Ignorance Is Bliss

Ignorance Is Bliss

Fall 2011 Soundings

Subroto Bagghi is vice chairman and co-founder of the global IT company MindTree. From The Professional: Defining the New Standard of Excellence at Work (Portfolio/Penguin). ©2011

As we advance in our careers, we outgrow many inadequacies of our past. We gain through the experience of the assignments we handle; we acquire fresh knowledge from others that equips us to handle things differently from the past. Yet the self-aware professional is conscious that there is bound to be some gap in his knowledge, knows that he may never bridge this gap, and, most important, feels comfortable with this fact.

A long time ago, I met a customer who, while saying goodbye to me at the end of a long and happy association, told me that I should be comfortable about not being technically qualified, even though I was working in the R&D section of an IT company. During my time there, I used to attend myriad meetings with our customers and engineers and must have shown some fallibility somewhere that did not escape the customer’s attention. He was giving me advice on the importance of developing comfort with personal inadequacies.

After that, I have never felt uneasy about being a graduate in political science working in the IT industry. More important, I do not pretend to understand things when I cannot.

Today, I work for R&D service provider MindTree, where highly competent teams tackle complex technical problems. However capable I might be, I simply cannot fathom the complexity and depth of their work. I may sometimes be capable of deep questioning, I may have the intuitive capacity to cut through issues, I may have the breadth of experience to bring in an external viewpoint which blinkered teams that work at the cutting edge of technology may miss—yet none of that gives me the ability or competence to write a software algorithm or understand the physics of how the alternating character of material helps us store information in bits and bytes.

I may add value in some meetings, and not in others. When technical experts speak, my silence may signal my total lack of understanding. But if I open my mouth, I may disturb the harmony. A professional does not need to hog the limelight or monopolize airtime.

If you cannot add true value, then you must not add to the problem by pretending. The more you pretend, the more naked you become. Ever since I received this piece of momentous advice from a guardian angel, I have attended countless meetings where I began by admitting that I am a complete novice or have sat quietly while others have taken center stage, and I have never felt excluded or reduced in stature because of it.

Sometimes, stating your ignorance can be the simplest solution. Others then take it upon themselves to explain complex technical jargon in easy-to-understand language. Concede the ground and wait, emotionally secure. The team will come back to you when they need you, and then you can truly add value.

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