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McLEOD: Why people who think they know everything are usually wrong

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Are you like Galileo?

Or do you approach life more like a frightened Roman?

In 1663 Galileo Galilei was jailed as a heretic for having the audacity to suggest that the earth moved around the sun. The man whose groundbreaking work marked the dawn of modern astronomy was convicted of heresy because he had the gall to tell the people of Rome that the sun did not actually rise and set upon them.

Am I the only one who sees the dark humor in a genius being jailed for telling people (literally) that they are not the center of the universe?

During his trial, Galileo's theory known as "heliocentrism" was denounced, and he was instructed to "abandon the doctrine, not teach it to others and not to defend it."

Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment, later commuted to house arrest for the rest of his life. Which just goes to show how far some people will go to prove themselves right.

When the controversy around him was heating up, Galileo wrote a letter to Johaness Kepler, a German mathematician, in which he expressed his frustration that the people who opposed his discoveries refused to even look through his telescope.

The truth was right there in front of them, but they refused to see it because it conflicted with their long held beliefs.

It would be easy to write off 17th century Romans as unenlightened. But how many of us haven't acted the same way when our beliefs are challenged?

I remember a sales manager in one of our workshops whose head almost exploded when we suggested that perhaps his salespeople wait until the second interaction before presenting their products.

"That will never work," he said. "Our customers expect us to do it this way. It's the way everyone does it."

The senior leadership of his organization had already determined that their current method was no longer effective, and we had tons of data to support our approach. Yet there he was, beet red, eyes blazing, looking like he was defending one of his children, all because we had dared to suggest that perhaps it was time to alter his paradigm.

Of course, I'm the same woman who once almost came to blows with her mother-in-law over whether or not a six-week old baby should be given rice cereal.

We're naturally attached to our own point of view. And when something important to you -- like your job or your child -- emotions can run high. The problem is, once you develop a perspective on the "right" way to do something, it's often hard to see the merits of any seemingly conflicting information.

Whether it's the proper way to behave in church, the best way to run an IT project, or how to handle money, once we develop a belief system, we become convinced that our perception is the truth -- the whole and complete truth, no more data required.

So we stop asking questions, and often wind up spending more time defending our "truth" than we do exploring new information.

His fellow Romans were convinced they already knew everything, yet when Galileo gazed to the heavens, he saw mystery and questions.

My favorite Galileo quote is, "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered. The point is to discover them."

People who believe they're right about everything are rarely at the forefront of anything. Galileo was a curious fellow. How about you?

Snellville resident Lisa Earle McLeod is a keynote speaker, consultant, and the best-selling author of "The Triangle of Truth." Sign up for her newsletter at www.TriangleofTruth.com.