“And they began to use a pair of mantras around the office. The first— ‘We don’t know shit’ — kept them humble when they thought they were rolling.”
This self-deprecating admission comes from a Washington Post article on Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, and was one of a few beyond-baseball takeaways that stayed with me after reading it. I know good counsel when I see it, and so even at the quarter century mark on my life in public service, I readily bought the self-counsel Theo Epstein was selling.
In my business, hubris is the deadliest of sins. So when I say, “We don’t know shit,” I am most definitely including myself. And, of course, you.
I have no problem with people having strong opinions. I like it actually. On an Island where the apathetic are more numerous than dangerous drivers, where some elevate disengagement to a level of Zen-like bliss, I have always had, if not a great tolerance, a preference for the opinionated sort. I’d take them any day over a societal zombie with no sense of what it means to be an engaged member of a community.
But if you’re going to bloviate in my direction, I’d appreciated it if you had a semblance of knowledge about the subject matter at hand.
With the arrival of the internet, everyone in my orbit seemed to use that platform to air his or her viewpoint. Professionally, I embraced social media early on and saw it as a great tool to pop the bubble that surrounds elected officials, to varying degrees, on every level of government. It allowed me to engage the public more – and more directly - and to be better informed on just about every issue across the board. And it gave me a more direct access to divergent points of view. All right there at my fingertips.
Suddenly, I could read the thoughts of learned journalists throughout the world. With the click of a mouse I could be kept better apprised of the goings-on of colleagues. And lo and behold, revealed in an instant would be the inner-most thoughts of anyone who cared enough about any given topic to discuss it publicly.
This is an opportunity, I remember thinking. This is a chance to broaden my perspective and learn something from those whose life-experiences differed from my own, who saw the world through a completely different set of eyes. And I often did. Cool!
But here’s the deal: we don’t know shit.
You see, a weird thing happened when I began to utilize this tool, this vehicle, in my search to become “better.” I didn’t just come across new information and new perspectives, I found that I entered a world where everyone’s opinion was actually an undeniable truth, and if you disagreed with it, you did so at your own peril. Even if your opinion differed in merely a small and seemingly insignificant way - you were wrong. You were bad. Perhaps you even warranted a dreaded “label.”
What was once merely a sharing of thoughts and opinions quickly became, “I am right and you are wrong.” Then it got worse. It morphed into “I am right and you are a horrible human being.” To glean usable information, I now had to sift through gallons, lakes…. oceans of uninformed, ignorant, and insulting rants, all couched in a self-righteous tone that served to suck the oxygen of debate right out of the room.
It ended all discussion, for if anyone had the temerity to see things even slightly differently, each side acted as if the world stopped spinning on axis because of the sheer loathsome stupidity of the other’s opinion.
But here’s the deal: we know shit. Which is to say — despite the haughty attitude and itchy fingers eager to affix a label, apply a generalization or place someone, dare I say, in a basket — YOU know shit.
I recognize that your unique experiences, history and point of view, give you a keen ability to see angles that others don’t. I recognize that perhaps you have an academic acumen which I cannot match, and must readily acknowledge. As well, I’m forced to recognize my own deficiencies, which might be the result of ignorance, “privilege,” or just plain lack of experience. And finally I’m led to the realization that we will have a better dialogue after I concede that not only do I know shit – you do, too.
Theo Epstein is going to the Hall of Fame. He knows A LOT of shit, and I think you do, too. But if someone at his level of acumen believes part of his success is being vigilant about admitting he doesn’t know it all, shouldn’t you and I take note and grab onto that same belief?
I have worked my ass off in government for 25 years. I have learned at the knees of great mentors. People who don’t share my gender, race, religion or sexual orientation have blessed me with their wisdom and friendship and made me a better person. I care deeply about the covenant I have with the people I represent, and I protect it vigilantly.
I am good at what I do. But because I want to be as good at my job as Theo Epstein is at his, I’m going to work on the premise that I don’t know shit. And I am going to keep working on that premise until the day I finish with this calling and walk off the stage, and then I won’t be heard from again.