I Know Little, Therefore I Am—Valuable

Questions lead to answers

Searching for Answers

In my doctoral studies I was asked to write about the tension between questions and answers. Dr David Willis and Dr. Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu said: “This tension can be expressed in our need for mastery and our ability to embrace mystery. How much do we need to pursue and find answers? Can we live with questions? Do we need to control or can we live with vulnerability? In our search for competence can we search with humility?”

Expected to Know All

All of my previous training and experience has placed supreme value on not just knowing the answers, but knowing the right answers. In engineering and business school I was taught methods of calculating outcomes with high precision, e.g. within four standard deviations, assuming a normal distribution. When I worked in semiconductor manufacturing, defects were measured in parts per billion. In corporate environments such as Microsoft, we are expected to know the answers to every possible question. Executives are even trained in a method of interrogation called “precision questioning” whose intent is to find questions to which managers do not have answers.

A Whack in the Head

As I enter into the academy of scholarly research and discourse, a ruthless reality whacks me like a baseball bat—I know very, very little. And regardless of how hard I work for the rest of my life, and while my knowledge may increase many- fold, it will always be very, very little. So, how can I come to terms with that reality?


In business we are faced with a similar reality. We are only capable of completing a fraction of the tasks we are either asked to do, or want to do. So, we prioritize our to-do list, we draw a line where we exhaust our resources, and we let go of the items below the line. We lament those items will not get done. Then, we focus our attention on the item currently at the top of the list. After observing countless managers and executives I’ve found this is an extremely painful process for most. Indeed, I too have great difficulty accepting that I can’t do everything I want. “High-performing” executives especially pride themselves on their ability to get their staff to do everything on the list–“What do you mean there are only 24 hours in a day?!” In my book, “Selling Change,” I tell the true story of the successful venture capitalist who took personal control of a company called MiniScribe. He refused to accept the reality that he and his staff had limited abilities. He drove himself and his staff so hard that, rather than tell him that his goals were not being achieved, his staff shipped bricks to fictitious customers, instead of computer disk drives to IBM. The result? He was sentenced to jail, thousands of people lost their jobs, and dozens of companies went out of business.

Love Your Limitations

To be healthy and happy, we must not only accept the reality of our limitations, but we must revel in them. I have two friends who come to mind. They pride themselves on their “inabilities”. When they openly brag about how they have no desire to learn anything, I must confess that my stomach turns into knots. However, they are two of the happiest people I know. They are also excellent managers. By refusing to do things themselves, they impose a self-discipline to enlist the services of others. As a further act of “laziness”, one of them employs a strategy of waiting until other people have accomplished a task, then relying on those people’s recommendations to find the best person to do the job for her. Since another reality is that we are rarely the best person to do a job, my friend always has the best person doing the best work. What a concept! The result? She is extremely productive, efficient, and successful.

But Stretch Yourself

King of LuxuryIn my view my friends have taken the acceptance of their limitations a little too far. For example, by always following, they can never lead. I think it was the philosopher Kant (I’ve been reading recently about so many philosophers that they’re currently a blur) who employed the logic of the Categorical Imperative to analyze a hypothetical king who could live in complete luxury. Kant concluded that, despite the reality that we will never achieve perfection, we have a duty to learn as much as we can. Because, if everyone relied on others to learn and do the work, no one would know or do anything—and no luxury would exist—for anyone.

Still Valuable

As an engineer and corporate practitioner, I may have a bias toward old-fashioned modernist thinking. But, I am reminded of Descartes’ proposition: I think therefore I am. Expanding this into a post-modern view would include: I think, sense, experience and care—therefore, I am. In any case, none of the great philosophers has proposed, “I know everything. Therefore, I’m perfect. Therefore, I am.”

Both as a scholar and practitioner, I must accept, “I think, sense, experience, and care—as much as I can—therefore, despite my limitations, I am an equally valuable member of the academy and of my profession.

Are you thinking, maintaining your awareness, gaining as many experiences, and caring as much as you can? If so, you too are a valuable member of your organization, community, and family. Do you ever feel undervalued? Want to be more valuable? Think more. Sense more. Experience more. Care more.

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