Bethany McLean: Crafting a Narrative [The Knowledge Project Ep. #85]

Best-selling author of The Smartest Guys in the Room and All the Devils are here, Bethany McLean, discusses how to write a story, the behaviors of CEO’s, visionaries and fraudsters and so much more.

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Today on The Knowledge Project, I’m talking with one of the best investigative journalists in the world, Bethany McLean.

In this in-depth interview we talk about the role of journalism in society, the investigative process, Enron, what happens in the wake of exposure, the ways we’re irrational and emotional and so much more.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

In politics you can get two sides of every story pretty easily. In the business world, you can’t, because skepticism about business tends to travel in a very small circle.

Sometimes there’s this moment where you see the information differently, and all the pieces fit together in a puzzle that is very different than the one you had seen before. And sometimes it’s just as simple as a shift in perspective and you say, “Oh. This is it.”

There’s this idea that the business world is hard and cold and rational, and it’s not. It’s incredibly emotional. And everybody is biased toward belief, because most people stand to make money if a stock goes up. It’s that great quote from the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” It’s always prettier to think so then to not think so.

When people think about the purpose of a company being more than a bottom line, most people think this is something new. It’s not new, it’s old. It didn’t work perfectly the last time around either. So, you can’t just say that, you actually have to think about how you’re going to implement it. I think we’re just at the very early stages of that.

I think there’s so much cult of personality. It’s one of the ways in which the business world is so not rational and is so emotional. People are believers in other people, and sometimes because those other people really have figured it out and sometimes because those people just have a really compelling way of presenting their vision.

You would think that the visionary sat at one end of the spectrum and the fraudster at the other end of the spectrum, but I think it’s one of those many things where they actually meet in the circle. I sometimes think the only thing that separates them is that the visionary gets lucky and it all works out and the fraudster gets caught in the middle.

I think it’s good to have these big grand ambitious plans. Life would be really boring if you didn’t have that. I think reflexive cynicism about this sort of thing is just as bad as blind belief because it’s these things that really do change the world.

What I learned then is that there are no shortcuts. You just have to call everybody, and talk to everybody, and be open-minded, and ask as many questions as you can. You actually cannot handicap either who’s going to talk to you or who’s not. You can’t even handicap the people from whom you’re going to get the best information.

You learn more from your failures than you do from your successes.” Success is a lot more fun, but you don’t think about it then. If you won, you’re usually like, “I won. I’m great.” If you fail, then you have to say, “Why did I fail? What went wrong here?”

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Transcript

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