Today I’d like to introduce one of my foundational mantras, one that sounds simple and runs deep. The phrase is “trust and verify.”
You may have heard something similar in history class if you were a better student than I. The original phrase, “trust, but verify,” comes to us from a Russian proverb and easily found its place in the world of foreign policy. On the surface, it seems clear enough: treat everything we hear as probably truthful and maintain just enough skepticism to avoid others taking advantage of us. So how do we know where to draw the line between trusting and verifying so we don’t make a mistake?
First, we need to understand that trust here does not mean unconditional faith that everything is true and will happen exactly as someone says it will. It means trusting someone to make a case, giving them the benefit of a doubt that maybe it’s worth your time. Retain a healthy degree of skepticism! This mantra requires balance and an understanding of the situation wherever you are.
There are two basic mistakes we can make when verifying. In a given situation, we might not trust enough when trust would have been a good idea. This might be not opening an email message because it has an unfamiliar sender, then finding out later that it was a birthday invitation. Alternatively, we might place too much trust in something we shouldn’t, such as when my wife lets her guard down and accepts fashion advice from me. Believe me, she doesn’t need it!
Sometimes not trusting enough is worse. Suppose the phone rings and you see that it’s your best friend, who’s been very persistently asking you to go skydiving with them, while you aren’t comfortable trying that. You might seriously hurt your relationship if you assume that they’re calling about skydiving and ignore their call. What if instead they just had a car accident and need a ride, or someone to talk to? Meanwhile, if you trust they’re calling about something else and instead they are indeed calling about outdoor activities, you just got bitten again. Thankfully, the consequences are only that you got bumped “out of the zone” with your book. Avoid future urges to ignore your friend’s call by laying out clear boundaries for what activities you’re comfortable with, and possibly redirect to a different pastime, such as hiking, that you both enjoy. Win-win!
Sometimes trusting too much is worse. Suppose you get an email message promising an amazing business opportunity. This could signal just the partner you’re waiting for. It could also signal a great deal of trouble! Since the majority of email messages sent every day tend to be spam (at least for the first few months of 2016), we need to be very careful. If alarm bells go off in your head and you delete the email, only to find out later that it was a real opportunity, consequences are few since things stay as they are. If you instead trust the email and it turns out to be a scam, you might have your identity stolen or worse! Vet this sort of promise with an outside source, if at all possible: does the sender really exist? Try calling their phone number, if provided. Are they really interested in collaborating with you, specifically? Note whether they addressed you by name in their message. Often taking some time to think can help resolve uncertainties.
A useful rule-of-thumb for trust is the phrase “once bitten, twice shy.” Give people a chance to make their case. Even exotic dishes are often worth trying at least once, if only to say you did! If you have a bad first experience, set the bar correspondingly higher for the second time around. No one likes feeling like a sucker.
A useful rule-of-thumb for verify is to trust your gut when it says something feels wrong, but not when it says something feels right. It might happen when someone you trust tries to get you to invest in their business, or someone knocks on your front door at three in the morning. We naturally feel anxious in these situations because they hold inherent risk. Unfortunately, our guts don’t tend to be as good at evaluating things positively. If your gut gets excited and says that you should let down your guard, consider ignoring it and apply extra scrutiny.
As with all my advice, I encourage you to use a trust-and-verify approach to the information I present on this site. Think about some times where you trusted too much, and others where you trusted too little. How will you be more aware in the future?
In this article, I shared my philosophy of trust and verify. In future entries I will expand on some ways to evaluate people’s motives, as well as why I like to put an and, not a but, between the words trust and verify. Let me know what you think in the comments!