Embracing Portable Ignorance

Could we actually become smarter by asking a lot of stupid questions? Do we add less value when we appear immediately astute? Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of the standby college textbook The Elements of Journalism, published a book in 2011 on the changing media landscape and how to discern what news is best. Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload focuses on the importance of verification, fact-checking and evidence in media — whether it be traditional newspaper media or an online blog. Kovach is a much-honored editor and bureau chief at both The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In a recent interview he said, “The separation between journalists and citizens is slowly disappearing. I mean, anyone, anywhere can be a reporter of the next big news incident. Citizens are becoming their own editors. So it’s imperative that we both help journalists understand this change…and citizens understand how they can determine what they can believe in.”

 Although the book is highly engaging, very readable, and intended for a general audience it wouldn’t seem that relevant to anyone employed outside of journalism. That is until you dive into Kovach and Rosenstiel’s writing about the need for “portable ignorance”. Basically portable ignorance involves the willingness to ask a lot of questions, often resisting the temptation to appear ‘smart’. Most of us in the creative fields have trouble with that because we’re paid to be smart… and quick-on-the-uptake. Rosenstiel, in a recent NPR interview, said we all should be more willing to say,” I don’t get this. Explain it to me. What are you going to try and do? As opposed to being seduced into trying to look like you know everything and that you’re astute.” He says we can use being “not astute” as a powerful tool.

 As ‘knowledge workers’ in an age of crowd-sourcing, curation, commoditization, and co-creation we face many new challenges to being truly effective. Could appearing to be LESS astute actually work to our advantage? Kovach and Rosenstiel sure think so and I agree that it can yield a far better result for us and our clients. Following are several practices that might improve your portable ignorance:

  • Be Inquisitive. Professionals tend to often look at our role as that of a persuader, taking an ‘outside-in’ approach to our projects. We are paid for the ‘big insight’ but often skip over some valuable ways to get at it. Being inquisitive is basically asking more questions when you’re tempted to start talking about yourself. It is allowing for the pursuit of a thread in a conversation to possibly lead to greater insight. It welcomes disagreement as a chance to learn and to consider alternatives. Kovach and Rosenstiel tell of a New York Times reporter in Vietnam who used his innate curiosity to such an extent (often asking “stupid” questions) that he was predicting our inability to win that war… in 1961! Being inquisitive involves asking ‘why’ and too much of that could lead us nowhere. To balance this approach we need to ask ‘why not’ and that’s where our imagination comes in.
  • Seek Improbable Connections. Using our imagination allows us to connect what we learn to how it can be most effectively applied. We imagine greater possibilities and thus add greater value. Let’s face it, if you regurgitate standard solutions after asking a ton of questions you’re likely to have one very upset (or lost) client. Being imaginative allows us to see how to make the pie bigger or maybe even bake a different one versus how better to carve up the existing one. If the essence of creatives’ purpose is to provide ideas that clients haven’t thought of themselves, then making these improbable connections by using our imagination is the way to do it.
  • Reject Complacency. A little fear can be a big motivator and there is such a thing as healthy paranoia. Really. This is what makes us stay on top of our industry by reading one more trend report. It’s how we create value by studying yet another market analyst’s report on our client’s business. It’s what keeps us going to another networking event or making that catch-up call to a mentor. It’s what prevents us from making a stinky proposal with a “Plan A – Number 6” recommendation to a new prospect. Healthy fear can spur you to check your facts or go over your pitch – just once more. Plenty of research shows that people with the LEAST competence or ability are the MOST likely too overestimate themselves.

There isn’t a single point above that I have accomplished with consistency. For me, this concept of ‘portable ignorance’ is one to chew on for awhile. I must resist the temptation to be the “experienced know-it-all”. Being truly smart, creative, and serving others well means staying engaged, actively seeking new insights, and remaining vigilant. So… I’m taking a little ignorance along to my next meeting. I think I’ll come out a lot smarter.

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