The Paradox Of Choice

Modern life presents us with so many choices we can no longer be happy with any of them. I yearn for the days when you could get expert advice and trust it. Today we have Google or Wikipedia to check before we believe our plumber, electrician, doctor, or chiropractor and the only person to blame when things go wrong is ourselves. A pressure that can often stop us making the decision at all; and yet we are told that more choice is a good thing.

Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice gives you the 20 minute version here.

I Still Have A Lot To Learn

I like to categorize people who are successful in getting promotions or new jobs in business into two types; ‘Knowers’ and ‘Learners’. I’m interested if anyone else has experience of this, or agrees with me.

Knowers come with predetermined skills and knowledge; they often consider themselves an expert in their field. They exude confidence. They believe 90% of their decisions are right (when in fact the percentage is probably worse than 50%). They work on gut instinct or some “facts” that they know from a previous experience that supports their position but never present those facts for others to see. They hate concepts like testing or trial and error, they want ‘full roll out’ of their ideas now. When they’re wrong they react with confusion or incredulity and look for the person or event that should be apportioned the blame.

Businesses bring these people in to fill a skills gap that is deemed urgent. They want someone who requires little or no training and can ‘hit the ground running’. Perhaps these types will be incorrectly labelled in their business as ‘fanatic’ or ‘passionate’; they can be the person who rarely listens to any alternate point of view and goes about discrediting all opposing ideas. People will naturally be drawn to Knowers because they always look like they know what they’re doing. These people can do some good in a business with their singular purpose and strength of will, but they can also do an inordinate amount of harm when they are wrong. They have the chance of taking one small mistake and pushing it through to become a catastrophe.

Learners happily admit they don’t know it all. That never changes through their career. A Learner may not have the great big idea on day one but will double their value to their business in thirty days, after a year they will know exponentially more than they knew at the start and be equally more valuable; but they will be the first to say: ‘I still have lots to learn’.

Learners have no fear of making mistakes or taking responsibility for them as they know that mistakes only teach them more. Sometimes labelled ‘thoughtful’ or ‘enthusiastic’, they can often be the one who gets very excited by new ideas, and finds new ideas everywhere, from the colleague sitting next to them to the shop where they buy their groceries. They want to test ideas, and they may make many mistakes in that process, but they are small errors that help course correct to a much more favourable long term outcome.

I think these two personality types are at either end of a bell curve. 90% of people cluster somewhere in the middle. They know some things and they learn some things. The people at either end of the curve, the extremes, tend to stand out to employers. In business I think both extremes tend to get promoted faster, partly because they are simply different from the crowd, also because they tend to represent what businesses are looking for: an expert to be parachuted in to save the day (the Knower), or more like a healer to assess the patient and offer some new direction (the Learner).

Knowers do not improve with time. What they know after a year is the same as what they knew on day one. While they can show a benefit initially, as a business moves on and evolves they are left behind, they eventually look obsolete if they remain, or some will leave to find a new role with another desperate business in need of a quick fix to start the process again.

After a few years people start to think the Learners are indispensable, that they couldn’t function without these people, as the business evolves they evolve with it, they often lead that evolution.

Of course, we all start out as Learners. It’s just some people fall out of love with the idea or never liked it much in the first place. For others learning can be a more potent self improvement drug than steroids.