Why What You Know Can Get In The Way Of Getting It Done


Tuesday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence. – Mark Twain

Megan McArdle, in her book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is The Key To Success, writes about the spaghetti problem – a challenge where teams are given some spaghetti and asked to build the tallest structure they can.

Things kind of work out as expected.

The engineers get it sort of right and build something that stands up.

Business students and lawyers spend all their time arguing about who is the leader and don’t actually build anything.

The ones who get it right are the kids – who crack on with it and figure it out as they go along.

Crucially – they tend to be the ones that ask for more spaghetti – and there’s nothing in the rules to stop them getting more.

They just didn’t know what everyone else assumed – that what you had was what you got.

There’s something common about many successful business people. You often wonder how they got to be so successful – and it certainly wasn’t their smarts.

Sometimes, you can talk to them and think to yourself “If you only knew how crazy an idea that was you’d never get started.”

But they don’t know. And they go right ahead and make a ton of money.

Mark Twain’s comment is tongue-in-cheek but it’s one of those comments that is also literally true.

Industries get turned upside down when someone comes along and creates a new way of doing things – something that everyone thought was impossible.

After all, people once thought there wouldn’t be a need for more than ten or so computers in the whole world.

So, should we cultivate ignorance then? Is not knowing stuff the answer to being successful?

And that’s not the case either. Those successful people are smart – but just not in the traditional way. They’re smart about people, about what sells, about what excites others. They’re smart about getting smart people to work for them.

It’s a kind of smart that’s called instinct.

When that’s paired with confidence those people go far because they’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done while the rest of us play it safe and do the sensible thing.

And there are two other things.

One is luck.

You can’t discount the effect of luck in how many things turn out.

And the second is who wants it more.

The lawyers and the business students want to lead the group.

The engineers want to figure it out.

The kids want to win.

In any situation the people who want it the most are the ones who are going to make the most of things.

So, for those of us who do not have Mark Twain’s qualities it may be useful to act as if we do – to stop letting what we know and the fears we have get in the way of what we could be.


Karthik Suresh

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