Everything You Think You Know, You Learned From Television

Everything You Think You Know, You Learned From Television

Do you ever think about how little you actually know about jobs/careers/circumstances you haven't personally experienced?

We tend to believe we know a lot more about what happens outside of our realm of experience than we actually do. I think a big part of this is how much entertainment we consume that depicts areas of life outside of our personal realm of experience.

Think about how many cop dramas, legal shows, medical shows, or sitcoms you've been exposed to over the years, just as an example. And think about something that most of us on here actually have experienced firsthand: office jobs or tech jobs.

Silicon Valley and The Office are comedies, sure, but for someone who doesn't work in those fields it might be the ONLY exposure they get to those worlds. You don't take them seriously because they're comedies, but they still inform your mental model by hinting at what life is like in those kinds of jobs.

The thing is that ALL the media we consume contain sensationalized depictions filtered through the lens of the writers. Who themselves are bringing their own biases and experience into the worlds they depict. I have no idea what the day to day of a show writer is like, except maybe from what I've seen on 30 Rock which is one of the few shows that even touch on this.

Earlier this year I had to appear in court to settle a dispute over a property purchase which had gone south and it was maybe the second time in my life I've been in a courthouse and the first time I've been through any kind of legal proceedings like that. I got exposure not only to my own proceedings, but I also got to watch some of the other cases play out.

A thing that struck me was how very WRONG my mental model for courtroom proceedings was, and I'd never even consciously formed that model. I don't care about courtroom dramas, never been a big Law and Order fan, but I've caught snippets and seen dramatizations of trials and been exposed to things like The People's Court and snippets from media trials. I had formed assumptions about what judges and lawyers do. And it turns out those assumptions were INCREDIBLY wrong and flawed and sensationalized. Things are a lot slower and more mundane and boring than I had ever realized.

It's funny because I get similar feels when I watch Silicon Valley. Like, okay, there are nuggets of truth here and little gestures toward real experiences, but it's SO silly and sensationalized and misrepresented compared to the day to day actual reality of working at a startup or in an office. And you assume that no one could possibly take it seriously or think that's what it's like.

I don't think people DO take it seriously--not consciously.

But as humans, we can't help but make models about how the world works, and we do that from whatever exposure we have. When you sit down and really THINK about what you think you know about the world, ask yourself how much of your model for how things work comes from books, TV, or movies.

You'll be surprised to realize that it's something like 98% of it.

This can't be helped. The number of things we can directly experience is SO small compared to the slices of life we can consume from media snippets. But no one exposes you to the boring stuff or ESPECIALLY the shady stuff.

A few years back I had an interesting firsthand experience of having some hack journalist misrepresent me on a local news website. He went to an event I was co-hosting and spent like thirty minutes interviewing me and I gave him lots of nice little talking points. When the article came out, he BARELY quoted me, and what he did quote was totally wrong.

His photographer, bless her, at least got the thrust of what I was trying to accomplish in her photo captions. I'm not going to make this a thread about the casual sexism of 20-something reporter dudes, but it was REALLY annoying that they highlighted the photo of me smiling and being cute as the article header and then didn't even bother to get the content right.

And the point is that people read that article and probably no one thought to question whether the content was correct or complete or accurate. It was a pretty basic piece about a local function. We tend to just absorb what we see if we don't have a good reason to doubt it.

This was eye-opening for me. How often must that happen even when people are TRYING to report or represent things faithfully or honestly? How much gets left out on the cutting room floor? How much of what gets presented to you is just posturing and marketing?

A lot.

It's also been fascinating as I've climbed up the corporate ladder and been exposed to more of the machinations of what goes on, and not even THAT exposed. You might be shocked at just how dirty business is a lot of the time and how much of marketing is PR control.

Some of the ideas and proposals I've bumped into and seen casually tossed around kind of shocked me, especially at smaller companies. You're literally sitting in rooms with lawyers listening to people talk about "what you can get away with" and settling is as easy as doing it.

But this also isn't a thread about corporate malfeasance at small firms. I think I tend to be cynical about corporate platitudes of goodness because I've experienced it firsthand and have seen some of what goes on.

This is about me taking that experience and looking outward. Because in any reasonably large hierarchy, you just can't manage information very effectively. It's very very hard.

I remember people complaining about the budgeting process for a Fortune 500 I worked at once. Someone else said, "When you find a better way to do this, call me"

It's not even malfeasance (sometimes). It's just overwhelming scale. But it makes me wonder about careers and industries I have ZERO actual exposure too.

How often are people papering things over and fudging numbers and lying and hiding embarrassing stuff? My sense is that this happens CONSTANTLY, everywhere, all the time, because it's human nature.

You put your best foot forward, show your good side, try to sweep the bad stuff under the rug. But we form expectations of other people and other industries based on the behavior we observe, and the thing is that we haven't actually observed much at all. We've consumed a carefully-manicured construct filtered through several layers of abstraction.

I see this with politicians a lot too. Like, people complain all the time that politics is shady and grumble about legislators and so on.

Have you considered that this might be completely necessary to their jobs and that you're not seeing the whole picture? Or I've watched younger friends react with indignation about superiors misrepresenting information to them or doing things they don't understand.

But having not been in those roles, they're not seeing the whole picture. Often what they're doing is taking the small slice of the information and actions that they're exposed to and holding it up against their mental model of what they THINK someone in that role should be doing, and judging the person for not doing it better.

We all do this. And like... when I look at something like health care, or foreign domestic policy, or the legal system, or tax policy, I feel like it's SO hard to form good opinions about what is good and bad and wrong and right given how little I really know, if I apply this model outward. I've never been to war. I've never worked in a hospital. I've never been a trial lawyer. I've never lived in a condo in NYC. I've never worked for a TV studio.

Why do I let myself believe that I know anything meaningful about any of these things? My takeaway here is that the world is SO much messier and chaotic than any of us really think it is. Also it tends to be a lot slower and more boring than you'd probably believe.

It's not just your job that gets misrepresented in media. And you really appreciate it when you start doing things like writing scripts or writing fiction. Writers pick and choose highlights and then sensationalize them, like a photoshopped instagram reel, when they present the world to you. And all media starts with writing.

Challenge yourself for a moment: What do you REALLY know about the day to day of a Senator? The President? A janitor? A cop? A research scientist? And forget more obscure jobs like astronauts or zoologists or archaeologists. I think it's interesting how often we implicitly assume we know something about all of this stuff based on our media consumption and we just don't.

As always, the next place I go is what, if anything, I should do with this observation. And the best thing I can think of is that rather trying to learn about all of the different nuances of different industries that I can't possibly hope to internalize in my lifetime, I should instead look at patterns in human nature (which is obviously a pet topic here). Which probably boils down to trying to analyze someone's actual values, as much as you can, rather than their actions (since your model is flawed and you don't see all their actions).

Basically what I'm trying to say is you should assume that most of what you think about the world is probably wrong, especially in an era of so much media consumption, and the only thing you can reason from is pattern analysis based on firsthand experience.

I'm trying to make a case for being less judgmental of the actions of others based on what we think they should be doing or what we think we'd do in their place.

And be more thoughtful and open and curious when people suggest that we might not have any idea what we're doing when making assumptions about or relying on mental models of situations we haven't experienced directly.

This may not hold for things that you've actively tried to understand better. I'm speaking about understanding of things we've absorbed without active intent to learn from media and the world around us. Another good thought:

@vgr says: "It’s all flawed understanding and shaky judgments, and inseparable from belief anyway, so I personally prefer to censor my actions very parsimoniously rather than judge my judgments. As in “he’s an asshole, but don’t do anything to cause him pain because default don’t cause pain”

And a final grim reflection on all this from @pavedwalden:

"Read the first 12 tweets of this thread and think about the feedback loop where every new cop begins with a mental model derived from movies & TV. Over time, does that shift how a department functions to be more like the collective imagination?"

Strive hard for clear thinking, patience, and humility in what you think you know about the world.