Knowledge Is Power. Get Some.

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There is a story about a brilliant legal scholar who, after penning an outstanding legal analysis, would turn it over to his students for review and editing. He was asked why he would have young students do the editing instead of doing the work himself. After all, what could they know that he didn’t? How could they, even collectively, know better than he could know? He had a simple response: his students, at that moment, were engaged in the process of learning the very subject matter in the paper. Because their learning was “active,” they were more knowledgeable at that moment. The information was fresh in their minds.

It seems to us that we and many of our colleagues would do well to learn from that legal scholar. We don’t know everything. Some things we know are wrong. Often, to solve a problem or to get to a deal, we apply only what we know, when it is something we don’t yet know that is needed. The words, “I don’t know” are rarely heard. We abide by the law of the hammer: “To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

No matter how smart someone might be, she or he can’t know the answer to every question. We need to be more humble. When we treat the person on the other side of a deal as an adversary, we create a screen that deters her or him from teaching us and we dismiss what we hear from them as solely motivated by their adverse interest. That’s wrong. We need to prefer knowledge over ignorance. None of us knows everything that can be known. And, as Mark Twain (a/k/a Samuel Clemens) is thought to have said, but perhaps not: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

We realize that Ruminations might be preaching to the choir today. After all, our words will only be seen by you – you who have chosen to read this posting and be challenged by it (and our 457 earlier ones). Yet, we “know” that not every reader works diligently to stay on top of her or his game. Not everyone participates in professional associations where adversity-free discussions of problem-solving solutions take place. Not everyone subscribes to publications in this field. Not everyone avails herself or himself of the free, low-cost or premium-cost live and on-line seminars available to all of us. And, as we re-emphasize, few avail ourselves of the free education we get every day from those on the other side of a deal.

Ruminations knows it will get and does deserve blowback for accusing ourselves and our colleagues of hubris (excessive pride or self-confidence), but at least we aren’t making an accusation of arrogance. Self-confidence has a lot of things to recommend it.

At this point, we’re rolling out one of our favorite quotations. This time we do so to support a thesis. It is that we all would be better at what we do if we accept that we haven’t already learned everything we need to do our jobs. The quote comes from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and reads as follows:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

We’ve emphasized the part most relevant to our profession while offering its preceding words for consideration as a much more general matter.

The next time someone on the other side of your deal offers a view that you knew ahead of time would be “wrong,” take a couple of seconds to ask yourself whether you are “wrong.” You probably aren’t, but:

If that person’s opinion is right, you are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging your error for that truth: if that person is wrong, you lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

We each need to ask whether what we “know” is “knowledge” or just “prejudice.”

And, while you’re at it, why not join a professional association or sign up for a relevant professional program as a year-end gift to yourself?


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