You Can’t Know Enough To Be Certainly Right

I have a collection of thoughts, mostly quotes, of people who enjoyed special knowledge and skill in their subject, and who still misestimated the future by a considerable margin.

The point as you read this is that while we can see how their idea was wrong, to the point of being funny, it was coherent thought at the time.  Periodically, it is smart to revisit the things you think are true.  Don’t believe everything you think.

  • “Who wants to listen to actors talk”  Harry Warner, Warner Brothers Motion Pictures
  • “Babe Ruth will regret the day he gave up pitching”  Tris Speaker, teammate and Hall of Fame Baseball player
  • “…so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”  Advice to King Ferdinand of Spain in respect to the proposed Christopher Columbus voyage.
  • “You better learn secretarial work or else get married.”  Modelling agent advice to Marilyn Monroe
  • “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.”  Yale Business school professor commenting on a project done by Fred Smith.  The paper essentially defined FedEx, which he founded.
  • “You don’t have a degree.  Hewlett-Packard has no use for you.”  Response to job applicant, Steven Jobs
  • “Man will not fly for 50 years.”  Wilbur Wright, 1901
  • “You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.”  Grand Ole Opry manager while firing Elvis Presley.
  • “Nice, but what is it for?”  IBM engineer looking at the first integrated circuit.
  • “640k should be enough for anyone”  Bill Gates
  • “There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.”  Margaret Thatcher

There are dozens and likely hundreds more.

There is a reason that they are now comic relief.  We can see how they came to be and even why they turned out as they did.  The original commentator had a key variable in mind that dominated their thoughts and blinded them to all surrounding possibilities.

That is why you need to revisit every thought and belief that you hold.  At least some of them were formed, and made internally permanent, based upon incomplete information, or upon information that is no longer true.

Sometimes we change and adapt to the world a little differently because we have learned a little more about the world.  Sometimes that small additional information invalidates the original, well formed thought.  Be alert.

If you rely on the opinion that things that have not been done before, cannot be done successfully you will usually be wrong.  Do not fall into opinions that include a strong “because.”  “Because” is usually situational, not general fact.  Which brings us to context.

Everything you believe is in the context of what you know.  Some of it is stacked beliefs that have lost the fundamental data set that created them.  Opinion based on opinion is dangerous.  The world is too complex to know everything, so there will be surprises and the resulting need to change.

Build the review and revise idea into the things in your life that matter to you.  It is surprising and refreshing to see what new things have come along.

I may need to turn in my rotary dial cellphone.


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Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. Contact:  

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