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An Empirical Life

An empiricist is someone who asks: What do we know, and what does this knowledge say I should do? The empiricist then does his or her best to do it. When the data is contradictory, empiricists look for what is generally proven, converting established principles to actions.
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People always ask me if I'm a Democrat or Republican. Some ask if I'm a Christian or Jew. A very few ask if I'm a Muslim. Or a libertarian. The truth is: I'm an empiricist.

An empiricist is someone who asks: What do we know, and what does this knowledge say I should do? The empiricist then does his or her best to do it. When the data is contradictory, empiricists look for what is generally proven, converting established principles to actions.

I'm mainly known as a leadership writer and teacher. Here's how that links with empiricism: Great leadership starts with empiricism. Every word in that sentence is important. Leadership doesn't necessarily start with empiricism, but great leadership does. Empiricism is the jumping off point for great leadership, not it's final goal. Great Leadership starts grounded in the facts, and then needs to take leaps of faith, to imagine that which isn't yet established, envision that which cannot be measured, to follow intuition, and tease out a vision from a group that the group then believes with religious conviction.

Here are the benefits for you to become an empiricist: you'll do what the research tells you to do about your health, relationships, and career. As a result of following that research, you'll be fit, have good blood pressure, probably avoid Type 2 diabetes, live longer, have more energy, be a better friend and family member, have better relationships with your kids, get more done in your life, earn more money, see the results of your efforts every day, and leave a better legacy.

When you max out what can be known, work with others to imagine, envision, and dream, you go from being an ordinary empiricist to an empirical leader. The advantages are even more compelling: you'll be surrounded by people you inspire and who inspire you back. You'll create new futures for yourself and others that seem as real as the sun on your faces. You, your tribes, your family, and your company, will do more than most people think is possible. You, and the people around you, will be remembered as icons -- people who did so much that most of us can't identify with them.

Pretty good benefits? So why isn't every leader an empiricist? The main reason is that empiricism is demanding, in mind, emotions, and the discipline it requires. I've come to the sad conclusion that empiricism is beyond most people -- not beyond their ability, just beyond their current state of mental and emotional development. I write more about this point in my personal blog.

Are you an Empirical Leader? Take this checklist to find out:

You know how knowledge is constructed, and can tell differences between good studies and wastes of time. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from spending so many years in graduate school is being able to read almost any study in any field and being able to tell the signs of good research -- yielding important knowledge -- and studies so inept you'd be better off reading comic books instead. Get to that point. Today, for the first time in history, a person can learn to become a good consumer of knowledge in an hour by themselves thanks to Wikipedia and Google. I'll give you a hint: know the difference between correlation and causation.

You're willing to set aside what feels true for what is true. Stephen Colbert is perhaps most famous for coining the word "truthiness," which is something that someone believes because it feels right, regardless of the evidence. There is one sin that leads to immediate excommunication from the Empirical Leaders' club: advancing truthiness as though there's actual evidence behind it.

The leadership field is filled with men and women, well dressed, good speakers, who spout truthiness. When people raise doubts about whether what they're saying is true, they cover it over with heart-moving stories. If you are one of those people who hate such truthiness sessions, and your willing to vow to never sit through another one, then you have the makings of an Empirical Leader. Otherwise, stop reading, and enjoy your truthiness stories that are heart-warming, but not based on evidence.

You're in a "tribe" of fellow empiricists. The research is compelling that your tribe determines a lot about you -- your outlook and success, your health, and how long you'll live. One of the biggest no-nos for empiricists, and especially empirical leaders, is going at it alone -- because the evidence says loneliness is a killer. Leading alone is like having sex alone -- no one really wants to ever hear about it. The key here is that tribe (your friends and connections -- the people who "get" you) is your home, and to a large extent, determines who you are. Unless you're surrounded by people who call you on your belief systems, then you're not going to be able to make it as an Empirical Leader.

I'm in a tribe of empiricists. We try to do things based on evidence. We tend to be fit, mentally focused, happy, raising well-adjusted and not obese children. (In short, not at all like most of America.) One person in our tribe decided he was not going to get his children immunized, and we came down on him like he'd said he was going to treat the flu with leeches. There's no evidence -- at least, no good evidence -- that doing so is healthy. Whooping cough killed dozens of children in the county where I live last year. And it's 100 percent preventable.

You fail the test of having an empirical tribe unless you're willing to: (1) call your friends on stupid decisions and use evidence to try to persuade them, and (2) allow them to call you on evidence-contracted decisions or thoughts, like declare global warming is a hoax. To be clear, evidence-based tribes don't do groupthink. They debate everything, often to the annoyance of people around them at restaurants. The key, though, is that the debate is settled through facts and evidence, not out yelling each other or agreeing to disagree on issues where the evidence is overwhelming.

Love evidence of all kinds, not just tables of numbers. As Ken Wilber observed, for thousands of years, people meditated and reported a consistent set of experiences. But in western society, none of this "counted" as evidence. The moment someone could track actual brain pattern differences, meditation was seen as "real." This is empirical bigotry.

A lot of the best evidence of leadership comes through subjective writings, like biographies and journals kept by notable people. This is evidence, but it's evidence of a different sort than studies. Churchill, Lincoln, FDR, and John Kennedy were bipolar, according to one recent study. This does not mean you should seek to become bipolar (a task that is probably impossible) or find a leader who suffers from this disorder.

Many empiricists live a stark existence, always searching for new research about what they should do or how they should live. Leadership is best done by people who are seen as forward thinking, who can entertain new ideas, and who come across as grounded and optimistic at the same time.

Can see what the evidence implies, and imagine, with others, what can be. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was an Empirical Leader. He saw where technology was at the time of the original "wagon train to the stars," and then dreamed. Computers would become smaller, on desktops. Computerized tablets would replace clipboards. Quick body scanners would replace x-rays. Corded phones with rotary dials would become personal communication devices that we would move with us. He inspired a generation of scientists and industry leaders -- at places as diverse as NASA and Apple -- to make his vision come true. He was part of a tribe that loved technology, but wasn't content to know what was. He wanted to create what could be -- and not just with technology. He imagined a world of racial integration, of decisions being made for the general welfare, when humanity was united by exploring space and realizing we are not alone. His vision of warp drive and transportation seem as far-fetched in 2012 but as they were in 1966, but who knows. Perhaps the 21st century will do for transportation what the 20th did for information.

Every week, I meet with CEOs who are doing for their companies what Roddenberry did for technology. One recently told me his vision of where knowledge of biology would be in 2050, and how he was working with his senior team to reposition the company to lead a technological revolution that, in 2012, is just a prediction. That's the mark of an Empirical Leader: know all that can be known, and then jump off the cliff of certainty and imagine, create, and dream -- and use evidence-based techniques to turn your dreams into plans with measurable steps.

I recently wrote about what a company would look like if it was run by empirical leaders. It's an inspiring and practical view.

Leadership, I'm sorry to say, is in a bad spot -- dominated by people who are as empirical as Michele Bachmann when she said: "There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences."

Both empiricism and leadership can be learned. Learn empiricism without leadership and you become Spock from Star Trek. Learn leadership without empiricism and you become a brain dead windbag.