June 7

The Emperor Has No Clothes: Why Success Can Silence Honest Feedback

Hans Christian Andersen’s simple yet powerful tale The Emperor’s New Clothes about the power of truth becomes increasingly relevant to us as we age and achieve success.

For those unfamiliar with the storyline, The Emperor's New Clothes is about an emperor obsessed with fashion. Sensing an opportunity to swindle the emperor, two con men pose as weavers and promise the emperor to create a magical garment that would be invisible to anyone incompetent or foolish.

Flattered by the idea of owning such a unique piece of clothing, the emperor hires the con men. In a masterful act of deception, the con men pretend to weave the emperor’s magical outfit and get paid handsomely for the job.

Of course, neither the emperor nor his courtiers can see the finished costume, but so as not to appear stupid, they pretend to admire the non-existent clothes. As the emperor parades through the streets, no one dares to mention that he has no clothes on until a child, unaware of the collective deception surrounding him, blurts out the truth: “The Emperor has no clothes.”

Missing reality checks

The phrase "The emperor has no clothes" has transcended its literary origins to become a metaphor for situations where an obvious truth is ignored or denied. It’s a metaphor that has become strikingly relevant to our times.

It’s easy to call out our kids and teens when they’re sloppy or irresponsible. But as adults, especially as we become successful and occupy positions of authority (both in a professional and/or personal sense), we often don’t have enough people around to inject us with healthy doses of reality checks when necessary. This is especially true when we stubbornly cling to opinions that are obviously wrong to everyone but us. This phenomenon is often referred to as the Paradox of Authority.

The Paradox of Authority

The higher you go, the fewer people there are to tell you what you don’t want to hear. Tim Cook.

As we age and accumulate more experience, we naturally gain a certain level of authority and respect within our personal circles. Friends, family, and acquaintances often see us as wise and knowledgeable and come to us for guidance and support.

However, this shift in perception can lead to a paradox—the respect and authority we earned can start isolating us from honest feedback, particularly when it’s critical or unpopular.

Criticism isn’t easy – to give or take

Sure, there are very good reasons why criticism can be brutal, both to give and take.

Speaking truth to power is hard. Challenging elders or superiors may also be culturally inappropriate, as is the case in many Eastern cultures.

Generally, it becomes much easier to shut up and continue with our lives, adopting the "not my circus, not my monkeys" approach instead of bothering to speak up and potentially face negative repercussions.

Also, since we increasingly prefer to live and socialize with people in like-minded bubbles and consume heavily curated social media feeds that reinforce our existing beliefs, we end up living in echo chambers. As a result, we rarely have the opportunity to hear from naysayers. And when we do, it can be rattling.

As Nobel-prize-winning Polish American poet Czesław Miłosz said

In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.

The road to overconfidence and narcissism

The reality is this: if we don’t maintain clear channels for honest feedback, our egos can grow into the size of football fields, and we can be caught metaphorically parading naked through the streets with no one pointing out that our invisible clothes don’t actually exist.

But there are a few steps we can take to foster a sense of openness and honest communication:

Mutual respect society

Try to cultivate relationships based on mutual respect where feedback flows both ways. It is so much easier to have an honest exchange of ideas where there is reciprocity and mutual regard.

Step out of the echo chamber

This is definitely easier said than done. But occasionally, forcing ourselves out of our echo chambers by seeking diverse perspectives and hearing opinions from people who aren’t closely tied to us may help us see things for what they truly are.

Practice active listening

Active listening means going beyond just hearing words; it's about truly engaging with what the other person is saying. To listen actively, we must pay full attention, demonstrate interest, and, most importantly, defer judgment while listening.

When we really listen to someone, we can grasp the message they're trying to convey, even if they aren’t outrightly telling us we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Try Reverse Mentorship

Reverse mentorship, where younger individuals mentor older ones, can provide fresh perspectives and encourage continuous learning. No wonder we learn so much more from our kids than just knowing how to use “rizz” in a sentence or what counts as “boujee.”

The Emperor Has No Clothes

When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends. Mark Twain

Most of us shy away from metaphorically telling the emperor he has no clothes. And on the flip side, we are even less keen to be told we have no clothes on, especially as we succeed and build authority in our lives.

The only way to change this is to encourage open and honest communication and engage in active listening.

We’ll be all the better for it.

Remember, when you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful for others. The same applies when you are stupid. Ricky Gervais



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