Ignorance is the Beginning of Knowledge

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Two events occurred in the last week that reminded me of the value of ignorance... or, to paraphrase the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous' Twelve-Step Program, admitting you don't know is the first step towards true wisdom.

The first was an excellent TED Talk given by Stuart Firestein, Columbia University Professor of Biology (full disclosure: I attended Columbia as an undergraduate), on how answering questions in science actually creates even more questions and unknowns - sort of like chopping the head off of a Hydra, where two more grow in its place - and in many ways true science is the pursuit of ignorance, discovering what we just don't know.

It isn't just AA or Prof. Firestein who understand this. Human beings, as brilliant as they are, are limited creatures in a world of infinite experience. The most brilliant scientist is lost in the world of marketing; the best engineer would flub most "yours-to-lose" sales deals; the best VP Sales in enterprise software is often clueless when it comes to consumer and social marketing. As in science and technology, the number of situations in which one can put their experience and knowledge to use grows exponentially faster than the ability of any one human to gain that experience and knowledge.

Given the inevitable growth of situations beyond us, how can one succeed in new situations? The answer, as before, is not knowledge, but ignorance. When an executive recognizes his ignorance of a market, a situation, a technology, a customer, he is taking the first step towards both seeking the knowledge from those who might know, and being open to learning from the situation itself. He is opening himself up to learn from and adapt to the situation, rather than trying to impose his past experiences on it, experiences that may or may not be relevant.

The second situation was ironic for a consultant.

Mark Suster, two-time entrepreneur turned VC, discussed "weak links" and succession planning in startups (and larger companies). In the comments, I asked him how he gets driven executives to understand that a key part of their job is to "make themselves irrelevant." As important as it is, it goes against the (self-protective) grain of human nature.

I immediately added to the comment:

Ha! I think I am the first consultant to publicly admit he doesn't have the answer to every question!

To which Mark responded, "yes, a rare act, indeed. ;-)"

The old joke about a consultant is someone who charges you to take your watch and tell you the time has some truth. Fairly or not, many consultants are viewed as outsiders with no special knowledge, yet believe they have it, and charge you to tell you what you already knew.

I have always believed that the best consultants are precisely like the best executives. These are the individuals who do not know it all, and humbly admit they do not. They do have extensive experience in business, sometimes in a particular field, and can use their ability to gather and filter relevant information to apply it in the right way at the right time to add value to the business.

Knowledge may be the beginning of success, but (admitting) ignorance is the beginning of knowledge.