post written by: Marc Chernoff

How Ignorance Can Lead to Success


Ignorance Can Lead to Success

What you don’t know just might help you.  Being unaware of presently accepted, communal beliefs can put you a step ahead of the herd.  It’s like an artist building a masterpiece from a blank canvas.  Sometimes it’s better to begin from a clean slate, to create your own way without polluting your mind with external inputs.  Here are a couple examples:

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance,
it is the illusion of knowledge.
- Daniel Boorstin

The Route Less Traveled

In the late 1990’s my father got an itch to start investing.  He had a decent sum of cash sitting in a savings account and decided it was time to put his money to work.  The savings account returned about 1.5% a year, so any return above that would be a successful investment. 

At the time, the dot com boom was at its inception and everyone was pumping money into tech stocks.  My father didn’t fully understand the stock market and its inherent risks, so instead of investing in tech stocks, he purchased 15 acres of land in an upcoming neighborhood near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.  He never lost a dime when the dot com bubble busted, and even after the recent downturn in the housing market, his property is currently worth 8 times what he paid for it.

She Didn’t Know Any Better

About a year ago a friend of mine wrote an eBook and put it up for sale on her blog.  I jokingly pointed out to her that all of the information in the eBook was readily available on other blogs/websites for free and indexed correctly by Google.  She was disappointed when I mentioned this, but she left her eBook up for sale anyway.  We both assumed it wouldn’t sell.  We were wrong.  The eBook has sold to the sum of nearly $4K since last summer.

The Lessons

These two stories carry two significant lessons:

  • The popular way of doing things is not always the best way.
  • Sometimes taking action based on ignorance beats taking no action at all.

Knowledge is important.  But occasionally what we know (or what we think we know) hinders our ability to take action and make sound judgments.  We become consumed with commonly accepted practices and thus fail to innovate.  We follow the herd instead of thinking for ourselves.

Doing things the same way they’ve always been done is a sure way to never get ahead.  Just because other people have done things a certain way doesn’t make it right.  Quite often you will find the exact opposite to be true.

Being ignorant of popular opinion is a good mindset to be in.  It allows you to form your own opinions based on firsthand experience.  It gives you the freedom to think and to innovate.  Oddly enough, the right kind of ignorance can give you the power to succeed.

Photo by: Xabier Martinez

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30 Comments

  • “Sometimes taking action based on ignorance beats taking no action at all.” In the context you placed this in, I completely agree. Even fantastic failure gives you remnants to build off of.

  • I’ve found this to be true in my life, as well. I think that it serves as a good reminder though, since I often stop myself from taking action because I think it won’t work. When you put the action into motion though, it just might! :)

  • I saw a program last night on the fledgling Silicon Valley automotive industry. A top GM exec figured that their lack of knowledge and experience in the car manufacturing business will hamper them.

    But I think that their lack of knowledge and experience is just what the automotive industry needs to innovate for greener power.

    Too much attachment to what you think you know narrows the field of possibilities. A beginner’s mind is an open invitation for success.

    :-)
    John

  • Yogi Berra has a quote along the following lines: it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so. I guess that’s also what they mean by beginner’s luck: you don’t have all of the preconceived notions that “professionals” have so you can see all sorts of creative alternatives that they can’t see.

  • Cool post, I have always thought Ignorance is Bliss. When using ignorance to make money things become a little harder but the examples you have put forward are pretty cool!

  • Great post! Have subscribed your feed. Keep up the good work.

  • This reminds me of a book I read recently “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and I quote Shunryu Suzuki:
    “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few”
    Which, to me, means keeping that child-like sense of wonder for all things, for, in this case, if you are invested enough in anything you do, it will be apparent in the outcome.

  • I just recently read another post about the negatives to being an expert. Then, at my company, the person who is not an expert at web development actually solved an entire web development obstacle, b/c he was able to look at it from a layman’s perspective.

    I think once he we think we know everything about something, we begin to close off the possibility of learning even more.

    Hopefully, I will be a beginner for a long time :)

  • Great examples of doing something even we might not know any better. Sometimes the key is just to “do”. Maybe we’ll fail, but maybe we’ll have success beyond our wildest dreams. And that thought is an exciting one!

  • Your father and your friend were both fueled by a vision. This is different from a business plan in that the business plan is a failure if the predicted results do not occur; but the vision is a success if it leads to positive results without regards to a pre-conceived plan. Those positive results can be as simple as realizing that you aren’t committed to that particular vision enough to follow through with it.

    I have a vision for my blog site. Simply stated it says: “I can think and I can write. Life has taught me that I am not so unique as to be repulsive. Someone will be interested in what I think and write. I only need to write what I have thought and then find those people.”

    Your post has been given the “thumbs up”. How about adding the “commentluv” plugin?

  • I recently stumbled upon this website and really enjoy reading the uplifting articles everyday. Thanks for being a beacon of positivity in a cynical world.

  • @Sara: Thanks for the insightful addition. I couldn’t agree more.

    @John: You accurately summarized the main point of my article in one simple paragraph. ;-)

    @Tim: Thanks for the book recommendation. I added it to my list.

    @Peter: It’s all about maintaining a fresh perspective. Becoming an expert while maintaining a set of beginners eyes.

    @Bill: Great suggestion. I’ll look into adding the plugin.

    @Hormiga: Thanks for the positive remarks.

  • I can see now that being a beginner instead of an expert can be an advantage instead of a disadvantage.

    A newbie is more likely to give things a go whereas an expert may quickly dismiss an idea as not being worthwhile.

  • Have been enjoying your blog! This is one I can relate to. I realize more and more how much ignorance is bliss.

  • […] How Ignorance Can Lead to Success […]

  • Marc,

    You definitely hit on an important aspect of invention and creativity.

    Many of the conveniences we enjoy today were at one time unimaginable concepts to everyone except the one with the vision. It was the tenacity of the inventor to pursue an untraveled path that lead to their success.

    If we only follow the well-worn paths or wait until we have all the facts before we act, progress grinds to a halt.

    Thanks for reminding us to follow our visions which often means doing what I advised in a post earlier this year Disregard Sensible Advice.

  • Sometimes we need to forge our own paths even if no one agrees. Many people disagree with my blogging to business technique, but it’s been done before and just because my family doesn’t understand it doesn’t make it bad.

  • I know I can get so set on patterns and routines. There is a place for these things in our lives, but so often we go on auto-pilot and get disconnected from who we are at the core. Like you said, it so stifles our creativity. And as writers, we have to continually work to have that blank slate in order to let our voice come through and produce our best work. Loved this post.

  • When I initially read the post title… I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive. As I read through the post I got a feel of how it might be true.

    You summed it up well when you mentioned..”the right kind of ignorance can give you the power to succeed.”
    Most of the time the challenge is to identify the “the right kind of ignorance ” :-0)

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  • I call this letting go leads to success. One important step in goal setting that we teach our clients. I see this over and over again.

    People get to involved in their goals and often it is not until the let go that when the reflect back a couple of years later, they suddenly see what they have achieved.

  • Great points…I’d like to call that the “Zen Business Principles.”

    The hard part is keeping the ignorance once you start becoming successful.

  • Brilliant post. Love it. It’s usually the ones who don’t follow the herd who stand out and are successful. Has anyone watched Pirates of Silicon Valley? That movie really drives the point home.

  • I love it. We built a publishing business when print advertising was dead to $4M in the last 2 years. Now we are competing in a tough retail market and growing due to collaboration.

    My first mentor said: Speed of the leader, speed of the team and just keep your legs moving. Both points helped me lead a team and start a company.

  • This world is too complicated to know everything before action. You can always find data that points you in any direction if you look hard enough. While ignorance may be helpful, I still haven’t found a good substitute for simply knowing your customers better at the most basic levels - understanding their pain and their concerns.

  • There could not be more truth said! I started a company a little over 2 years ago in a “mature” industry where many had been at it for decades. My “ignorance” has allowed me to see things from a completely different perspective and in the process I’ve begun to run circles around many who are set in their ways and entrenched in the way things have always been done. My company will completely revolutionize and revitalize this industry. Having a blast in my ignorance!

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