In my first job, working for an oil company in Southeast Asia, I was told to spend my first six months exploring the country and the workings of the company. I started questioning some of the distribution patterns and thought it my duty to suggest how they could be improved. But the operations manager was not my philosophy professor. He did not welcome me thinking for myself.
The conversation went like this:
"How long have you been in this country, Handy?"
"Four months, sir."
"How long has this company been here?"
"Er, 40 years, I think."
"Forty-eight, to be precise. And do you really think that in your four months you can come up with a better system than we can with all those years of experience?"
"No, sir, of course not.’
That was the end of that bit of creative thinking. I took some private satisfaction a few years later when I saw that a new manager had created something similar to what I had recommended, but that was too late for me.
It happens all the time. Come up with what you think is a great idea and someone is bound to say, "if it is that good or that obvious someone would have done it years ago".
It is never easy or popular to challenge orthodoxy. Heretics used to be burnt at the stake. Nowadays they just get ignored or, worse, dismissed.
We are all born curious
Creativity starts with curiosity. We are all born curious. You only have to watch a tiny child trying to make sense of his or her world to know this. But that inborn curiosity can easily be knocked out of you by overprotective parents worried about the health and safety of their little person. It can’t be coincidental that most entrepreneurs are second- or third-born children, when the parents have learnt to be more relaxed.
An enterprising person is like a good scientist, always asking questions: What is going on here? Are you sure? Can that be right? Is there another possibility? What is the evidence? Can we trust the data?
My own curiosity had been encouraged by my studies in philosophy at university. The course listed the numerous philosophers that we were supposed to study and I thought at first that our task was to learn and absorb their work as a sort of secular Bible. But I was delighted to discover that my tutor was not interested in me reciting their theories but only in helping me to develop my own, using the philosophers of the past as stimulants not authorities.
It was the key to my intellectual freedom. Now I had official permission to think for myself, to question anything and everything and only agree if I thought it right. A good education would have given me that permission much earlier.
Some, alas, never seem to have received it and go on reciting the rules of others as if they were sacrosanct. They are the unwitting prisoners of other people’s worlds. Philosophy, I now think, is too important to be left to professional philosophers. We should all learn to think like philosophers, starting at primary school.
Trust in doubt
In everyday life I find it useful to assume that everyone is worth listening to, even if most of what they say is, to your mind, balderdash or unacceptable. They may well be more wrong than right but there is often some right concealed amid the wrong. Even fools may know more than they think they do.
David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, suggested that truth came from argument among friends. That is also, in my experience, the best recipe for a good dinner party, although I like to keep the party to four or a maximum of six people, so that everyone has a chance to express their own version of the truth.
Another thing I learnt was that it was fine to be doubtful, to question convention or the accepted truth. I remember, in my teaching days, being a member of the committee that appointed new professors. One of the candidates was well known for his exciting lectures and for his external consulting work. He was clearly an expert in his field. Why then was there some uncertainty around the table about his promotion to professor? Then someone put his finger on it: "The trouble with Richard," he said, "is that he has no decent doubt."
You cannot be a good academic unless you are always willing to question the accepted wisdom, even to believe that you yourself might be wrong. To question your own beliefs and actions is often the best way of learning.
When, in my seventies, I wrote a memoir of my life, I discovered that the most interesting bits were my mistakes and what I learnt from them. I wish now that I had made more experiments with my life and more mistakes early on. My moderately interesting life might have been far more interesting and useful if I had.
This is an edited excerpt from 21 Lessons on Life and its Challenges, by Charles Handy. Reprinted by kind permission of Hutchinson.
Image credit: Penguin