You know nothing, so always put data before rhetoric

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There is no way to avoid conflict in everyday life. Sonner or later, you encounter some kind of incompatibility between you and another subject or force. Conflicts always brings tension and drama, but they aren’t necessarily bad.

Actually, conflicts are mandatory for new, better and more creative ideas to arise. The main prerequisite for conflicts to be productive is to keep them under control.

We know several main types of conflicts:

  1. Man against self
  2. Man against man
  3. Man against society
  4. Man against nature
  5. Man against god/faith
  6. Man against supernatural
  7. Man against markets
  8. Man against robots (with the rise of AI)

There are many different ways to keep conflict under control and prevent its escalation. Show respect to all other parties involved. Don’t criticize ideas, use them as an input to be even more creative. Don’t focus on blame, instead focus on finding the best solution.

You don’t have to be always right and you should never put your ego in front of learning or trying something new. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification and follow other guidelines of good communication. Use humor, stay kind but express your opinion, and so on.

Nevertheless, by far the best advice that doesn’t only keep tension under control, but also leads to the fastest progress possible, is putting data before rhetoric.

Data before rhetoric

Superior rhetoric skills must present zero advantage

Scientific research has shown over and over again that very heterogeneous interdisciplinary teams perform by far the best in non-routine challenges. I strongly believe that this fact applies to business teams as well as to teams in personal life, for example family or a specific group of friends.

For a group of people to function, there absolutely have to be common interests, visions and goals, but the greater the diversity of members, the crazier are the ideas, solutions and suggestions that have the chance to arise.

Nevertheless, diversity brings tension. Some people handle verbal tension better than others. Even more, some people have great advantages when discussions get heated. Because some people are verbally more assertive than others, and a few people are shy introverts (like I am) who get scared to the bones in big arguments.

Usually every group of people includes one or two individuals who are very assertive communicators and have an ability to strongly fight for why their arguments make the most sense; even if they might not. They verbally overpower other team members and that kills the collective brainpower. It’s a disaster.

In any team that wants to perform well, superior rhetoric mustn’t be any advantage. Team culture must allow a shy introvert to speak as much and as passionately as the verbally strongest extrovert. Google did a big research on the best performing teams, and their data indicated that psychological safety was critical to making a team work, more than anything else.

All arguments are equal until they are put to the test.

There were two indicators of psychological safety: firstly, team members spoke in roughly the same proportion, in other words there was equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking (introverts, extroverts, shy people and the strongest rhetoric).

Secondly, all the good teams had high social sensitivity, meaning team members were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Agreeing to always put data before rhetoric is a great way to set the basic rules of teamwork, indicating that all arguments are equal until they’re put to the test. Every idea counts, and all the main ideas should get tested.

There is no need for tension to escalate when you put data before rhetoric

Humans get creative ideas. Humans have inspirations. Humans have opinions. Data and metrics do the validation. Instincts are experiments and data is proof.

Zero always invites imagination and when you are at zero, there is a huge space for egos, opinions and arguments to fight based on assumptions. But wrong assumptions are the mother of all fuckups. That’s why every assumption and prediction needs to be tested. With one exception.

Instincts are experiments and data is proof.

The only way you can predict things with high accuracy is if you have a long and stable history. The longer and the more stable the history, the more accurately you can forecast short-term future.

And there is no way to predict long-term future. Nobody knows what will happen in 3 years. But short-term history is in many cases a good basis for predicting short-term future.

Practical examples

If you haven’t exercised for the past three months or even years, there is a high probability that you won’t exercise tomorrow. A partner who cheated on all of their exes is very likely to cheat on their next partner.

But when you’re trying new things, experimenting and brainstorming new ideas, you rarely have accurate historical data you could rely on. Thus all the ideas, arguments and convictions are nothing but untested assumptions – hypotheses. Nobody really knows what will work and what won’t. That’s why assumptions need to be tested.

Here’s an example. There is a lot of conflicting advice regarding diet online. Do calories matter or does only the type of food you eat matter? Does eating meat make you more tired or not? Should you eat before sleep to gain muscle or is it the number one way to gain fat? Should you eat five small meals or two large ones?

For every argument, you can find scientific studies, testimonials of fitness professionals, people claiming that this one piece of advice changed their life etc. At the same time you can find scientific studies and testimonials for the opposite advice to work perfectly. You can find dozens of studies why tomato is healthy and why it’s not.

So what is the best solution, to listen to the loudest message out there or to put things to the test and see what works for you as an individual?

When you decide to put everything to the test, there is no need for an argument. You can have a heated discussion to brainstorm the best ideas and inspirations, but then you just have to do experiments to find the thing that enables you the fastest progress towards your vision and goals.

There is never one single way to the goal and there is no single success recipe that would work for all people.

Instead of wasting energy in a pissing contest, direct the team’s energy into the following:

  1. Gather all the ideas and make sure they’re as diverse and crazy as possible
  2. Rank the ideas in the order they’ll be tested in (set a system that makes sense depending on your goals. Have a voting system or any other kind of system, don’t allow that one person with the strongest ego to tell you how things should be ranked.)
  3. Define metrics that will measure real progress
  4. Define with what kind of experiments you will get the data
  5. Perform the experiments, gather the data and see what works better
  6. Re-rank ideas and do additional experiments
  7. Never stop experimenting, doubt and test everything

Today, technology can do a lot of measuring for you. You have so many different devices, apps and tools to measure feedback.

To determine how you are progressing, you can employ different life metrics, biofeedback metrics, you can do split tests, online experiments or even use subjective things like scales from 1 to 10 or the happiness index. You don’t need anything really complicated to measure your progress, you aren’t trying to win a Nobel prize, you’re just trying to make better decisions based on better data.Machine validate

Other benefits of putting data before rhetoric

There are many other benefits of putting data before rhetoric. Not only do arguments based on opinions get reduced, you also:

  • Don’t get lost in a fake feeling of progress,
  • can only manage things that you measure,
  • get the answers to what really works and gives you the fastest progress, and
  • in the end, metrics should drive your behavior.

Metrics are what should be leading you to decide what you will start doing in life, what you will stop doing and what behavioral patterns you will continue to perform. Metrics are the ones that should tell you if you persevere at something or pivot to something else.

The painful fact is that you are forced to face reality when you put data before rhetoric, but living in a lie or in an illusion brings only short-term comfort and much bigger long-term pain. The sooner you admit to yourself where you are, the faster you can start to progress and improve.

Only metrics can show you the hard reality and only metrics can take you from dreaming and being at zero to measuring your real progress, performing and achieving massive success.

Testament to put data before rhetoric

You can’t just put data before rhetoric. People’s egos are just too strong. Even if you’re performing an experiment on your own and there are no other people involved, your ego will always block you and give you headaches. So you must consciously agree on some very basic rules.

The first rule you must become okay with is that it’s not about being right, it’s about finding the fastest way to validated learning and progress. You shouldn’t have any problem being wrong. You should expect that you’re wrong.

And then you shouldn’t have a problem accepting a different view, angle or action that works better than yours. Because you’re always wrong before you’re right. Steve Jobs had no problem being wrong, and you shouldn’t have a problem with it either.

The next rule is that almost all ideas should be put to the test. Especially the crazy ones. I know it’s a matter of resources and you can’t test truly everything, but the point is to never ditch ideas that sound crazy or for which the majority thinks they won’t work.

I did dozens of online A/B tests (ads, landing pages etc.), where I was completely sure that A will work better than B, but then the reality was a lot different. You never know what will work better.

Thirdly, you need to gather real valid data and then make decisions based on this data. You have to perform experiments scientifically, at least to some extent (that’s not as horrible as it sounds). You need to write down hypotheses, you need metrics and you need to conduct experiments.

When you get the results, the data must help you make a decision about what to do. If a metric only strokes your ego, it’s probably not a good metric. If metrics show you one thing and you do something else, you aren’t data-driven.

After performing an experiment, you need an answer to the question: what will I do differently based on this information?

Practical applications and examples

Before we look at a few examples, I have to emphasize a few more important facts regarding metrics. If you want for your metrics to make any sense, they need to be comparable and understandable.

Usually, they are a ratio or rate and are connected to the core part of your goal. Metrics set in the right way illustrate cause and effect, and lead you to what to do next. Nevertheless, they aren’t a magical solution; they just point you to the step to take next.

The big downside to putting data before rhetoric is that it takes a lot of additional effort, time and creativity to perform the experiments and gather the metrics. But s/he who progresses the fastest, succeeds the fastest. The effort pays off sooner or later. Putting data before rhetoric is part of a superior life strategy, it’s why some people are successful and others are not.

Now let’s look at a few examples for where and how you can put things to the test, instead of arguing what works and what doesn’t with other people.

Argument Counterargument Let’s find out
Learning to code is easy and everybody should do it. Learning to code is extremely hard. Dedicate 100 hours of intensive learning to coding and do an online test (solve challenges) to see how good of a programmer you’ve become.
Coffee is the best anti-oxidant with many health benefits. Coffee makes you anxious, you can’t sleep at night and it’s bad for your stomach. Drink a cup of coffee for one month in the morning and observe what’s happening to your body, sleep, productivity etc. You can measure how long you can work in a day, you have devices that measure the quality of your sleep …
If you eat before sleep, you will get fatter. It doesn’t matter when you eat as long as you’re in a caloric deficit. Eat before sleep for 4 weeks and don’t for 4 weeks, keep the same calorie levels and see what happens to your fat percentage.
Meditation will make you a calmer person. It’s impossible to meditate in today’s busy life and you only get nervous sitting in the same place for 20 minutes. Try to meditate for a month and mark from 1 to 10 how difficult it is to follow and how calm you are before and after.
You can’t make money out of a hobby. There is always a way to make money out of a hobby. List all your hobbies, for every hobby write down several business ideas, pick the best one and try to make some money in your free time. Measure how much money you make. You can even test more ideas.
Life without a mobile phone in the afternoon is much more peaceful and calm. It’s impossible to live without a mobile phone in today’s society. Turn off your mobile phone after you get home from your job for two weeks and measure your calmness level.
Too much attention in a relationship is not good. There always has to be a bit of distance. You should regularly invest a certain level of attention into a relationship to develop it to the deeper levels. Spend an additional hour with your partner without any distractions and technology, talk, touch, make love, tell each other jokes or whatever you like, and every day, mark on a scale how good your relationship is.

These are all simplified examples to illustrate the way to apply theory to practice. When you write down the hypotheses, you also need to define very well how the experiment will be performed and what kind of results will lead to what kind of conclusions.

When you’re defining metrics, note that there are metrics that are hard-core data (like body fat percentage) and there are data that are very subjective (like the happiness index). Here you can find more than 40 life metrics as additional ideas for experiments. Just make sure you aren’t using vanity metrics.

All others bring data - Deming quote


Do your first data-driven decision

Think of an argument you currently have in a team, with your friends, with your spouse or with any other person that’s part of your key relationships. Instead of continuing with the ego battles and opinions, decide for a different approach, the “data before rhetoric” approach. It will be fun.

Propose to the parties involved that you do a scientific experiment to find out which different arguments that people are having can be validated and which can’t. Think of metrics and what could be the experiment.

The moment you start talking about metrics and experiments, you will disinvest your ego, stay flexible in your thinking more easily, and more agile in angles of how you see life. On top of that, conducting an experiment will be super fun, as I mentioned.

Do experiments, gather and analyze the data, and see where it points. It’s not about who’s right, it’s about what works. In the last step, decide with all the parties involved how you will change your behavior, team culture or with what actions you will proceed.

After conducting the first few experiments, you will soon see every one of your beliefs, convictions, assumptions and ego opinions as nothing but hypotheses that need to be put to the test.

If you’re interested, here are my slides on the topic of metrics and putting data before rhetoric in startups. Maybe you’ll get some additional ideas for how to use these principles in your personal life.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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