tires.” Then he simply walked away.
The town leaders looked at each other in amazement. The solution was simple and easy and obvious. And it worked. Air was released from the tires and the driver carefully pulled the truck away.
Folklore of Billy’s genius grew over the years. Because he was such a private person, he gave no evidence that his reputation was unfounded.
Decades after the overpass event, there was another incident involving a tractor-trailer truck. It had driven off the road and into a lake. The town didn’t have the equipment needed to extract the truck, so once again the town leaders gathered to come up with a solution to a unique problem. After hours of debate, someone said, “Let’s ask Billy! He’ll know what to do.”
Billy arrived at the lake-site with a large crowd of excited townsfolk. They were eager to hear his clever idea. Like the scene from decades before, Billy stared at the situation with an intense gaze and said, “Let the air out of the tires.” And then walked away.
There are so many lessons to be learned from this story, but here are my top three that relate to decision-making and influence:
Avoid stereotyping. The townsfolk were wrong about Billy before and after the first event. Because he was a quiet and private person, he didn't give people enough information to make an accurate judgment about him. We misjudge people all the time. Our brains are wired to make snap judgments with very little information and then we look to confirm (not contradict) our initial impression. When the first impression is positive, we tend to exaggerate the positive qualities we notice in someone and visa versa.
Solution: Wait to make a judgment about someone. When you have been exposed to their behavior over an extended period of time, you will learn their average or typical behavior (aka their mean). In other words, allow people to regress to their mean.
Wonderful ideas can come from anyone, anywhere. The biggest business idea that I have ever been involved with came from an intern. It turned into a $140 million recurring business. Because she went back to school before her idea came to fruition, I doubt she ever knew how brilliant or successful her idea was.
Solution: expect big ideas to come from unlikely sources. Your job is to identify them when you hear them.
What am I missing? Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the godfathers of decision-making psychology, learned in the late 1960’s that even the most intelligent, well educated, experienced people are influenced by biases and heuristics—those blind spots that prevent us from making good decisions.
Solution: Seek the answer to the question, "What am I missing?" We often need someone else’s perspective to help us uncover our blind spots. It didn’t really matter that Billy was more or less intelligent than the other townsfolk. He had a different perspective that enabled him to find an easy solution to the original truck incident—an obvious solution that the others were missing.
Of course, the humor here was that Billy was a one-trick pony as far as accident solutions go. But, again, wonderful ideas can come from anyone, anywhere.
I hope you’ll find other lessons in this old story. I’m sure your perspective will find things hidden deep in my blind spots.
Become a member of the Persuadent today because persuasion is a skill.