Embrace Your Ignorance

24.10.2017 |

Episode #3 of the course Problem solving by Nat Greene


Intrepid problem solvers,

Yesterday we talked about getting really intimate with the symptoms of your problem—sometimes so close you can literally smell them. Today we are going to talk about a mindset that is critical all the time but is especially necessary when you are smelling the problem.

Embracing one’s ignorance is something most people are really bad at for a lot of reasons, and it is a behavior that makes great problem solvers stand out in the crowd. Great problem solvers know they must become masters of the unique problem and the process it affects. They know that when they walk into a new situation, they must be more focused on learning what they do not yet know than demonstrating the knowledge they already have. They ask questions others might think are stupid and challenge what “everyone knows” to make sure they have the facts.


Why We Hide Our Ignorance

Often we are afraid to admit what we don’t know, even to ourselves: it is comforting to imagine that we already have a good idea of the solution to our problem and can take action. This need for comfort is of course reinforced in our upbringing, where we are rewarded for having the right answer and taking action immediately. And asking questions can also be emotionally difficult. People are afraid to look stupid in front of peers, friends, colleagues, and clients.

Ultimately, it is the fear of being “exposed” that causes many people to hide behind their ignorance and accept poor problem solving. There is a fear of public failure when you commit yourself or your resources to solving a hard problem. Even when diving into a problem, there is a fear of looking ignorant or “stupid” by asking questions one is “supposed to know.”


What Happens When We Hide Behind Ignorance

When people hide behind their ignorance, they fail to contribute to solving the problem. They pretend to know something they don’t: they give the corporate nod, and they develop or reinforce organizational myths and legends. All of these occur in place of asking really good questions. When this happens, it will easily lead a problem-solving effort completely off the rails because people are operating under a false understanding.


Embrace Your Ignorance, Then Slay It

Great problem solvers aren’t afraid of their ignorance, and they are not afraid of others seeing it. Great questions shatter assumptions, provoke new insight, and put those that do know about the process or system in a position to contribute their expertise. Great problem solvers build confidence and don’t need to present themselves as all-knowing. They are unafraid to ask seemingly “stupid” questions because they understand that solving a hard problem does more for their reputation than looking like they know everything.

But great problem solvers don’t just admit their ignorance: they embrace it. They understand that introducing a little bit of smart ignorance into a problem-solving effort will get people asking questions for which they assumed they already had answers. Great problem solvers use their ignorance to help experts close to the problem or process to explain their understanding thoroughly and to sort out fact from assumption in that explanation. Often, the effort of merely explaining a complex process to a smart and ignorant person actually causes the people closest to the problem to develop a new understanding and insight.

So go run towards the unknown. Tomorrow we will talk about how to make sure we are solving the right problem in the first place.



Recommended video

Embrace Your Ignorance


Recommended book

Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, who is the greatest teacher I know in helping you switch from a mindset of “proving yourself” to a mindset of learning.


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