Years ago, I was waiting for a train to the airport wearing a suit. I walked past, and someone asked me about my shoes. I explained them, and she asked, "Why don't you tell everybody about them?" I was fascinated by the question because I don't typically care to discuss anything that doesn't come up in conversation. Little did I know that this question was going to be one of the most profound that I had ever been asked because it uncovered a relationship between beliefs, the truth, and social norms.
So what was it about my shoes that got her to ask that? Well, I had read an article on barefoot running—if I recall, it was around the time that Born to Run or a book like it came out—and wanted to test the idea that cushioning was hurting my foot's arches (the idea being that if you put support under a bridge's arch, it would collapse—it needs the stress to be solid). So I bought one of those barefoot shoes, the famous "toe shoes" called Vibram Five Fingers, and tried running with them. I had never felt such muscle and skin pain in my feet and lower legs in my life the first time I ran, and I learned quickly that my shoes were, in fact, changing the way that I walked and ran. I had a thundering heel stomp that just would not work without cushioning. As such, I began to wear more of these types of shoes as they became manufactured, from running shoes to casual shoes to finally dress shoes. I had completely changed my entire shoe collection over the next few years, and some were more obviously not normal shoes than others.
Anyone who asked me about them (funniest interaction: a British woman asked me, "How do you find them?" and I responded, "Down the street," thinking she was asking me how to get them and not how I liked them), I would explain. If anyone would talk about health and fitness, it might come up in normal conversation. My Vibrams were the most talked about because of the "finger toes" (i.e., the individual slot for each toe), but occasionally others would notice or I'd point to them as to why I was an inch shorter than people I'm the same height as barefoot. In any case, I never thought to bring them up out of nowhere because I just don't see the point if I don't know whether someone would care.
Back to the train station interaction, the woman was sitting on a bench and, therefore, was close enough to the ground to notice that I was wearing dress shoes with no heels. That's when she asked me how I got shoes like that. Not knowing her actual degree of interest, I gave the shortest explanation I could: "Oh, they're 'barefoot shoes'—shoes without a heel or padding so your feet work as originally designed while still protecting your feet from the ground." She asked about their benefits, to which I explained that they claimed to be better walking and running form, fewer knee and back issues, and stronger feet and legs. I could only vouch for the stronger feet because of the muscle and arch strengthening I personally experienced. That's when she asked, "Why don't you tell everybody about them?"
I remember that conversation these years later not just because I don't interact with people much while commuting for my job; it was a fascinating question about how ideas spread. Everyone knows the famous phrase, "A lie will travel the world before the truth gets its shoes on." (play on words intended) As I have discussed many times in this blog, people don't care about what's true, they care about what benefits them. If you think about the kinds of information that gets spread, it's about benefit and not truth:
These are not meant to be perfect nor complete categories; the point is that information is exchanged for its benefit, not for its truth. Quite the contrary, people lie in conversations because it benefits them: they buy more of their product, think more highly of them, give them a job or promotion, network them with other people, or give them money or ideas. As a result, people spreading a certain point, whether it's barefoot shoes, veganism, CrossFit, or a certain political take, are doing so to get you to change your behavior given the information—assuming that you will act the same as they do if you have the same information.
This all sounds good in theory, but life doesn't work as simply as hearing a piece of information and now acting in accordance with it. We all know this because if someone is saying something that is blatantly false like "the world is flat" in a conversation with you, you won't automatically believe it. You've known your whole life that the world is round since you learned it from your family or school, and someone just making an interesting argument for it is not going to change your mind in a minute or two. Everyone sometimes hold onto their beliefs long past the point of being proven otherwise, so something that you know is completely wrong won't sway you even with a good argument.
And that's the point of today's post: popular, believed, and true are three entirely different things. Politicians are popular (in terms of the fact that they won the majority of votes—insert your own joke here about whether any of them are actually popular) but not believed by roughly half the country in a two-party system. There are plenty of beliefs that are not true, like microwaves "breaking down the molecular structure of your food" or the world being flat, and there are plenty of truths that are not popular or believed, such as the difference in how your foot works when you wear different types of shoes or the fact that ubiquitous government subsidies increase the price of education (any organization will charge as much as most people can afford—yes, I chose a contentious one knowing that many readers will not believe it so that you can see how it feels to have your beliefs challenged).
Yet people use each of these as proxies for the others: they assume something is true because they believe it (after all, you wouldn't believe it if it weren't true!); they assume they believe something because it's true; they assume something is true because it's popular; and sometimes they even believe something because it's popular—even, ironically, if they know it's not true (see: people believing in an improved stock market, educational system, etc. even as they see it degrading right in front of their eyes).
And that's the takeaway that I hope that you can take away today. You might know things that others don't, and so you might be better off doing the right thing instead of the popular thing. Or, you might do the popular thing to fit in even if you know it's wrong (intellectually or morally). Popular or believed does not necessarily mean true. There might be dozens of facts in obscure books that no one will ever read that might be some of the most innovative insights in the last century. People rely on credentialism, argument from authority, popularity, and other proxies for what is correct. And, of course, people who think they are right and want everyone else to know will, in fact, tell everyone they meet. Hence the popular joke, "A vegan, a libertarian, and a CrossFit enthusiast walk into a bar. How do you know? Because they've already told you!" But if you are "in search of truth" in life, you'll find a lot of it is far from popular belief.
I can tell you from personal experience, as I sat down and spent 7 years writing a book about the top eight drivers of a person's sense of meaning in their lives, The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose, and I cited over 150 source and explained the causal, evolutionary relationship between the eight drivers and someone feeling fulfilled in borderline excruciating detail (words like "tome" and "textbook" were used in reviews to stigmatize its length). Since I published it on my own and didn't spend much money on marketing or promotion, it wasn't an overnight bestseller or anything. Just like I mentioned above, I made the trade-off of accepting a reduced ethos to write what I wanted to write and explain it in the way that I wanted to explain it. No deadlines, no boss, and no outside pressure in exchange for no support, no marketing, and no social proof or authoritative endorsements.
I have some amazing reviews from people who actually read it and connected the dots for how they could use millennia of study on human nature to inject their lives with more purpose, and I also have some people who didn't read it (or even buy it!) who come by to spread false information about what the book says (my favorite is where it raises a question that I literally answer on the second page of the whole book—they couldn't even be bothered to read one whole page that they could've read for free in the Amazon preview window before writing a long review about how I didn't address certain things). As discussed in this post, people care much more about reputation, brand, authority, confirmation of their own beliefs, or touching stories that move them than they ever do about facts, evidence, or logical argumentation. But the truth, facts, and scientific evidence might be out there already for you to discover—not just in my book about life or about the science of zero-drop, un-cushioned shoes but about many things in life that you won't stumble upon in popular news stories or social media posts because no one will read them.
So if you discover a brand-new way of designing a product, a new genre of music, or a new idea for a restaurant or an exercise program, it could be that it is correct and that no one thought about it or tried it yet. Yes, it could also be a terrible idea—you won't know unless you either try or witness someone else try it. Even then, it might only be useful for some people and not for most, making it niche and unpopular even at its best. But if you care about truth, then what people believe or what's popular isn't your goal—as we discussed, though, people care more about outcomes/benefits than truth. So if you feel like you can make a decision, take an action, or spread an idea that has benefit, you are welcome to do so. You might be right or you might be wrong, so it's up for you to decide what to do about that. Just don't let others crush your dreams, gaslight you, or otherwise pressure you into doing what is not right for you just because something else is popular or assumed to be true. Just because everyone doesn't know about it doesn't make it untrue.