Michael Angelo meets Stanley Milgram

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In the middle of a presentation by a successful professional speaker, a slide came up which illustrated his next point. It was a quote that read;
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Michael Angelo

My immediate reaction was one of amusement but as his presentation continued, something remarkable happened, my amusement turned to doubt.

This particular speaker is incredibly successful at what he does and commands a lot of respect (and fees) as a result. He was on stage in front of a large audience and his voice was amplified. This meant that he had authority over us. We, the audience, had given up our valuable time to listen to him and gain the benefit of his wisdom.

At the end of his presentation, he asked for any questions. I was on the cusp of asking him. “Who is this ‘Michael Angelo;? I had heard of Michelangelo the artist, is it the same person?” But his authority stopped me.

If I asked this question, somebody was going to look stupid, and I wasn’t 100% sure, it was going to be him. His position of authority had sown the seeds of doubt in my mind.

Although I was familiar with the art works of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni,  I was not familiar with his writings, and so I couldn’t be sure that the person referred to in the quote was the same Michelangelo. The possibility remained that there was another Michael Angelo who is a professional speaker and has an improbable name, just as Zig Ziglar has.

At the presentation, I remained silent.

When I got home, I was straight onto the computer. An internet search revealed that there is indeed a Michael Angelo. His fame though, lies in being a heavy metal guitarist who plays an improbable looking twin necked guitar. Further searches did not reveal him to be a professional speaker on the side, with a history of producing memorable quotes.

Interestingly, more research showed that, nine times out of ten, the quote used in the presentation was attributed to Michelangelo, but the tenth one was incorrectly attributed to Michael Angelo. It became apparent that the speaker had seen the quote somewhere, thought it would be useful in one of his presentations, and so copied and pasted it verbatim. Unfortunately, because he was not familiar with the artist, he took the attribution on trust and copied an incorrect one. I guess most people have done this kind of thing at some point in their careers.

The dangers though, are apparent;

In terms of his presentation, as soon as I noticed the error, he had lost me. Not only was I preoccupied with the veracity of the quote, I was also questioning the entire content of his presentation – if he had got that wrong, what else had he simply copied and pasted without thinking.

His apparent authority of his own subject matter made me doubt my own knowledge. I was reluctant to bring up the point in discussion because of the hierarchical nature of speaker presentations. Despite what anyone might say, it is not an equitable exchange of ideas and knowledge. It is his job to speak, therefore he must know what he is talking about. A recent example of acceding to authority, is the way ‘financial experts’ managed to convince seemingly ‘intelligent’ bankers that sub prime mortgages were an infallible way to make money. Experiments by Stanley Milgram, confirm this tendency of ours to submit to any sort of authority.

On a philosophical note, short of travelling to Italy and seeing original documents, I cannot be absolutely sure that Michelangelo made that quote or that his name is spelled as most books have it. So is my knowledge of Michelangelo any more certain than the speakers?

Perhaps I should end with this quote, allegedly attributed to 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.

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