Aside

Say Something Stupid

There are only two types of people in the world: Learning Beings, and Zealots.

Learners are those that recognize that they will find out what they don’t know and they’ll keep modifying their ideas, perspectives, and approaches to adapt to the change around them.  Zealots are the opposite. The word Zealot comes from the Greek root to be “jealous of the truth” – to guard it as your own. Not surprising, Zealots hold an absolute conviction that they are right. Right, as in: us/them, black/white, same/different, and a good/evil world. In today’s new stream, we see some seriously Zealot like behavior when it comes to the debt fight.

Being a zealot has a lot of appeal. It is a place of mastery, of certainty, of confidence. Zealots hold their head up higher, they lack in doubt, and therefore can forge ahead with more ease than the Learner. I vouch that Zealots interview really, really well. Zealots seem remarkably strong as entrepreneurs. Zealots often win a PR war with Learners because they are convincing in their convicted-ness of being so darn right. (As in, So. Darn. Right.)

Learners think of Zealots as intractable, Zealots think of Learners as wusses.

An odd fact?  The Learner and the Zealot will be wrong about the same mount of the time. Sad, but true. But the Zealot, once forced to deal with the wrongness will go with a “sure mistakes were made but not by me” alibi. Zealots are simply unable to say “I don’t know”, and will often make the wrongness about the world around them, the situation at hand, blame someone else, and forever explain away the error. The zealots deny the failure as theirs, at almost any cost. They, therefore, miss the inherent opportunity in it, which is to learn and discover what they actually need to know.

(graphic was from New How, the book, custom created for me by @gapingvoid)

Here’s where Learners have an opportunity: learners are open to seeing things anew, and when they do this, they benefit from the unique upside of being open to what could be, which is a creative space . After all, isn’t being open the very essence of innovation, of curiosity, of exploration, of the many creative acts like that of art, of our own individuality, of the rub that fuels entrepreneurs, or even what allows each of us to grow as people? When we can see a wrong or a gap, and our own hand in it, we can see the world anew, make another choice, and chart a new course.

But many people, myself included at times, avoid the role of Learner. We human-ites don’t want to be or appear “stupid”. We don’t want to face the hard and sometimes humbling task of then figuring out a different story that makes more sense. Instead, we human-ites love to know, we love the feeling of mastery, and the confidence our knowledge (our MBA, our job status) gives us.

I had this very human-ite experience myself a few weeks ago… as I was  “interviewing” for a role, and got asked the question of what I was most proud of. I had a moment of pause where I thought about what kind of answer to give: If I wanted to lean towards my bravado and knowingness, or to be a bit more of my fuller self which includes doubt and unknowingness . I went with the fuller picture, figuring the guy could take it. I answered that my humility to always question and be okay being in a state of not knowing was the thing I was most proud of.  Felt weird to say I was “proud” of my humility. Because as you know, I wasn’t always this way.

But, after the call ended, I wanted to change my answer. I played back the response, and it sounded so mealy-mouth, so weak, so un-polished and I started to question who would say yes to wanting a humble person? I had the strongest urgent to call the guy back, and point out that my peer CEO group voted for me as the MVP for several years in a row. That had a little more awesomeness, it was a little more Hoo-Yah, and was a little less … humble. I resisted making the call, or writing the email to change my answer. But, ooooh, how I wanted to.  I still feel that angst in my chest.

Because here’s the reality… Most of us would rather have, and show, and even hire for confidence, even it it’s false confidence. I wrote about this in New How (chapter 2) where I talked about the fear of looking bad can often limit our own contributions:

“Staying curious keeps us mentally agile. By treating our experiences, knowledge, or insights as complete or “done”, we limit ourselves to the past rather than embracing the future. As long as we restrict incoming data sets, we screen out good ideas along with the bad. We lose essential information, constricting our ability to invent, reinvent, and create (and co-create) the future. …In the long run, what truly matters is that what each of us knows today but our ability to continually expand the aperture of what each of us can see, and understand tomorrow.”

Look around at your next meeting where there’s tension. No one wants to be wrong. As Kathryn Schulz says in her book, Being Wrong: To be wrong is to admit that because of our own inattention, distraction, lack of interest, poor preparation, genuine stupidity, timidity, braggadocio, emotional imbalance, ideological, radical, social or chauvinistic prejudices – we failed. In other words, many of us believe that when we are wrong, we demonstrate some social, or intellectual or moral failing … Perhaps even all 3.   But to be a Learner is to embrace that as a given reality — a truth, so that we can get better.

Learning takes active inquiry and the use of questions. Learning takes humility and living in a state of not knowing, yet. Learning takes a certain courage that we can outpace others, if we admit to not knowing so we can learn what we need to learn.  Above all, taking the learning, open stance is an act of faith – a believe that you don’t need to fake it, you can be genuine and you will still arrive where you need to be.

Learning Being or Zealot? Which are you? Even though I started the post with a declarative posture; humans are not that simple. We can be sometimes stubbornness embodied, and sometimes too wuss to stand up for what we believe. It is not as if each of us fall into one camp, and never the other. Each of us often do a mix of both. As my own story suggested, we face this fork in the road, regularly. But it’s a choice at that fork in the road, for each of us and how we choose to work and live with one another.

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I dedicate this post to an author on this theme, Kathryn Schulz. (If I used her clarity of writing as a standard for writing myself, I’d never even try to write again.) Her book is called Being Wrong. I highly recommend it as it gave me more nuance, and language, and perspective on this topic of wrongness. Alternatively, her TED talk was fabulous. In it, she makes a compelling case for not just admitting but embracing this “say something stupid” philosophy.

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After writing this post, Laura Fitton (@pistachio) turned me on to this Humility Oath. I signed it. You can too (http://www.humilityimperative.com/sign-the-oath/). So there, now you have permission to keep me in check.

 

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7 Responses:

  1. Joe McCarthy. July 27, 2011 at 3:27 am  |  

    I find blogging to be a good platform for saying stupid things. Although I try to be – or appear – knowledgeable, I often meander into areas in which I don’t even know what I don’t know [yet] … and comments sometimes offer unanticipated opportunities for learning.

    At several times while reading this post, I was reminded of a Doonesbury cartoon on liberals vs. conservatives from July 2003 that satirically illustrates several of your points about Learners vs. Zealots. In the main portion of that strip, conservative character Chase Talbot III sums up the differences between liberals and conservatives: “[Y]ou liberals are hung up on fairness! You actually try to respect all points of view! But conservatives feel no need whatsoever to consider other views. We know we’re right, so why bother? Because we have no tradition of tolerance, we’re unencumbered by doubt! So we roll you guys every time!” When liberal character Mark Slackmeyer replies “Actually, you make a good point…”, Chase responds, “See! Only a loser would admit that!”

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring embrace of curiosity and the state of not knowing!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. July 27, 2011 at 5:40 pm  |  

      Yeah, we see this behavior in politics and in some ways, we hire for the “confidence” of our leaders. Doonesbury got it right.

      Reply
  2. Liz Sumner. July 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm  |  

    Thought-provoking post. I just watched Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk just yesterday and was similarly inspired.

    I’m glad you closed with saying it’s not one or the other. While I consider myself a Learning Being and wouldn’t want to be any other way, I struggle to be confident enough to express thoughts publicly, growing and changing though they may be. Part of learning is also teaching. I can’t just consume, I must also share.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. July 27, 2011 at 5:43 pm  |  

      Can I offer something that works for me in this domain?

      When I’m starting to form an opinion but have not enough facts, data, or thought time into it, I start with “let me give you my nickel cent view on this and caveat it with the fact that there’s way more for me to learn…” and then I share. That gives me an “out” but it also starts to put the question(s) and topics into discussion that shapes the conversation with/by others. Sometimes I learn right away a gap because I put my thing out there; othertimes, I shape the conversation others are having because I was willing to express.

      Each of us has to find a way to “be confident enough” and that’s often a practice that becomes self-reinforcing.

      Reply
  3. Thom. July 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm  |  

    Thanks for this one Nilofer! Really enjoyed it. I think learning beings do not deserve the acknowledgement they deserve sometimes.
    More generally, it made me think of another wonderful TED speech (Tim Harford) that actually underlies the idea of exploring, and us humans not even able to understand everything. Please find it here if you’re interested: http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford.html.

    Reply

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