Emotion for Thought.

Emotion for Thought.

From T.S. Eliot’s essay, The Perfect Critic, for the literary journal Athenaeum in 1920:

“The vast accumulations of knowledge – or at least of information – deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.”

Tom Nichols explores this theory in great detail in his brilliant book, The Death of Expertise. Tom is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School, is frequently a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and left the Republican party after Susan Collins’ yes-vote on the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. I don’t always agree with him, but his book is an eye-opening must-read for anyone wishing to maintain their sanity in a world of distraction.

Today we have celebrities giving advice on vaccinations, Gwyneth Paltrow heading a health publication that warns against the dangers of completely-safe things like bras and sunscreen and zealously promotes controversial, unscientific and outright dangerous things like cleanses and vaginal steaming.

She promotes getting stung by bees in order to “safely reduce inflammation or heal an old injury.” Bad advice for a guy like me who is deathly-allergic to those buzzing little bastards.

If you’re scratching your head, wondering how in the world someone like Gwyneth Paltrow has convinced millions of women to do things that board-certified doctors say are outright dangerous to your health, look no further than the quote by T.S. Eliot from 1920.

When we do not know enough, we substitute emotions for thoughts.

This is one of many reasons why I’m a vocal critic of the AAO’s public awareness campaign. They fail to accurately understand the pony they’ve saddled in their attempt to educate the public about the benefits of seeing an orthodontist. They are at least 50% (if not 100%) wrong about their positioning and media channels. They completely misunderstand a missed opportunity in the power and exceptional ROI of live events and they have boldly placed one foot in the grave of obsolescence. Can’t say I didn’t warn them.

I’ve called the AAO advertising assessment “hidden language, loosely translated as throwing the association’s money into a black hole.”

I’m not loved for this by my peers. My shining of light on the cold, hard facts makes association leaders squirm in their seats. I’m sure Tom Nichols and his publisher’s attorneys are not loved by Goop and Gwyneth for essentially calling her a wacko.

Smile Direct Club, corporate dental outfits and future competitors on our horizon understand the substitution of emotion for thought and are not shy about leveraging it. I’m not here to comment on the moral, ethical or legal components to this approach, I’m simply here to remind you how the world operates, not how we wish it would operate.

When I entered a market with at least 10-12 too many orthodontists for the population, I didn’t do it in a shy way. I hired a third-party research firm to interview and survey over 10,000 families in my prime demographic and I set about violating every single industry norm that my future patients hated.

I made myself a hero in the eyes of consumers who didn’t like inconvenient appointment times, limited availability, nosebleed fees and financing and zero removal of risk my peers offered in the market. I hit hard on the emotional reasons why someone might trust one provider over another.

I quickly morphed from “cute and harmless new orthodontist” to fiercely-loathed competitor who everyone knew would be open at 7pm with the lights on and parking lot full, while every other orthodontist was driving home from the golf course. I found their margin and I ate it for lunch.

No. Business is not always nice.

I forced myself to eat a strict diet of thought, not emotion, even while I leveraged it for everyone else to find their way to one of my offices.

This is the dirty little secret about every successful business, organization, movement or political cause. They start out like Martin Luther nailing his Manifesto to the church door in 1517, tearing apart everything people take for granted in the status quo.

* It happens to help if what you nail to the door is accurate, ethical and morally-aligned with the mission to serve others, deliver value and make progress for your community or profession, but never confuse the difference between emotion and thought in this pursuit. One will earn you a king’s ransom. One will leave you out in the cold, scratching your head. Understand this for what it is, not how you wish it to be.

I find it both instructive and inspiring that T.S. Eliot knew this nearly 100 years ago and articulated it perfectly for a culture today that can’t look up from their smartphone long enough to focus on the horizon for a split second.

You are smarter, however, and see all of this for what it is. When you guard against the tendency to substitute emotion for thought, you will suddenly see this behavior everywhere around you. Put it to good use.

Worked at Burleson Orthodontics. Attended University of Missouri–Kansas City. Lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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