Thursday, September 02, 2010

Message #8 - Don't Be A Know-It-All

This is the eighth in a series of monthly messages:

How do you react to a ‘know-it-all?’ Probably like the rest of us – not positively. Who wants to deal with the smug certainty of a ‘smarty pants?’

Now take a good look at yourself. You may not be insufferable, but I’ll bet there are times when you want to show how much you know.

Listen up! Don’t Be a Know-It-All!

The most exasperating people I’ve worked with or known are those who know a lot – or think they do. An arrogance and closed-mindedness frequently accompanies knowledge. Why, I’m not sure. It may be part of the culture of the erudite, most visible in academia. But the arrogance of knowing is not limited to university campuses or PhDs.

It’s in the workplace when management thinks it is superior to blue-collar workers or when senior management looks down at junior management. But know-it-alls are not only on the job.

Look at yourself in everyday interactions. When you are questioned about something that has happened, do you become defensive? Do you use what you know or think you know to justify your actions? Do you try to deflect the accusation?

Even when there’s nothing wrong, what people know gets in the way. The guy selling me salmon at the grocery store explains in great detail why he has only farmed, not fresh, salmon. He overwhelms me with a dissertation that covers ecology, stream degradation, color variations in the fish, and the buying habits of his clientele. OK, OK, I think, I’ll take the farmed stuff; just stop talking so I can go buy my eggs.

I ask the waiter what’s in the chopped salad. I’d be happy with a simple “lettuce, salami, cheddar cheese, garbanzo beans and a vinaigrette dressing.” But I get a treatise on the trip to the farmer’s market, the quality of the local producers, and the special flavors infused by the chef. Again, the tyranny of knowledge.

These are not bad people. They aren’t consciously trying to drown me in verbiage. They’re just doing what comes naturally, even though if they were on the receiving end of the conversation they’d be as bored with it as I am.

There is another aspect to the knowledge phenomenon. Once you think you know something, you’ll likely rely on what you know rather than try to deepen your mastery of the subject. Wait! Hold that thought. Before you jump to the conclusion that I’ve condemned knowledge and now I’m saying you should have more it, let me explain.

First, on the issue of demeaning knowledge. Knowledge is not the problem. It’s what you do with it. When you use knowledge appropriately it is extremely valuable. When used to inflate your ego, to dominate, or to make others wrong it is a weapon best left unused.

As to resting on your laurels, being satisfied with what you know, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said: “What you learn after you know everything is what really counts.”

Zen Buddhists address this when they talk about ‘Beginner’s Mind.” They are referring to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki makes the point powerfully: In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.

While I’m quoting, here’s one more: the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, said: “It is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.”

How many times have you stopped learning because you already knew enough? I’m not saying you should obsess about everything that comes your way. You don’t need to launch an endless search for knowledge just to demonstrate that you won’t stop short. That’s ridiculous.

But about those subjects that interest you or when you would be served by knowing more, go the extra step, do what Wooden says really matters. Just don’t get too full of yourself when you do.

Brilliant people who aren’t in love with their knowledge are more than smart, they are wise.

Don’t be a know-it-all!


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