Follow your ignorance

Lately, I’ve been watching people in their lives, noticing the difference between those who are successful and happy, and those who are less so. It looks to me like the more successful ones have learned to surf their anxiety better. Not that they are more talented, or smarter – they are simply more able to show up every day and learn from their mistakes, which they court rather than try to avoid. They manage to keep inching forward, a little more each day. Perhaps this is what Woody Allen meant when he said “90% of success is just showing up.” Or Edison when he said “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Just yesterday, I was talking to local luthier, Kenny Hill. We were in his shop where he was working on a copy of a 1856 Torres classical guitar. He was telling me about his process, and how the historical copies he made taught him the principles he used in his modern, experimental line of guitars. To make a long story short, he viewed the whole thing as one continuous mistake: he tried things and then, if he liked them, he tried to sell them. If they sold, he turned the design over the his assistants and they made them in bigger quantities. Sometimes he’d put a guitar away for months or years, thinking it was a lost cause only to take it off the shelf and be surprised by what was there. The whole process seemed to bemuse him, which fascinated me, because his guitars are highly prized by classical guitarists all over the world.

It got me to thinking about the things we show up for at work everyday: The tasks, the mission, the people. And about how all of them can lose their luster over time due to boredom or frustration. It’s painful to invest ourselves in something or someone and not get what we worked so hard for. So, like Kenny with a guitar that isn’t working, we put it away for awhile and focus our attention elsewhere. Kenny comes back to his “failed” guitars with curiosity and the soul of an inventor: what can I learn? Edgar Schein calls this “accessing your ignorance” and considers it a cornerstone of effective consulting.

That got me thinking about how we stop showing up. How we decide the guitar, the person, the situation is a failure, and not worth further attention, and leave it on the shelf. The key seems to being willing to change our preconceptions and learn to approach our guitars – the situation or the people in our lives – differently.  To approach from the perspective of what I don’t know, rather than all I’m certain of through previous painful experience.  To let go of my wounded – and wounding – certainty.

I used to joke about combining these two quotes, “Follow your bliss” and “Ignorance is bliss,” saying if both are true, then following your ignorance must be surest path to bliss.

Well, yeah.


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