Thursday, August 09, 2007

When You Don't Want To Look Like A Fool

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People do not wish to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance offoolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools.
- Alice Walker, writer (1944- )

No one should underestimate the significance of this statement. It describes well a shockingly large number of people in the western world.

See how familiar these sound to you. Never let them see you sweat. Don't blink first. A good executive is someone who always has someone else to blame.

In our business, our politics and our religious organizations the managers who rise to the top are those against whom the label of "loser" has never been applied. In those three fields, making a mistake is the free pass to the bottom of the heap, if not to prison or oblivion.

In recent years we have seen numerous examples in each of those fields of people who have been corrupt, who have made terrible mistakes, who have harmed countless others in their drive to the top. They have been caught, tried and punished, or the last step is in the process.

We still insist that our leaders must be perfect, faultless, unimpeachable. They aren't. They can't be. But we continue to act as if our leaders must be perfect.

To begin with, they must be as ignorant of new developments in the world as we imperfect souls are. So much new happens in each field of endeavour that it's all the experts can do to keep up with it in their own fields. In a field that is not theirs, they are as ignorant as the rest of us.

Doctors, for example, often spend at least one day each week updating their knowledge base and their skills, just in order to keep up with advances in their own specialties. Not doing so might result in litigation for malpractice.

With governments at all levels passing legislation and bylaws constantly, lawyers must spend much of their time catching up, including finding flaws and faults with new laws and bylaws. So much changes with respect to building codes, safety regulations and new engineering and design in the construction industry that builders must study constantly or fall behind. Every field experiences the same level of development and the same risks of its participants falling behind.

So much discussion and debate takes place in many parts of the world on a regular basis regarding religion that clerics must stay up with as much as they can or they will not have adequate answers for questions from their followers. Those who don't have answers resort to the old standby "Have faith."

When we listen to debates in different places on the same subjects it becomes obvious that seldom do debaters bring the same levels of knowledge to the table. The better prepared any participant is regarding an issue of religion, the more likely that person is to survive without embarrassment. Keeping up is nearly impossible.

The one field where we expect every participant to be the most knowledgeable and skilled or at least have access to others who are skilled is politics. Yet politicians require no level of expertise in any subject to be nominated, only a good support system. And popularity to be elected. The people who daily enact legislation that affects our lives are often no more knowledgeable about what is happening in the subject area of the laws than you and I. Consequently they vote how they are told by their leaders.

At some point the ignorance or lack of skill of everyone becomes evident if they work in a public arena. The most successful become skilled at backpedaling, fudging results and blaming others to survive.

The vast majority of us live personal lives where we unconsciously admit to ourselves that we can't keep up with everything. Yet we still subscribe to the belief that we mustn't make a mistake or admit to having made one. As Alice Walker said, we remain foolish in order to not look foolish.

When we can't repair something that breaks ourselves, we throw it away and buy a new one. We have our cars fixed at dealerships rather than small garages because the car companies have convinced us that only their mechanics (sorry, service technicians) have the skill to use a machine to diagnose a broken part and install a new part.

Many of us don't even vote because not only do we not know the candidates but we also have no idea what the issues are that the elected representatives will act upon. We claim that "they're all the same" or "they're all crooks anyway." These euphemistic statements serve to help us believe that we are not really as ignorant of what goes on in the government that affect our lives as we really are.

To make matters worse, many people have no idea where to acquire the knowledge they need to do something, even if they wanted to do it. The schools they grew up in taught them facts, reading and mathematics, but not the skills of resourcefulness to find what they need when they need it. That's typical of nineteenth century education, which serves us poorly in the twenty-first century.

It's not just foolish, but morally wrong, to remain ignorant rather than to admit that we need help from others and to ask for it so that we can conduct our lives with self respect and dignity rather than ignorance.

Ironically, people with great knowledge and skills usually enjoy teaching someone who wants to learn. They don't get asked much. They certainly won't impose themselves on others only to be repelled by people who don't want to be embarrassed by being shown their own ignorance.

We can all learn by experience. Asking someone else who knows is faster and easier.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to educate children so they won't be ignorant or foolish adults in a world that is rapidly becoming in need of greater expertise.
Learn more at

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