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Why Do Some Americans Speak So Confidently When They Have No Clue What They're Talking About?

Harvard calls "leadership" speaking with conviction when you don't even believe it.

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The Harvard Business School information session on how to be a good class participant instructs, “Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 percent, say it as if you believe it 100 percent,” Susan Cain reported in her bestselling book Quiet. At HBS, Cain noticed, “If a student talks often and forcefully, then he’s a player; if he doesn’t, he’s on the margins.”

Cain observed that the men at HBS “look like people who expect to be in charge.... I have the feeling that if you asked one of them for driving directions, he’d greet you with a can-do smile and throw himself into the task of helping you to your destination — whether or not he knew the way.”

HBS alumni include George W. Bush, class of 1975, as well as:

  • Jamie Dimon, 1982, CEO and chairman of JP Morgan Chase
  • Grover Norquist, 1981, president of Americans for Tax Reform
  • Henry Paulson, 1970, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, former CEO of Goldman Sachs
  • Mitt Romney, 1975, former governor of Massachusetts, co-founder of Bain Capital
  • Jeffrey Skilling, 1979, former CEO of Enron, convicted of securities fraud and insider trading

People with great power over our lives, in government, business, medicine, and elsewhere, who don’t know what they are talking about are scary. Even more scary are people in authority who don’t know what they’re talking about but who have spent a lifetime perfecting how to appear like they do. Complete conviction and total certainty are sources of great power, especially over vulnerable and uncertain people. And so the pretense of conviction and certainty can be quite damaging.

Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s “Mad Money” and former hedge-fund manager, received his BA from Harvard and his JD from Harvard Law School. In 2007, Market Watch quoted Cramer: “What's important when you are in that hedge-fund mode is to not do anything remotely truthful because the truth is so against your view, that it’s important to create a new truth, to develop a fiction.”

Some Harvard graduates have famously rebelled against bullshit training, as Harvard alumni also include Henry David Thoreau and David Halberstam. Halberstam’s 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, with its ironic and mocking title, takes down pseudo-certain Harvard (and other Ivy League-educated) presidential advisers who convinced American leaders and the American public that the Vietnam War was a great idea. To be fair to Harvard alumni, some of America’s most famous pseudo-certain government officials did not attend Harvard, including Donald Rumsfeld (Princeton) and Alan Greenspan (New York University).

Our society once routinely called people “bullshit artists” if they spoke with total certainty without any basis for such certainty so as to persuade others and get attention for themselves. Nowadays, bullshit training is called “leadership training” and unashamedly taught at “elite institutions” and at expensive leadership seminars.

Bullshit Artistry: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Expensive

In Tony Robbins’ talk "The Power of Certainty and State of Mind," he tells us “The person who is most certain will always influence the other person.” If you missed out on Harvard but have $895, you can attend a Tony Robbins seminar, and you too become a successful persuader. Robbins’ multi-day seminars cost up to $10,000, and his Platinum Partnership membership, which gives you the opportunity to go on exotic vacations with Robbins, costs $45,000 (Robbins’ net worth has been estimated to be $480 million).

The Harvard Business School Press ranks Robbins among the “Top 200 Business Gurus,” according to Robbins’ website, which also lists many testimonials for Robbins from celebrities, including Bill Clinton and Pitbull. Described as a “world-renowned music sensation and international businessman,” Pitbull tells us that he grew up listening to his mother’s Tony Robbins tapes, which “was like my university. ... It was my Harvard.”