What happens when you change beliefs

May 6, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Exercises, Leadership, Models

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

The movie Moneyball and the book it’s based on illustrate how new beliefs take root and can challenge and crowd out your old beliefs. Today’s post is long, but the movie very well illustrates some stages and the emotional challenge of adopting a new belief, facing and overcoming resistance, and how it can lead to effective leadership and creating community.

I’ll quote enough of it here if you haven’t seen the movie, but it was nominated for seven Oscars and stars Brad Pitt, so you probably won’t hate it.

Though we’re looking at personal beliefs and how we react to them and the movie treats groups handling new beliefs, in this case they overlap enough we can learn from the movie.

I should also note that in the movie, the new belief turned out to work better and the gamble to try it paid off. We know gambles don’t always pay off. On the other hand, most of our choices don’t put the lifestyles of dozens of other people and tens of millions of dollars at risk. Though all models affect our emotional state, which is as important as things get to ourselves.

I’ll describe the stages and perspectives the movie shows that parallel what we face when we consider adopting new beliefs, focusing on the emotions involved.


First I’ll note the overall conflict and resolution of the movie. Baseball scouts and managers traditionally evaluated players by certain values, like how fast they run, how confident they looked, and other criteria. That system and those values worked for a lot of people, who enjoyed that system. That system didn’t work for manager of one team, Billie Beane of the 2002 Oakland A’s. He learned about another set of values by which to evaluate players that clashed with the old system, implemented it, and succeed. But he didn’t succeed right away. People who liked the old system stuck with it and pushed back at him, citing evidence, historical precedence, intuition, and so on until and even after his system worked beyond anyone’s expectations, setting records and outperforming teams using the old system. He had to make gut-wrenching decisions, risk his well-being, face harsh criticism, and endure other challenges with little expectation of success along the way.

This same process occurs within us as individuals when we consider and adopt new beliefs and crowd out old ones.

Here are the perspectives in the movie

  • Before you start, the old beliefs work for some people
  • You realize the old belief doesn’t work for you
  • You come to realize and clarify the new belief. That doesn’t mean you believe it yet, just that you’re aware of it.
  • As you play with it you will find conflict between the old and new beliefs. You know the conflict will come in the abstract, but facing them intensifies everything.
  • Those invested in the old beliefs will attack the new beliefs
  • Resistance to the new beliefs persists. Few people can change their beliefs quickly.
  • You will feel self-doubt
  • At some point you will need to steel your resolve, let go of your safety net, and crowding out your old beliefs
  • If you succeed you will create community. That is, people will follow you.

Moneyball illustrates these many stages. In the case of the movie’s main character, he stays the course, his belief works out, and he emerges a leader.

The old belief worked for some

The old belief created a chummy good-old-boy world. Knowing how history played out, we cringe that they’d evaluate player’s ability to play by his girlfriend’s looks, but they probably had great reasons and could point to evidence backing themselves up. Of course, the movie dramatizes things, so they probably had a lot more values besides that one that made more sense. Also, they had years of experience with that system.

This scene shows scouts evaluating a baseball player, if they should sign him up.

Scout 1: Artie, who do you like?
Scout 2: I like Perez. He’s got a classy swing, it’s a real clean stroke.
Scout 3: He can’t hit the curve ball.
Scout 2: Yeah, there’s some work to be done, I’ll admit that.
Scout 3: Yeah, there is.
Scout 2: But he’s noticeable.
Scout 4: And an ugly girlfriend.
Scout 2: What does that mean?
Scout 4: Ugly girl friend means no confidence.
Scout 2: Okay.
Scout 5: Oh, now, you guys are full of it, Artie’s right. This guy’s got an attitude and an attitude is good. I mean it’s the kind of guy who walks into a room his dick has already been there for two minutes.
Scout 6: He passes the eye candy test. He’s got the looks, he’s great at playing the part. He just needs to get some playing time.
Scout 4: I’m just saying his girlfriend is a six at best.

Recognizing that belief didn’t work for him

One guy realized the system didn’t work for him and started looking for other ways. Here we see the General Manager, Billy Beane, pointing out flaws in the old belief. Since believing something means you think it’s true and right, those flaws aren’t enough to convince someone who believes in the old belief, but once you don’t believe in it, it no longer seems logical.

You see believers in each believers see the other as crazy and illogical, but themselves as making so much sense they can’t imagine any need to justify themselves.

Billy Beane: No! What’s the problem, Barry?
Scout 2: We need three eight home runs, a hundred twenty R.B.I’s and forty seven…
Billy Beane: The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game. And now we’re being gutted, organ donors for the rich. Boston has taken our kidney’s, Yankees takin’ our heart and you guys are sittin’ around talkin’ the same old good boy nonsense, like we’re selling deeds. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We got to think differently… If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.
Scout 1: Boy, that sounds like fortune cookie wisdom to me, Billy.
Billy Beane: No, that’s just logic.

The new belief

Here we see the analyst, fictional Peter Brand, who represents a group of people proposing new ways of evaluating players whose values haven’t yet been tested, describing the problems with the old beliefs, hinting at new beliefs, and describing the emotion and power of the reaction whose beliefs he challenges.

If you’re lucky you’ve faced such powerful and emotional challenges, weathered the storms, and overcome them. If not, I suggest that improving your life will force you to.

Peter Brand: There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening and this leads people who run major league baseball teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams.
Billy Beane: Go on.
Peter Brand: Okay, people who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins and in order to buy wins, you need to buy your run. You’re trying to replace Johnny Damon. The Boston Red Sox see Johnny Damon and they see a star who’s worth seven and a half million dollars a year. When I see Johnny Damon, what I see is…is an imperfect understanding of where runs come from. The guy’s got a great glove, he’s a decent league off hitter, he can steal bases. But is he worth the seven and a half million dollars a year the Boston Red Sox are paying him? No! No! Baseball thinking is medieval, they are asking all the wrong questions and if I say it to anybody I’m…I’m ostracized. I’m a rebel, so that’s why I’m…I’m cagey about this with you, that’s why I respect you Mr. Beane and if you want full disclosure, I think it’s a good thing you got Damon off of your payroll. I think it opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities.

Peter Brand [later]: It’s about getting things down to one number. Using stats to reread them, we’ll find the value of players that nobody else can see. People are over looked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James [a major historical figure who started this belief] and Mathematics cuts straight through that. Billy, of the twenty thousand knowable players for us to consider, I believe that there’s a championship team of twenty five people that we can afford. Because everyone else in baseball under values them. Like and island of misfit toys.

Peter Brand [later]: Billy, this is Chad Bradford. He’s a relieve pitcher. He’s one of the most under valued players in baseball. His defect is that he throws funny. Nobody in the big leagues chases that, because he looks funny. He’s got to be not just the best pitcher in our ball game, but one of the most effective relieve pitchers in all of baseball.

Conflict between models

Billy Beane has the authority to manage his baseball team as he wants, but people remain on his management team that disagree with him, just like you will have people in your life who will disagree with you. Beane’s management team doesn’t believe they are opposing him, they believe they are helping the team. And people who conflict with you won’t feel like they are challenging your values, they will feel like they are helping you while you’re acting crazy.

When people change their beliefs and values but others don’t recognize the new beliefs and values, they appear crazy, not thoughtful, which this passage illustrates well.

Note the emotions in the conflict. Note how they don’t talk about the different beliefs, they talk about the consequences, so they can’t address the source of the conflict.

Also, note that when you change beliefs, the conflict illustrated here will also likely happen within yourself. Different parts of you will play the different roles here. You’ll have to deal with conflict between yourself and others and conflict within yourself.

Billy Beane: Okay, here’s what we want. Jason’s little brother, Jeremy.
Scout 1: Billy, that’s trouble.
Scout 2: Uh…Billy, look. If I…if I may, he’s certainly had his problems off the field, but we know what he can’t do on the field. There’s reports about him on the weed and strip clubs.
Billy Beane: Well, his on base percentage is all we’re lookin’ at now. And Jeremy gets on base an awful lot for a guy who only cost two hundred and eighty five thousand.
Scout 3: Jeez, Billy…
Billy Beane: Number two, David Justice.
Scout 1: Oh, no!
Scout 3: Not a good idea, Billy.
Scout 2: Old man Justice?

To us, Beane’s logic makes sense — on base percentage matters more than what a player does off the field. To the believers in the old beliefs he sounds crazy. And he gets more crazy proposing old players beneath their consideration.

Scout 3: His legs are gone. We’ll be lucky to get sixty games out of him. Why do you like him?
[Billy points to Peter to answer]
Peter Brand: Because he gets on base.
Billy Beane: Okay, number three. Scott Hatteberg.
Scout 2: Who?
Scout 1: Hatteberg.
Billy Beane: Exactly! He sounds like an Oakland A already. Yes, he’s had a little problem with his elbow…
Scout 3: A little problem? He can’t throw!
Scout 2: He’s a clear two sixty hitter. The best part of his career is over.
Billy Beane: I say it’s just gettin’ started.
Scout 4: I know Boston wants to cut him and no one wants to pick him up.
Billy Beane: That’s good for us, he’s cheap.
Scout 3: Let me get this straight. You’re gonna get a guy that’s been released by half the organization in professional baseball because he’s got non-reparable nerve damage in his elbow and he can’t throw!
Billy Beane: He can’t throw and he can’t field, but what can he do? Guys, check the reports or I’m gonna point at Peter.
[the scouts look at the report]
The Scouts: He gets on base.
Billy Beane: He gets on base!
Scout 2: So he walks a lot.
Billy Beane: He gets on base a lot. Do I care if it’s a walk or a hit?
[looks over at Peter]
Billy Beane: Pete?
Peter Brand: You do not.
Billy Beane: I do not.

Tempers flare. Beane has authority to act without their approval. I don’t like the management style the movie shows. Movies dramatize things by making conflict confrontational and positional. I won’t get into negotiation technique here, except to suggest that there are alternatives to such confrontation and positional negotiation.

Scout 3: Let me get this straight. So you’re not gonna bring in one, but three defective players to replace Giambi? It’s what I’m hearing.
Scout 2: You’re not buying into this Billy James bullshit, right?
Billy Beane: This is the new direction for the Oakland A’s. We are card counters at the Black Jack table, but we’re gonna turn the odds on the casino.
Scout 3: I don’t see it.
Scout 4: Seriously guys, I think we have to remember this is the man. He answers to no one except ownership and God. And he doesn’t have to answer to us. We make suggestions, he makes decisions.
Scout 3: Look that’s all fine and well, but we’ve been working our asses off for the last six and a half weeks to make this ball club better and you’re shitting all over it!
Billy Beane: Hey, this is not a discussion.
Scout 4: What are we discussing?
Billy Beane: Barry, not a discussion.

Attacking the new beliefs

I don’t care how much you believe you can persuade or convince people of your beliefs, ultimately you will face not logical but emotional attacks on your beliefs. People attacking you won’t feel like they’re being irrational, illogical, or attacking. They will feel you are.

Billy Beane: You look unhappy, Grady. Why?
Scout: Wow! May I speak candidly?
Billy Beane: Sure. Go ahead.
Scout: Major league baseball and it’s fans they’re gonna be more than happy to throw you and Google boy into the bus if you keep doing what you’re doing here. You don’t put a team together with a computer, Billy.
Billy Beane: No?
Scout: No. Baseball isn’t just numbers, it’s not science. If it was then anybody could do what we’re doing, but they can’t because they don’t know what we know. They don’t have our experience and they don’t have our intuition.
Billy Beane: Okay.
Scout: Billy, you got a kid in there that’s got a degree in Economics from Yale [Peter Brand]. You got a scout here with twenty nine years of baseball experience. You’re listening to the wrong one. Now there are intangibles that only baseball people understand. You’re discounting what scouts have done for a hundred and fifty years, even yourself!

We see a scout trying to hold on to a tattered and flawed system. He doesn’t. He sees a crazy person who’s lost his bearings and is ruining his own life. He fears his job and his values. You will see this when you lead.

With no other recourse, the scout gets angry and personal. You will see this happen, from other people with vested interest in old beliefs and from parts of yourself.

Scout: This is about you and your shit, isn’t it? Twenty years ago some scout got it wrong.
Billy Beane: Woh! Okay.
Scout: Now you’re gonna declare war on the whole system.
Billy Beane: Okay! Okay. My turn. You don’t have a crystal ball, you can’t look at a kid and predict his future any more than I can. I’ve sat at those kitchen tables with you and listened to you tell those parents ‘When I know, I know! And when it comes to your son, I know’. And you don’t. You don’t!
Scout: Okay, I don’t give a shit about friendship, this situation or the past. Major league baseball thinks the way I think. You’re not gonna win. And I’ll give you a nickel’s worth of free advice. You’re never gonna get another job when Schott fires you after this catastrophic season you’re about to set us all up for. And you’re gonna have to explain to your kid why you work at a Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Resistance persists

Do you think you resolve conflict in one quick step? Sometimes, but not often. Here we see the on-field Manager, Art Howe, resisting the General Manager. You’ll see the attacks stay personal and they don’t directly address the change in values. Many appeals to experience and intuition.

This conflict plays out between two people, but the same thing will happen internally with anyone. I suspect the movie dramatizes the story by giving Beane more resolve and less doubt than he probably had, but I’m not sure.

[after losing the first game of the season]
Billy Beane: I should have made you a bigger part of the conversation from day one. That way we’d be clear what we’re trying to do here. That was my mistake, Art, and I take responsibility for that.
Art Howe: What are you trying to say?
Billy Beane: I’m saying it doesn’t matter what moves I make if you don’t play the team they way they’re designed to be played.
Art Howe: Billy, you’re out of your depth.
Billy Beane: Why not Hatteberg at first?
Art Howe: Because he can’t play first.
Billy Beane: How do you know?
Art Howe: It’s not my first baseball game. Scott Hatteberg can’t hit, he’s keeping us in the fences.

Billy Beane: Could this be about your contract?
Art Howe: No. This is about you doing your job and me doing mine. Mine’s being left alone to manage this team you assembled for me.
Billy Beane: I didn’t assemble it for you, Art.

One of the fired scouts, invested in the old belief, was interviewed on the radio. He publicly attacks the new belief, again, deeply personally. With hindsight we can claim the scout just missed the boat, but I expect that most people would have found his attacks persuasive, carrying the weight of a century of sport and decades of personal experience. Losing games would seem to support the attacks.

[on the radio]
Call-In Radio Host: Grady, can you interpret for us what’s going on?
Fired Scout: They call it Moneyball.
Call-In Radio Host: Moneyball?
Fired Scout: Yes. And it was a nice theory and now it’s just not working out.
Sports Announcer: Billy Beane has built this team on the ideas of a guy named Bill James.
Call-In Radio Host: Right.
Sports Announcer: He wrote an interesting book on baseball statistics. The problem is that Bill James never played, never managed, he was in fact a security guard at a pork and beans company.
Call-In Radio Host: Do you see this as a decimation of the whole team?
Fired Scout: I think that he bought a ticket on the Titanic.
Sports Announcer: Oh, boy! He’s tried to come up with a new approach, my hat’s off to him. It won’t work.

Here is a later radio show, apparently continuing to demonstrate how deeply wrong the new belief is. I’ve written about how any complex change will lead you to doubt yourself at some point something like “I’ve been working at this for six months and I’m worse off than when I started.” Here the criticism comes from outside, but it comes from internal personal doubt too.

Sports Announcer #1: Well with this loss tonight, the Oakland Athletics have incredibly lost fourteen of their last seventeen games. They are ten games back in the American League West.
Sports Announcer #2: It’s fair to say the experiment has failed.


The stakes don’t let up. Here we see how even third parties to the conflict get involved. Beane’s daughter reads his worry. The tighter your identity intertwines with your beliefs, the more parts of your life will get involved.

By contrast, the more you distinguish your beliefs from absolute certainty, recognizing they have flaws as to any other beliefs, the more free you will be to try new things and not feel punished when things don’t go your way. The more you can get others to distinguish beliefs from absolute certainty the more freedom you’ll all have. Getting yourself to detach yourself from your beliefs is hard enough; getting others to is that much harder, but leads to effective leadership.

Casey Beane: Dad, there’s not way you’re gonna lose your job, right?
Billy Beane: What?
Casey Beane: Well, I don’t know. I’m just wondering.
Billy Beane: Where did you hear that?
Casey Beane: Well I go on the internet sometimes.
Billy Beane: Well, don’t do that. Don’t…don’t go on the internet, or watch TV, or read news papers or talk to…people.
Casey Beane: I don’t talk to people, I just read stuff.
Billy Beane: Honey, everything’s fine. Everything’s fine. Really. You don’t have to worry.
Casey Beane: But if you lose your job we’d have to move away.
Billy Beane: Honey, I’m not gonna lose my job. You don’t have to worry.
Casey Beane: Okay.
Billy Beane: Hey, there’s no problem.
Casey Beane: Okay.
Billy Beane: Right, I got uptown problems, but you’re not a problem at all. You’re not worried, right?
Casey Beane: No, I’m not worried.


Casey Beane: Are you okay, dad?
Billy Beane: You’re doing it again.
Casey Beane: What?
Billy Beane: You’re worrying about me.
Casey Beane: You have a sad face, dad.
Billy Beane: Do I look worried?
Casey Beane: Yeah.

Resolve, the critical moment, letting go of your safety net, and crowding out your old beliefs

In this scene Brand decides to fire the last of the players who made sense in the old belief system. He has completely crowded out that system from himself and his organization. As you can see, he justifies himself through his the new belief. It hasn’t been proved, but he believes it, meaning he believes it’s correct.

Peter Brand: Billy, Pena is an All Star. Okay? And if you dump him and this Hatteberg thing doesn’t work out the way that we want it to, you know, this is…this is the kind of decision that gets you fired. It is!
Billy Beane: Yes, you’re right. I may lose my job, in which case I’m a forty four year old guy with a high school diploma and a daughter I’d like to be able to send to college. You’re twenty five years old with a degree from Yale and a pretty impressive apprenticeship. I don’t think we’re asking the right question. I think the question we should be asking is, do you believe in this thing or not?
Peter Brand: I do.
Billy Beane: It’s a problem you think we need to explain ourselves. Don’t. To anyone.
Peter Brand: Okay.
Billy Beane: Now, we’re gonna see this thing through, for better or worse. Just tell me, do you project we’ll win more with Hatteberg or Pena first?
Peter Brand: It’s close, but theoretically Hatteberg.
Billy Beane: What are we talking about then?

Community forms

Beane’s team ends up setting the record for the most wins in a row in the American League. Despite lingering doubts from many, some top people in his community come to agree with him. They see the evidence of the new belief even though people who still believe the old beliefs retain their evidence for their beliefs.

Ultimately success builds community of people who share your belief, not proof you are right. Forming community is the essence of leadership, which requires you to believe yourself.

Here a representative from the Boston Red Sox, a team steeped in the old beliefs, offers our hero the highest salary of any General Manager in sports. The mainstream is accepting the renegade idea. On a personal level, the representative recognizes the emotional challenges he must have gone through. Our hero has become a leader of a community he played a major part in forming.

John: For forty one million, you built a playoff team. You lost Damon, Giambi, Isringhausen, Pena and you won more games without them than you did with them. You won the exact same number of games that the Yankee’s won, but the Yankee’s spent one point four million per win and you paid two hundred and sixty thousand. I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It’s the threat and not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They will bet you’re crazy. I mean, anybody who’s not building a team right and rebuilding it using your model, they’re dinosaurs. They’ll be sittin’ on their ass on the sofa in October, watch the Boston Red Sox win the world series.
[he takes out a paper from his coat pocket and puts it in front of Billy]
Billy Beane: What’s this?
John: I want you to be my General Manager. That’s my offer.
[Billy take the paper and reads the offer then looks back in shock at John]


Beane doesn’t take the Red Sox’s offer, but they adopt his philosophy and win their first World Series in 86 years, beating their arch-rival Yankees, the team most invested in the old ways — or at least having spent money the most profligately.

In real life the Red Sox hired Beane’s philosophical forerunner and main real-life driving force behind the new belief, Bill James, whose name showed up in the dialog above.

While Beane didn’t get to take part in the Red Sox’s win or enjoy that big salary, his legacy made it into a seven-Oscar nominated movie, played by Brad Pitt, celebrating his beliefs, resolve, and success, among other successes.

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1 response to “What happens when you change beliefs

  1. Pingback: Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours » Joshua Spodek

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