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To succeed tomorrow, say these 3 words today

Oct 02, 2011 Success, Sunday Nation

There are three words you need to be able to say often if you are to have any success in today’s world. Those three words are: I DON’T KNOW.

Those are in fact the three words most people of accomplishment are least likely to say. We are conditioned by our education, and indeed by early success, to never utter such heresies. I don’t know? Of course I know. That’s why I’m where I am – because I know things.

Maybe in the more stable world of yesteryear, you could get away with saying “I know” all the time. Now, you have to look around you and ask yourself what you really know.

Did the bosses of HP, Research in Motion, Microsoft and Nokia, accomplished people all, know just a couple of years ago that their dominant companies would hit major roadblocks and would require reinvention in order to proceed?

Did anyone think it possible to depose Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak this time last year?

Did any expert analyst tell you after September 2001 that Osama bin Laden would live for another 10 years, and would finally meet his end on the orders of a black man called Obama – and that we would view it all on our mobile phones on something called Al Jazeera? If such a prophet exists I should like to meet him.

The pace of change in business and organizations, and the uptake of new technology, is breathtaking these days. To tell yourself you know what’s coming, and you know what to do, is to delude yourself. And in that delusion will lie failure.

Pundits from Tom Peters to Dan Ariely to Tim Harford are telling us: we don’t know. It’s too complicated. Too many variables are interacting to create the futures of individuals and companies for anyone to know what’s coming. Sure, we can make educated guesses and generate conjectures and consider scenarios. But knowing with certainty? Not really.

The problem with saying “I know” is that it sows the seeds of future failure. If you think you know, you will not make any effort to find out anything further. You will proceed unchecked, confident in your knowledge and ability, and you will be blind to the forces that will soon surround and destroy you.

Saying “I don’t know” is the beginning of success, because the next steps are to find out whatever you can, and to minimize your uncertainty. You will consult widely, and gather insights from unusual sources. Most importantly, you will try many things out. You will design multiple experiments, and make many bets rather than a single large one. The insights you will develop from this trial-and-error process are what will drive your success, and that is why thinkers like Harford and Ariely recommend this approach.

Sadly, the reverse is true in many aspects of life. People who have had even limited success seem to develop “God-complexes” very quickly, and start imagining they can see it all and know it all and that their way is the right way, or else it’s the highway.

People like those have climbed to the top of many a corporate and political tree, and are now busy issuing cast-iron edicts and crafting me-me-me strategies. These people will undo many others. We should learn from the current tribulations of the formerly certain; no one knows, and those who think they do, will soon be denuded.

The worst part of “I know” is that it kills curiosity. Curiosity, contrary to the popular saying, does not kill cats. That was an aphorism invented by lords and masters in days of yore to keep serfs in their place. Curiosity keeps you alive and in a state of productive wonder. It makes the next step necessary.

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