Success is Fueled by Learning

There’s a documentary called “Space Shuttle Columbia: The Final Flight.” It’s full of indications and references to an attitude then pervasive at NASA that might best be termed “hubris.”

While certain engineers were asking almost from the beginning for more information about the condition of the shuttle’s left wing, which had suffered an impact of unknown severity on launch, NASA leadership were confident enough to decline any further investigation into possible wing damage. Ultimately, that unknown condition of the wing proved fatal to all seven astronauts on board.

While that was an extreme case, the plain truth is you don’t have to be in charge of a project as large and dangerous as the Space Shuttle to suffer serious consequences from an unwillingness to learn more.

If you don’t want your tasks, projects, and goals to be delayed, diverted, or even destroyed by overlooked obstacles and dangers, you’ll work hard to maintain an open-minded attitude toward the situations, problems, and challenges you face. Here are some ways to do this:

Listen Widely

My favorite cousin, an engineer, once had a job working on a science project with a number of Field Medal and Nobel Prize winners. These are among the smartest people in the world, proven capable time and time again of generating entirely new scientific ideas and solving math problems that stump everyone else.

He told me they were among the most open-minded people he’d ever met. They were willing to listen carefully and non-judgmentally to grad students, assistants, and even interns: people with few if any credentials, and certainly no match for their own illustrious backgrounds, careers, and successes.

He said they were happy to hear from so many because they fervently did not want to overlook any idea or suggestion that might possibly prove fruitful. They would rather listen to a hundred dumb ideas than overlook one containing even a sliver of value.

This thirst for insight and knowledge is a very helpful attitude for pretty much everyone, not just those at the top of their profession.

Hunt the Facts

Part and parcel of a thirst to learn from others is an untiring zeal to investigate and uncover all the relevant facts that pertain to the task, project, or goal you are pursuing.

Had the Space Shuttle program leaders been less convinced they already knew everything of relevance, they would have taken a fresh look at the Columbia’s broken wing and might have found a life-saving workaround to the danger.

A willingness to look for all the relevant facts and follow them wherever they lead will help insure you are not tripped up by unrecognized obstacles and pitfalls. Looking for all the facts, both favorable and unfavorable, helps build reality-based confidence, which is a far better pathway to success than simple bravado or a willingness to forge blindly ahead.

Embrace Opposition

Part of what makes the Scientific Method so useful is that it includes a conscious effort to find errors.

Scientists not only experiment in pursuit of evidence that supports their ideas, they actively look for contradictory facts and ideas that may disprove the very hypothesis they are investigating.

This is inherently an uncomfortable process, because if you succeed you put the lie to your own “brilliant” brainchild.

Nevertheless, welcoming criticisms, listening to those who disagree with you, and actively trying to punch holes in your analyses and plans are among the best ways to refine and strengthen your original ideas.

On the other hand, marching forward with smug – but unverified – confidence is an attitude that underlies many of history’s greatest debacles.

Beware of Tradition

“We’ve always done it this way” is a mantra that hides a surprisingly large potential for wasted time and energy, if not downright failure.

Long-standing knowledge, procedures, and assumptions almost automatically merit “further review,” if only because the world is constantly changing; what seemed like a good idea yesterday may turn out to be foolish today.

What’s more, traditional approaches, plans, and procedures inevitably deteriorate, as people incorporate short-cuts, overlook crucial steps, and otherwise make less-than-optimal judgments and decisions as they apply traditional remedies to new problems.

These are among the reasons to embrace fact-finding, open-minded inquiry, and a continuing willingness to increase the portfolio of knowledge that informs your work and your life.

As Alvin Toffler said: “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

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