Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Knowledge can be a Very Dangerous Illusion

Some of what you think that you know is fine, but some isn’t. Here’s the rub. You don’t know which is which!  In a rapidly changing high stakes world that simple truth holds the key to your fate.

The data are compelling. A recent study in Strategy+Business found that 80% of business failure is the result of mismanagement of strategic risk.

Writing in The New York Times Jay Goltz said the same thing in a more colloquial style. “It’s simply a matter of denial or of not knowing what you don’t know.”

The Illusion of Knowledge

It all boils down to the same thing. Leadership is about making decisions, but decisions can be no better than the knowledge upon which they are based. Bad knowledge leads to bad decisions, and bad decisions have bad consequences. When disaster strikes it is usually because someone in charge didn’t recognize that the light at the end of the tunnel was in fact the headlight of the oncoming train.

Psychologists talk about “The Illusion of Knowledge,” but that is far too polite a term for a brutal truth. Let me put it more bluntly.

Some of your knowledge is reliable, but some is nothing but a W.A.G. – a Wild Ass Guess.

Confirmation Bias

People like to be right. It’s comfortable to be right. It’s so comfortable that subconsciously we are quick to notice things that seem to confirm our ideas. We are just as quick to overlook or rationalize away those inconvenient indications that we might be wrong.

Psychologists have a polite term for this one too. They call it “Confirmation Bias.” But what it means is that we hold onto our W.A.G.s with everything we’ve got.

Quite often we don’t discover a W.A.G. until we trip over it while running at full speed and land flat on our face.  We rely on something that we think that we know, but it lets us down just when it matters most. By then it is too late.

A Perfect One-Two Punch

I’m not being judgmental. Confirmation bias and the illusion of knowledge are wired into your brain. They are as natural as breathing. But in the business world they are the perfect storm. They are a one-two punch that seemingly comes from nowhere and can put you down for the count.

Restating that earlier statistic, four out of five failed businesses fell victim to their own W.A.G.s. Whether you are a small entrepreneur or a Fortune 500 CEO you face the same hard reality. If you want to prosper in a rapidly changing, competitive, high-stakes world, W.A.G.s are the worst enemies you’ve got.

Up next: Advice for slaying W.A.G.s

Knowledge can be a Very Dangerous Illusion  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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