What do You Believe?

Belief (noun):

  1. an acceptance that something is true, usually without proof
  2. a strongly held opinion, something accepted as real or true
  3. a religious conviction

We all have beliefs, things that we hold to be true, it is our way of making sense of the world.

Our beliefs are usually based on something we have seen or heard, but that doesn’t make them true, it just gives them credence.  In January 1493 Christopher Columbus wrote that he had seen a mermaid off Haiti that…

“came quite high out of the water” …but it wasn’t… “as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.”

No doubt it was a manatee.

So what do you believe?

Be honest, how many of these do you believe?

Some of our beliefs are funny and others are downright dangerous but most of them could be challenged.

Challenging beliefs

In the 20th Century there was a widely held belief in the newspaper industry that serious papers were printed on big pieces of paper or broad sheets.  Broad sheets were expensive to print and difficult to read yet the news paper industry insisted on publishing them.  After all it was best practice, only the tabloids printed in tabloid format, it just wasn’t what a serious newspaper did.

Thin in 2003 the Independent started to print its “quality” paper in “tabloid” format or “compact” as they called it.

The independent’s circulation grew by 15%.  All that hard work on writing, editing, marketing and positioning, yet by simply changing its size boosted circulation by 15%.

Customers didn’t want a broad sheet at all.  They wanted something that was easy to read whilst commuting.

Why was the newspaper industry so wedded to the broadsheet?  Where did the belief come from?  In 1712 the UK government passed the Stamp Act which taxed newspapers by the number of pages they contained.  Cunning publishers realised that big newspapers had fewer pages, so could be sold with less tax and the broad sheet was born.

We have always done it that way

Fortunately you don’t have to believe you are the Brain of Britain to get the point of this particular story:

  1. What have you always done that way?  
  2. Why?
  3. What could you do about it?

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Image by E. E. Piphanies


  1. Hi James,
    There’s a phenomenon called ‘dominant logic’ that underpins a lot of what we believe, particularly in organisations. Only when someone has the courage to challenge some of these beliefs and prove their case do these beliefs start to loosen their grasp on our consciousness.

    However, they will always exist that just seems the way of man. Therefore, I guess we got to, as you suggest, get better at asking questions more regularly.


  2. James,

    Beliefs, best practices, status quo… o my! You gave us a lot to think about. But the point is well taken. Time to question to way things have always been done. Who says those are the best ways? This is why I wrote about the Culture of Curiosity. We need to encourage curiosity and asking why? Why do we always do things this way?

    Thanks for writing it!


  3. Hello James

    Fantastic post, you have educated me and I welcome that. Thank you.

    One of the most powerful pieces of education I got was the that breakthroughs come when you/I get access to the realm of “what you/I don’t know that we don’t know”. And clearly what is included in that realm is the beliefs that we hold, without even knowing it, and take for truth/reality.

    The most profound insight I got was this: you cannot access what you don’t know that you don’t know by yourself. I cannot access what I don’t know that I don’t know by myself. However, if you and I “travel, connect, enquire, ask” then we will get access to this domain. I remember that I had the most profound aha moment when I was about 8. At that age I got that “it is all invented!”. How did I get access to that? Because I was told one set of things at school and a very different set of things at home. For example, how can it be bad/sin to eat pork at home yet it was perfectly OK at school? Or why is it bad for women to go out to work (parents saying this) and yet some of my best teachers are women?

    I love to design and facilitate workshops, cross functional workshops. I also love to get customer views, and views from various people in the organisation from different functions and different levels of the organisation. Why? Because these can generate access to “what you don’t know you don’t know”.

    To sum up: if we want to identify what we believe so firmly and yet is not so, then we actively have to seek out, converse with, listen to, people who are not like us. This means genuine dialogue. And I have yet to come across an organisation that creates a space, a call, for this genuine dialogue to occur.


    • James Lawther says:

      Like your points Maz:

        Breakthroughs come when you get access to the realm of “what you/I don’t know that we don’t know”
        If we want to identify what we believe then we actively have to seek out people who are not like us

      Obvious when you see it, but very hard to do.


  4. Frazer Grundy says:


    “The best lovers are Italian, now I am out of my depth, and I would caution against asking Google”

    You should caution against writing things like this. It nearly caused me to spray my morning coffee over my nice new LCD screen

  5. Frazer Grundy says:

    Now that I’ve stopped laughing, I will add that (whilst it’s slightly off topic) this reminds me of an, erm, acquaintence (well, brother in law) of mine. One day he proudly announced that it’s the mental side of talking on a cellphone that makes it dangerous (ie. how it affects concentration), rather than the physical aspect of holding the phone to your ear. He then went on to say that “they’ve proved it”.

    I proceeded to ask him who ‘they’ are and how exactly they had ‘proved’ this. I then suggested that a more appropriate statement might be something along the lines of “there is research that seems to support the theory that …”.

    Sadly he’d lost interest before I got to that part.

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