Call me a skeptic. I own it.
But I’m not the negative, ‘talk to the hand,’ and ‘don’t-believe-anything-I-read’ variety. I’m referring to a well-thought-out and strategically positioned view of how I discern information. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of information out there to discern.
I started my professional career in Dallas at Arthur Andersen & Co., which at the time, was one of the most well-respected international accounting firms in the world, leading the industry in over $9 billion in annual revenue. The prestigious firm belonged to an exclusive club of top accounting firms known as the Big 8.
Arthur Andersen’s training was beyond reproach. The firm had a large educational center in St. Charles, Illinois near Chicago where I often traveled for training during my 4-year public accounting career. These training sessions would last from a couple of days to a full week or more. With dorms, classrooms, a dining hall and a bar, it was a full fledged university solely for the company’s employees. Sometimes it felt like I was spending more time in those training classes than actually working on audit engagements. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that training was an invaluable experience, a ‘boot camp’ of sorts, that I would carry with me throughout my entire career.
I left the firm many years before its name became synonymous with Enron and was plastered across ‘breaking news’ headlines. Arthur Andersen was the financial accounting auditor of Enron and in 2001 when the energy giant was found to have reported billions in revenue through accounting fraud, the Arthur Andersen empire came crumbling down. The accounting firm was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents related to its audit of Enron. And although the firm is no longer around, I’m grateful for the experience early in my career and most importantly, all of the training.
I moved to Music City in 1990 bringing those skills with me and 30 years later, I’m still using them in ways I never expected. One of those valuable lessons I was taught in auditing is developing a healthy level of skepticism. And in 2021, this skill has become more valuable than ever to navigate the vast amounts of information I receive both personally and professionally.
So what exactly does having a healthy level of skepticism mean?
First, I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean that you automatically do not believe the information you receive. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction that refutes any information you encounter. It’s not a filter that dictates that whatever someone says, there must be something wrong with it. And it’s not assuming that the data is incorrect. In fact, it’s not assuming anything at all.
A healthy level of skepticism is a subtle acknowledgement that not all information should be automatically accepted as factually correct and complete if it doesn’t meet some basic criteria of reasonableness and logic. In other words, a moment of discernment is taken to judge the information based on factors such as context, its source, reasonableness, completeness, etc.
Back in my auditing days, if I were reviewing a company’s financial records and found an excessive amount of costs in a particular line item compared to prior year expenses, my healthy level of skepticism would suggest I look for additional documentation supporting the large increase in expenses. In other words, I would want to talk to someone at the company and ask them to “show me the receipts.”
I’ve learned to apply this same principle to much of the information I encounter. In fact, I do it so automatically and effortlessly, many times I’m not even aware that I’m doing it.
We all know that social media is a mecca for erroneous information. I’m always surprised that more people don’t exhibit this healthy level of skepticism when sharing information. One quick click will let you know that those Kroger gift cards being promised for sharing a post is probably a scam if that Kroger page you’re looking at only has four photos posted. Or that RV that is being given away again because the winner was disqualified due to being from Canada or being under age is probably not legit if the company’s Facebook page only has one post. But people continue to share and post without regard. I’m not one to call people out, but it does affirm that many people haven’t developed an appreciation for a healthy level of skepticism. Remember back in the early days of email when you received notices from that Nigerian prince that wanted to send you money? Hopefully, we all exercised a healthy level of skepticism.
When I see a shared screenshot of a tweet or post, I don’t hesitate to go to the original publisher and confirm the source. Likewise, if a company on Facebook is promoting a product I’m interested in, one click on their page will show when their page was established. If it was just recently launched, I’m highly suspicious. And do you ever drill down on the reviews of products on Amazon? Don’t be surprised if some of the reviews you read aren’t even of that product. Amazon was one of the first sites to offer the much-lauded product reviews, but now, as frustrating as it seems, even the number of recommended stars requires a bit of skepticism.
At MusicRow, I’m very much a “show me the receipts” type of person. And likewise, when I’m the one presenting the information, I prefer to have my own “receipts” in place even if it’s something that I know will never be needed. Think of it as a “self audit” that I perform on my information before I share or give it out.
From conspiracy theories to deepfakes, I’m convinced that developing a healthy level of skepticism is more important than ever. With technology moving at Mach speed, imagine watching videos where you cannot visibly or audibly discern whether it’s real. Videos will exist in the near future whose legitimacy is completely undetectable. I expect those days will arrive sooner than we think, and it’s our healthy level of skepticism that will prevail. Or at least, I hope so.
There are so many ways to take a pause and discern information that only takes a negligible amount of extra time. And as you adopt your own healthy level of skepticism, you’ll find your own methods and techniques that work for you.
But this approach doesn’t require you to sit back and question everything. Far from it. For me, I take a subtle beat and consider the source, the reasonableness, the logic and other factors that make up my value system before I accept important information as factual and complete. I’m also very mindful to try to minimize my own biases when asserting that healthy skepticism while also balancing between accepting too much or too little of any information’s validity.
I’ve greatly benefited from having a healthy level of skepticism. It’s a skill that I’ve found tremendously valuable both personally and professionally. With all the information that comes across my desk at MusicRow and filling up my email inbox every day, it’s an essential skill in my toolbox that I’m always refining.
And who knows? Perhaps Arthur Andersen & Co. could have used a little bit more of it as well.
Off The Record is a new weekly column in 2021 from MusicRow Owner and Publisher, Sherod Robertson. After 10 years heading the publication, he shares some of the nuggets of wisdom he’s acquired throughout the years that have helped him in his journey. The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of MusicRow Magazine nor its team members.
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