I asked an extremely successful entrepreneur to describe the most important thing he had learned about starting and building businesses.
He didn't mention the usual suspects: Great partners. Great teams. Great ideas. Access to capital. Work ethic, determination, and grit.
Nope. The most important thing he had learned? "That running a successful business -- much less starting a successful business -- is something that you can 'figure out.' That all you have to do is find the right model, or framework, or system and you will succeed. That you can predict the future: How technology will change, how tastes will change, and how you will change. Shoot, that you can somehow predict the future, even though that's what all of us try to do. The most important thing I've learned is to always keep one thing in mind:
"That I don't know."
Admittedly, that approach sounds falsely humble; after all, experience is the best teacher, especially when success is the result.
Yet experience -- and education, both formal and informal -- can actually make you "too smart" to question your decisions.
A 2018 study showed that people with high SAT scores tend to be much less likely to analyze and learn from their mistakes.
The same is true with doctors. A 2005 Journal of Internal Medicine study showed that physicians who were given challenging clinical scenarios were only able to come up with a correct diagnosis two-thirds of the time. But when the same physicians were asked to analyze their initial diagnosis and consider alternative possibilities -- in short, to imagine that they didn't truly "know" -- their diagnostic accuracy improved by as much as 40 percent.
Or take Jeff Bezos. As Bezos says, a key indicator of high intelligence is a willingness to change your mind.
Which, by extension, shows a willingness to admit you didn't "know" what you thought you knew.
"The smartest people are constantly revising their understanding," Bezos says in this extremely popular Inc. article, "reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved. They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking."
In short, they wake up thinking, "I don't know," set out to figure out what they don't know... and then do it all again tomorrow, allowing new data, new results, new trends, new anything revise and reshape the way they think.
While starting every day thinking, "I don't know," might sound paralyzing, it's not. Bezos doesn't spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of easily reversible decisions. Oprah Winfrey swears by deciding which bridges to cross and which to burn. Steve Jobs said deciding when to trust yourself can make a tremendous difference in your life.
You should still make decisions. (In fact, one of the most important things any entrepreneur does is make decisions. Lots of them.)
The key is to remember that every decision simply marks a moment in time: A moment when you applied the model you could apply, predicted what you could predict, and knew what you could know.
You did your best. That's all you could do.
Saying "I don't know" the next day helps you stay open to new models, new predictions, and new knowlege.
Because being wrong is, unfortunately, part of the process.
But staying wrong doesn't have to be.