Our middle son is an aspiring mechanic. It’s like he wandered out of the womb wielding a wrench. He has consistently explored how things work for as long as he could move. Along the way to becoming pretty good at fixing things, a lot of things have been broken. A couple of years ago we purchased a used truck. It was purchased with some insurance proceeds received as a result of an accident he and I were in. The truck we were in was totalled when we were rear ended leaving the highway turning onto our home road. The totalled truck was less than six months old and, too, had been purchased with insurance proceeds the result of a different truck being stolen. I’m thinking of crafting an autobiography titled, “My Life, An Insurance Liability.”
The new to us truck that we bought is a 2016 Nissan Titan XD. It contains a Cummins Diesel engine. There was some work that our son wanted to undertake on the truck in order to allow us to derive some performance benefits. It involved both mechanical and electrical work. We talked about it for a few days. I then gave him the greenlight to order some parts. Several weeks later, the parts arrived and he immediately launched into action. In short order he had completed the changes and off he went to enjoy driving the truck. Unfortunately, the dashboard started lighting up like a Christmas tree with all kinds of codes indicating problems. What had started as an exciting performance improvement project turned into a mechanical nightmare. It took several weeks, a few bucks, our local mechanic, and a dealership to sort through and resolve where we had sent things sideways. As we worked to resolve our self-inflicted struggle, dad was mad and the boy felt bad. The good news was that the issue was related to an underlying issue more so than the intervention we had done. Our efforts revealed a past problem. The boy felt better and at the end of our efforts, he was allowed to put the vehicle back to the condition that he wanted to with the original changes.
As a result of the experience father and son came up with two Titan takeaways that captured lessons learned.
- The Universe of what we don’t know is infinite relative to the little planet of limited knowledge on which we live.
- Any idiot can start something. Skill lies in finishing projects successfully.
The first takeaway suggests that we should adopt a posture of humility. No matter how smart we are, the world is complex. In an article in The New Yorker in 2008 about the credit crisis, writer, John Lanchester notes, “Here’s another way of describing that flaw: the people in power thought they knew more than they did.” John Wheeler, one of the physicists that was part of creating the hydrogen bomb, observed “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” The best learners and true experts in any field are those who are able to keep their mind open. A phrase I’ve heard which reflects a position of humility goes something like, I know enough to be dangerous and not enough to be useful. It reflects the reality that whatever level of knowledge has been earned in a domain, there’s more to know. Acting like we have the answers and know everything leads us to become dangerous to ourselves and others. The reality is that as soon as we believe we know it all, the doors to our mind close. Confidence can clog our cognition. This is a flaw of many experts that believe their job is to know the answer. Investment legend, Charlie Munger, has noted that “it’s very common to be utterly brilliant and still think you’re way smarter than you actually are.” As the stoic philosopher Epictetus observed several thousand years ago, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”
A great article that details how easy it is to fall into the trap of understanding offers the idea that we use frameworks to make sense of complex subjects. However, our familiarity with the framework can act as a fence keeping our attention away from additional context. Alexandra Horowitz wrote On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation in which she writes about walking a few blocks in her community with different experts. She walked with biologists, architects, doctors, and other varied professionals. She was amazed by what each saw on the walks which she never noticed. She came to realize that most of the time we’re missing out on the majority of things in our environment. No matter how well we think we know our own backyards, we’re missing out on an abundance of information. Others see the world through very different eyes than we. They are seeing things we aren’t. We can’t possibly see or know everything. We need to be more humble in our own perspective and respectful of the perspective of others.
Instead of working to present ourselves as knowledgeable experts, it’s better to pursue the path of Plato when he wrote in The Republic, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Before Plato, Socrates was a renown philosopher in Greece. Legend has it that Socrates was baffled when others came to him and called him the wisest man in the world. He didn’t agree and wandered around the city of Athens to find others wiser. Socrates talked with poets, businessmen, politicians, other artisans, and philosophers. The more he talked with so called experts, the more he realized they seemed to share the common element of certainty. They had extreme confidence in their opinions. They possessed an air of certainty Socrates found disconcerting. Robert Greene recounts this story in The 50th Law, noting of Socrates, “His superiority … was that he knew that he knew nothing. This left his mind open to experiencing things as they are, the source of all knowledge. This position of basic ignorance was what you had as a child. You had a need and hunger for knowledge, to overcome this ignorance, so you observed the world as closely as possible, absorbing large amounts of information. Everything was a source of wonder.”
The wise embrace a sense of wonder and recognize that the more we know the more there is to know. This is exciting and not scary for those confident in their ability to look and learn. Those of us more invested in protecting our ego and preserving our image as intelligent limit our learning by posturing as having the answers. Tim Ferriss in Tools of Titans notes, “The worst thing you can ever do is think that you know enough. Never stop learning. Ever.” Wisdom is a pathway, not a destination. Dave Rubin in his book Don’t Burn This Country, supports learning the lesson of being open-minded and humble in interactions with others writing, “Like my great mentor Larry King said after years of interviewing those across the religious, ideological, and political spectrum: ‘The only thing I know is I don’t know.’ Take in ideas. Stay curious. Think critically.” Or, as the late coach John Wooden put it, “It’s what you learn after you know everything that matters.” We need to be willing and ABL (always be learning) and there will be a place for us. Cultivating curiosity is at the heart of building an interesting life. Moreover, it’s the catalyst for creativity and innovation. We’re encouraging the adoption of intellectual humility which is approaching conversations and topics with the recognition that “I could be wrong.” It follows an appreciation for the fact that we are all flawed creatures driven first by emotions. We have biases, our reasoning isn’t perfect, we can’t possibly be certain about things. It’s great to be curious. We should be cautious about being over-confident. We should look forward to learning and be open-minded to input from others.
The second lesson learned is that excellence in execution involves completing not starting. It’s accepting the wisdom of a German proverb that suggests, “To begin is easy, to persist is an art.” We’re all guilty of starting things we don’t finish, except for desserts, those we have an uncanny ability to fully finish. A project can’t be considered successful until it is brought to fruition. Completion means achieving the intended outcome. Sure, starting is something. It’s better than doing nothing. However, the majority of new business initiatives stall, languish, and are left undone. So, too, it is in our personal lives. How many resolutions have we started only to stop? Tim Grover writes in Relentless, “Lots of people start things; few are able to finish. Why? Grover suggests a reason we don’t finish things we start is “They don’t trust themselves to get to the end.” An absence of belief in ourselves or the initiative may lead to things stalling. A separate cause for stopping may be stumbling into obstacles. When the road to progress no longer seems seamless, our interest in the destination may decrease.
The likelihood of success on a project will be influenced by addressing these types of obstacles in advance of initiating efforts. Do you have confidence in yourself that you can do what’s necessary to complete the task? Are you sure this is a road you are prepared to fully commit? Is this an important enough initiative for which to sacrifice and struggle? Have you taken the time to define exactly what success looks like? What has to occur for the project to be considered complete? Will you own responsibility for the result right to the end? Do you have a plan which you’re looking to execute? Have you considered obstacles that may reasonably be anticipated? Starting is much simpler than completing. The difference between starting something and finishing something is the difference between making a child and raising one. It’s a lot easier to make a child than it is to raise one. The difficulty lies in the long-term commitment and dedication to persevering through many ups and downs. The skill lies in surmounting the struggles not in starting.
These two takeaways should spur us to embrace the lyrics of Elvis noting “Only fools rush in.” Our enthusiasm at getting going on something should be balanced against proper project planning. Counter our confidence and chutzpah with thinking things through. It’s better to do nothing before we do something. Only take action where we’re prepared to face the consequences of our actions. Ideally, these takeaways should coalesce to inspire humility and caution in our actions. We should work to adopt the Hippocratic oath of “Above all, do no harm.” That should be our mantra in moving forward on projects. Let’s not make things worse. If we’re not confident, then allow caution to hold us back. Humility helps. Tread carefully. Beyond these two takeaways we found a third bonus one which was that trust is the greatest gift we can receive from someone else, so don’t take it lightly. When someone trusts us by giving us autonomy or responsibility over a task, it’s a privilege to receive this. It’s a sign that someone is placing faith in us. It’s something we should be both grateful for and burdened by. We should welcome the weight of this responsibility and do our best to perform well. The gift of trust from someone should spur us to pay close attention to the first two takeaways.