On being humbled by the lack of knowledge

On my first job, during one of my first days, my boss was giving me lessons on how to deal with complicated clients. She told be about a tactic that she used that could help me get out of tough spots every once in a while. She said, “When you’re losing an argument with a client, just say ‘You’re absolutely right!’.”

This was around 2004. I was an intern at an advertising agency and my boss was the senior account executive. She was in charge of all the big clients and I was in charge of following her to meetings and takings notes for her briefings. She had been doing her job for over 15 years. She knew what she was talking about. I had just arrived.

Week three of the job came and my boss decided that I was ready to prospect my own clients. It was three in the afternoon, I was half asleep writing a briefing on the computer when I hear this thunderous BANG! right beside me and nearly fall of the chair. She had just dropped a huge 2 kilo phone directory on my table. She looked at me and said, “This is our current market. I need you to call all of the companies in this book and offer them our advertising services. You can just open it randomly, pick one, call and keep tab of who you’re calling. Aim for the big ones.” 

I thought she was kidding, so I laughed. 

She wasn’t kidding.

I felt that this approach was so absurd – and I was only 19 at this point – that I had to say something. So I said, “Is this really the best way to prospect clients? It doesn’t seem efficient.” She answered, “You’re the intern; I’m the expert. Do the work.” To which I readily replied, “You’re absolutely right. I’m on it.”

I still had to do the daily random calling every day for a few months, but we got along much better after this. With time, patience and a bit of reverse psychology, I got her to come around and start using some more efficient and effective strategies for prospecting clients. I remembered an old Ogilvy story I had read and used it as compass.

Ogilvy’s initial foray into direct mail came when he was an office boy at a London advertising agency. A man came in wanting to advertise a country house he was converting into a hotel. He had just $500 to spend on an ad campaign, and the agency head quickly turned the assignment over to one of his lowliest employees.

The clever young man – Ogilvy – invested the small budget into penny postcards (covered, no doubt, in his own glowing copy) and mailed them to wealthy people who lived in the area. Six weeks later, when the hotel opened, it had a full house.

The Advertising Solution by Craig Simpson

I have used “You’re absolutely right” a thousand times since then. It works. 

The years passed, and I realized that the “You’re right” really actually implies that “I don’t know”. In other words, by confirming that the other person was right, I was admitting my own ignorance. When I thought I was just practicing detachment from my own pride, I was actually internalizing that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t always actually right. Sometimes, it turned out that I really didn’t know.

Although this concept may seem simple, we live in a world where we all are expected to be experts. The world demands that we know. We have to know. If we don’t know, we don’t get ahead. If we don’t have an MBA, we won’t get the best jobs. If we don’t know the big people or don’t have the best network, then we won’t be known or won’t get promoted. If we don’t know how to pitch, sell, market, growth hack, life hack, love hack, motivate, build business, practice mindfulness, meditate, weight-lift or speak 3 languages, we won’t be successful. We won’t live a happy and rich life.

This so-called abstract pseudo-meritocratic information era is putting a strain on every human being to be a living-breathing-walking big data platform that spends 24 hours a day taking data inputs and calculating exact effective outcomes. To not know is not an option.

But it could be. 

Not knowing and having the humility to admit it allows you to make mistakes without failing. I don’t believe that failure is when you try and fail. Failure is when you try, fail and give up. If you try and fail and learn and start over again (construct, measure, learn? See The Lean Startup by Erick Ries), then it’s not failure. It’s experience.

Early 2016 I applied for a Master’s Degree in Science, Technology and Innovation at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte. This course wants to look at the process of creating a product, service, process or business from the perspective of the scientific method (watch this video of Richard Feynman giving the ULTIMATE lesson on scientific method). I had to prepare a project for a product, service or process that was innovative and submit it to the faculty. My brilliant idea – which I didn’t even think to validate before submitting – got a fantastically well-deserved 3 out of 10.

On the second semester, the same program opened again with only 10 spots and over 100 applicants. I went to the university, knocked on the door of the course’s director and said, “I really want to earn a Master’s Degree in your course. But, I really need some help with my project.” He said, “Ok, sure! What’s your idea?” I said, “I don’t know.” So, we sat down, talked, and throughout the following 4 weeks he advised me on the creation of my second project. When results came out, I got a 10 out of 10 and got my spot. He later called me and offered to be my adviser throughout the next 2 years and we are now an official team.

“I don’t know” gets you places. It opens up doors. It welcomes change and value and connection. It inspires growth and evolution. It induces introspection and investigation. It pokes at our childlike curiosity and creativity. It humbles us.

My son, Noah, was once talking to me and said, “Mommy, you’re the most intelligent person in the world; you know everything.” I replied, “No, Noah. I don’t know everything, but every day I learn something from you.” He said, “Well, then maybe I’M the most intelligent person in the world!”

If there’s someone in this world who actually knows something, it’s Noah. Who knows?

Special note:

  1. According to the very well updated Nobel Prize website, Richard Feynman’s biography tell us that he is currently “a Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology.” And here I thought he was dead.

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