Dispelling the myth of the know-it-all

You don't always have to be the smartest person in the room. There are some surprising benefits of naïveté, writes the chief strategy officer of McKinney

Here’s an obvious truth about people who work in advertising: Nobody wants to look stupid. Nobody wants to be exposed for not knowing something, even a detail, about a client’s business or their customers, a competitor’s work, or relevant trends in the category or culture. There’s a palpable Fear of Looking Stupid (FOLS) that keeps some of us from asking questions that might actually help us create more effective solutions.

This is especially true the more experience we have in an industry or with a client. At some point, we keep our mouths shut, nod and hope we’re signaling expertise instead of ignorance. This is unhelpful, not only because it isn’t true, but, more importantly, because we miss opportunities to learn.

We should forget our FOLS and embrace all we can gain by being naïve. Yes, I’m here to argue for the value of naïveté. Not stupidity but naïveté. The latter implies innocence and trustfulness, neither of which is associated with lacking common sense. Naïveté is neutral, a word whose roots mean natural, instinctive, undefiled. Naïveté, it turns out, is actually closer to the truth.

Here are three tangible, practical benefits to both seeming and being naïve, especially for people who work in creative industries like advertising.

When we’re naïve, we’re more open to possibilities. Know-it-alls can have a serious creativity handicap. When we think we are experts, our assurance and ego get in the way of our creativity. A little naïveté can help us see opportunities we otherwise would’ve written off or given up on. It’s not dissimilar to what happens during meditation. In a practice called Open Mind, the practitioner experiences a "willingness to entertain new possibilities," writes Ronald Alexander, Ph.D., in a Huffington Post article published in March. "You’re curious, nonreactive, compassionate," which all make it easier to be creative.

Agencies and clients naturally will want teams to have a lot of experience in a given category, but it can be equally valuable for some team members to be less experienced. One of my mentors loves to tell the story of when he worked on a garbage bag brand. After a three-hour meeting to discuss research, a very senior client told the large group, "Remember, we just spent more time thinking about garbage bags than our consumers will in their entire lifetime."

For this reason, I encourage my team to share briefs, concepts, strategies, presentations, you name it, with anyone at the agency who doesn’t have as much category knowledge. Because their reactions tend to give us a clearer indication of whether we’re hitting on the salient points or simply having a smarty party.

When we’re naïve, we’re more likely to learn from others. Think about the teacher-student relationship. Teachers love students who respect them and are eager to hear what they have to say. Students love teachers who are confident and clearly enjoy what they’re doing. That’s when learning happens. Naïve students, not feeling anxious to know everything, are willing to hear new ideas, and teachers are put at ease as "the experts," happy to share what they know.

Straight out of college, I was a reporter on Capitol Hill. Every week, I talked with senators, members of Congress, their staff and federal government employees, most of whom are used to having their ideas challenged. At first, I didn’t know half as much as they did about the issues I was covering, and it turned out to be my greatest advantage. They would take the time to explain things to me, like they were doing me a favor. And even after I became familiar with the issues, I continued to act as though I wasn’t.

Strategists often practice a kind of naïveté in research when we mystery shop. Whether we are with a sales person or a customer, we make it clear from the outset that they are the experts, and we want to learn as much from them as we can. It’s amazing how much people will tell you when you defer to them. I love how award-winning documentarian Louis Theroux uses this approach to perfection when he interviews people. By putting them in a position of authority and making it clear he’s there to understand and observe — not to judge — he’s able to get them to open up and tell him exactly what they think and feel. See him in action in this ten-minute video.

When we’re naïve, we are more apt to be candid and honest. You know how it is: You’ve been working on an assignment for days, maybe weeks. You’ve gone back and forth with the client, been in dozens of meetings. And now you can’t think your way out of it. This is when you need to talk to someone who hasn’t thought about it at all. Unencumbered by what they don’t know, they’ll likely help you in one of these ways: see the obvious gaps you need to fill; point to what’s most powerful but has been buried or dismissed; remind you that your original instincts were and still are spot-on; and/or inadvertently use new, better language that you adopt.

A team I was on years ago went through multiple rounds with a new client to agree on a tagline. Each line presented would survive the first few rounds until it hit the highest levels at the company. It felt like we were at a dead end. So, one afternoon, the creative director emailed a simplified brief to the entire agency and asked for taglines. He got hundreds of responses, across every department. And because of those responses and the fresh perspective they offered, a new tagline emerged. That day. And the client, even at the highest levels, loved it more than any other line and approved it. That day.

"The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits." Know-it-alls will tell you Albert Einstein said this. But true geniuses will tell you they don’t know who said it. And that’s exactly what the quote says to me. Knowing it all is a myth. There are always limits to our knowing. Once we relieve ourselves of the burden of having to know everything, we’re more creative, more candid and honest, and we loosen others up to help us learn more. Next time you feel stupid, don’t. You are just embracing your naïveté, and that is your secret weapon. 






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