One of the more influential pieces of art on my worldview is the science fiction comedy Men in Black. Yes you read that right. My philosophy is underpinned by a speech by Tommy Lee Jones.
1500 years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the Universe. 500 years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat and 15 minutes ago you knew people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow
I don’t really know shit. I know enough to know I don’t know shit. My mother had a favorite bumper sticker “ask your teenager while they still know everything” which at the time as a teen I found a bit insulting and now as an adult think was quite astute. The more I know the less I know for sure.
Because I’ve slowly come to realize that knowing can be a crap shoot I keep odd company. Arguably bad company. I follow some truly outrageous people on Twitter. I follow hard right partisans and tankie left wing socialists. I follow folks with deep convictions on the irredeemable evils of technology and the most ebullient techno-optimists. It’s hard to talk me into not keeping an eye on all view points. Sure I think some folks are dead wrong but how do I know I’m not one of them?
Not knowing things for certain as saved my life. Medicine has a tendency to interpret data as absolute. Biometric markers and test results can for some doctors have as much authority as a papal decree. Anyone who has been told “well your test results are normal” while still feeling like absolute shit will know how frustrating this can be. Plenty of data points look absolutely normal before a system cascades into failure.
We don’t know as much as we need to believe we know. Our craving for certainty as humans is a significant weakness. The venture capitalist who insists that some metric will determine a crucial outcome is a favorite trope of mine. As if favorable CAC/LTV ratio functions as a warding spell or an attractive margin structure offers protection against a changing consumer preferences. Knowledge isn’t magic. Superstition can just as easily apply to P&Ls as poltergeists.
I find it best to remind myself to take a neutral when approaching entrepreneurs. Maybe I don’t know. Maybe everything I’ve ever known was particular to my circumstances, bias, education quirks or just plain randomness. Maybe one small insight will shift the grounds underneath me and reveal entirely new frameworks for interpreting reality. The unknown unknowns have a habit of springing themselves when you least expect.
It’s often tempting to throw opposing viewpoints into buckets that are easy to dismiss. Venture investors are notorious for this. We dismiss folks for any error we spot. We deride their data. We applaud ourselves for spotting cracks in their plans. Resist this tendency. We must always retain the neutrality of perspective that allows us to change our mental models. What we know to be true might be a lie. We may lack a key piece of context that would unlock a cascade of understanding that changes our entire perspective.
This is why the adage “strong beliefs weakly held” can be so key to success. Changing our minds is a strength. It’s hard to admit to ourselves we’ve gotten something wrong especially if we sunk a lot of time, money and reputation into it. But would you rather be right or successful? Feeling superior can be a delight but not if it gets in the way of what we want in life.