Humility Is A Prerequisite To Effective Problem Solving

An Edmonton Oilers player from the mid 80s once told me that Wayne Gretzky spent hours watching video tapes of hockey games.  Why?  Because he was finding patterns of play development that he could use to his advantage.  Gretzky was seeking depth of understanding and it paid dividends for him.

Many of us, maybe all of us, believe we know certain things.  The question is, “How superficial is our knowledge?”  In most cases, very superficial.  If we think we know more than we actually know, then we have a problem.  We cannot learn more.

“It is impossible to teach someone something that they believe they already know.”  Epictetus

That inability to expand our knowledge is a serious impediment to success.

Many things we think we know about are really just emotional responses.  Good/bad.  Little more.  The problem could lie on either side of of the problem/solution border.  If I cannot describe my problem well enough, I cannot choose an optimal solution.  Worse still, I may end up with a solution for no known problem. Or I  may have poor methods to address the problem.  Match good product or technique with a clearly defined problem is the goal. 

All solutions are like that.  Think of it like a shoe box.  I put the problem in the box. I put the solution in the box. I write the expiry date on the outside.  I tape it all shut and throw it in the attic. 

Throwing the box in the attic with only the problem inside is dangerous.  Problems with no solution always escape from the box.  Similarly putting the solution into the box alone accomplishes nothing other than to drive up your overhead.

The key to success is to know what you don’t know and what effects the unknown may present.

For example, I have learned a little about quantum mechanics because one of my sons is involved in that.  If ever you need to learn how tiny the fraction of what you know can be, quantum mechanics is not a bad place to start.  I know some of the words and have an incomplete picture of what they mean.  I cannot do the math.  I have an image of Dirac’s equation on my desk to help me remain humble.


Recently the question of “wave form” came up and I asked the son what would happen if the wave form became a tsunami.  His one second later response was, “You mean like a laser.”  I had never thought of a laser that way.  You see things differently when your knowledge is deeper.  He has not got back to me on what happens with a gravity wave tsunami.  That might be harder to create in the lab.

What I have learned from all this is humility is a great asset.  

Seek help defining the questions.  You can never know too much.  More experienced people can see both voids and contradictions in your knowledge.  Never believe you know solutions outside your field of expertise.  It’s hard to keep up and solutions change more than the questions. Some changes are quite technical. 

If the problem matters to you, an optimal solution is worth the humility approach.

Always remember, everyone is about equally incompetent once they get past the things they know in depth.

Be like Gretzky.  Always be on the lookout for more information and new connections. Find new applications of old ideas. Creativity is in the depth of knowledge. Or if you are little time pressured, get someone to help you.

Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario.  In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.

Please be in touch if I can help you.  866-285-7772

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