Changing Perceptions

Perception is a topic that has always fascinated me. When a person is revered, the reverence quickly disappears if something happens that changes the public’s perception of that individual. If, for example, the person on the receiving end of the adulation is exposed as a fraud or falls into disgrace, admiration soon turns to contempt.

I thought about this while watching a show about Roman Emperor Caligula on The History Channel. Caligula’s given name was Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. When he was a little boy, his father, Germanicus, dressed him in the military uniform of the day, including sandals called “caliga.” As a result, the troops nicknamed him Caligula (”Little Boots”).

Germanicus was the JFK of his time, a charismatic figure who was loved by the Roman citizenry. Emperor Tiberius, fearful of his popularity, sent him off to Asia to kick some butt for the Empire, and he later died in Syria under rather mysterious circumstances that many assumed had been engineered by Tiberius.

Ultimately, Tiberius had Caligula’s mother and two brothers put to death, and, after years of torment and being shuffled from one relative to another, Caligula was brought to live at the emperor’s palace. For reasons that still puzzle me, Tiberius named him as co-heir, along with his cousin Tiberius Gemellus.

After Tiberius’s death, because of their fond memories of his father, the Roman people were wildly excited when Caligula ascended to power. It was the way a large percentage of Americans might have felt had John F. Kennedy Jr. been elected president.

Shortly after becoming emperor, Caligula had his joint-heir, Tiberius Gemellus, “eliminated.” But no one seemed to see this as a sign of things to come. Probably the main reason it was ignored was that he lavished money and other goodies on the people of Rome – and, much like today’s free-lunch recipients, they adored him for his “generosity.” It was a veritable love fest.

Then, suddenly, Caligula shifted into a different mode and began a reign of cruelty and depravity that was extreme even by Roman standards. As a result, the people soon came to fear and hate him. Ultimately, after less than four years in power, his own guards stabbed him to death.

Did something happen that caused Caligula to suddenly go insane? There has been much speculation about it over the centuries, but no one will ever know for certain. Regardless, when the perception of the man changed, adoration for him was replaced by hatred.

Does the story of Caligula strike a chord with you? How many people can you think of who lost their goodwill when their actions caused them to fall from grace? How about Mike Nifong, who was perceived as a no-nonsense prosecutor in Durham, North Carolina – a man who was willing to step up to the plate and defend a woman of color who had been raped by three rich, white lacrosse players from Duke.

But, suddenly, the truth descended upon him with a vengeance. At some point in his investigation, Nifong became aware that those three white kids were not guilty of the rape, yet he moved relentlessly forward with the case – notwithstanding the fact that convictions could have sent the young men to prison for life. If one believes in the concept of evil, this is about as close to it as a human being can get. What is your perception of Mike Nifong today?

For more than two decades, O.J. Simpson was a great role model – congenial and beloved by millions. A mutual friend once introduced me to him, and I recall thinking what a really nice guy he was. But since it became clear that he savagely butchered two innocent people, he has been reviled by all but the most brain-dead among us.

According to those who know him best, O.J. was always the O.J. we know today – a narcissistic, violent person with no sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. And now the public’s perception of that famous smile is that it was a way of thumbing his nose at the law and at the families of his victims. Now that he finally appears to be headed for many years in prison, what is your perception of O.J. Simpson today?

Mark McGwire was the Paul Bunyan of baseball, hitting an unfathomable 70 homeruns in 1998 to shatter Roger Maris’s record of 61. But what made him such a legendary figure was his nice-guy image. Who can forget his climbing into the stands to hug Maris’s children after breaking their father’s record?

But when McGwire testified before the House Government Reform Committee as part of the Congressional investigation of steroids in sports, he was so evasive that people saw it as a de facto admission of his guilt. McGwire came across as a sullen, weak man, far from the strong, pleasant persona of his playing days. What is your perception of Mark McGwire today? Ditto Barry Bonds.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, our perceptions about people will be misguided a significant percentage of the time. Of course, it’s one thing to be off target occasionally but quite another to be consistently wrong. That’s because the foundational principle of all other success principles is having an accurate perception of reality. Which means that great achievements are virtually impossible if one’s perception of reality is perpetually faulty.

The best antidote to this potentially fatal condition is to pay more attention to what people say than to who they seem to be. In other words, don’t be taken in by credentials, demeanor, or reputation. Hey, you can’t get much better credentials than being emperor of Rome, and just about everyone got misled on that one.

Likewise, just because someone doesn’t have great credentials doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Some of the best insights I’ve heard over the years have come from “no name” people.

There is no magic way to sort out worthwhile information from junk. The truth of the matter is that it’s up to you to weigh the content of people’s words and make good decisions about them. And to do that, you have to be vigilant about not becoming mesmerized by appearances. It’s especially true in today’s world of criminal government.

In the words of Buddha, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” If he were alive today, my guess is that Buddha would add the words “especially when it comes to government.”

It’s something to ponder as you go about trying to deal with the delusions that are being fed to us daily by politicians and their talking heads in the media.

[Ed. Note: Improving your life starts from the inside out. Yes, you need to take action in order to move yourself forward to success. But sometimes you need a little push to get yourself going… and some simple techniques to help you accomplish your dreams. 

For a treasure chest of proven ideas, strategies, and techniques for increasing your income many times over, check out Robert Ringer’s best-selling dealmaking audio series. And be sure to sign up for his Voice of Sanity e-letter.]

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is a New York Times #1 bestselling author and host of the highly acclaimed Liberty Education Interview Series, which features interviews with top political, economic, and social leaders. He has appeared on Fox News, Fox Business, The Tonight Show, Today, The Dennis Miller Show, Good Morning America, The Lars Larson Show, ABC Nightline, and The Charlie Rose Show, and has been the subject of feature articles in such major publications as Time, People, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Barron's, and The New York Times.