No Matter How Much You Know, You Can Overlook The Obvious

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My wife leaned over and showed me a photo of her grandmother. The photo was taken in 1920 while she was holding her newly born son, Charles. Charles is my wife’s father, who died in 2000.

On the front bottom left margin of the photo, the word “Charles” was written.

“Your grandmother was left handed,” I said. “Look, the letters are slanted to the left,” as I pointed to them with my index finger.

“I didn’t notice that” my wife replied. “How interesting. I’ve read several letters she wrote and hadn’t realized that the letters slant to the left.”

No one knows more about the history of her grandmother than my wife does. The reason for this is she is writing a book on the life of her father and his parents, all of whom were raised in rural eastern Kentucky during the hard economic times of the Depression of 1920 and the Great Depression of 1929. Eastern Kentucky was one of the hardest hit by both depressions. Her father’s family were not only rural hillbillies, but isolated rural hillbillies. They ate what they killed and planted. And were part of an Irish culture known for fighting and feuding.

My wife has spent over three years doing research on her father’s family, familiarizing herself with historical context, traveling multiple times to areas central to the family’s development, interviewing dozens of people, and reading original letters and documents.

My wife knows her stuff.

Yet, I was able to point out an interesting, albeit small, detail she hadn’t noticed.

Most people who are involved in research and investigation know that outsiders can sometimes point out facts that go unnoticed by them. For example, the now infamous spy agency, the NSA, brings in high school students for summer internships. According to agency spokespeople, “with their young, unbiased minds,” bright high school students can sometimes see patterns in the intelligence the agency has gathered that the experts may overlook.

I know how this works in my own life. I was raised in a powerful religion. One of its strengths was that it took very strong positions about its place in the world. I was taught that it was the one and only true church on the face of the earth. I internalized that teaching. I believed what I was taught was true. So true that I would become impatient with and dismissive of people who pointed out mistakes and flaws about my religion. I was what you called blindly obedient.

However, as I matured, obtained an education, and entered a profession (management consulting) that required listening carefully to conflicting facts, it slowly dawned on me that no one sees a situation with total clarity. Unless you allow for diverse opinions and observations, you miss things that eventually can become blind spots. Blind spots become weak spots. Weak spots become vulnerable spots. And whether you are dealing with national security, business success, family history, or religious truth, vulnerable spots are usually breached and exploited by outsiders who end up knowing you better than you know yourself.

Again, no one sees a situation with total clarity. Cutting off diverse observations from others is symptomatic of pride. Even if you become the greatest expert in something, there is always something you will miss. Sometimes you are blinded by your own expertise. Even the best among us is trained only to see events in a certain way. Not all phenomena occur in exactly the same way all the time. Above all else, humility must grow alongside training and the confidence it brings with it.

I will close with this little story. My wife’s father once told me that while he was working in Utah during the mid 1930’s, he had seen polygamous families who were Mormons. I was so cock sure he was wrong I told him that was impossible. I told him that even though I had never lived in Utah, my understanding was that my religion abandoned polygamy in the 1890’s. My wife’s father was stunned when I confronted him like that. He wasn’t a member of my faith and was merely describing an experience he had coming from Kentucky to work in Utah.

You can imagine my surprise when I found out that there were polygamous families living in that area during the 1930’s, and indeed they were members of the church, albeit radical and rebellious. It’s foolish to think you know it all.