Many years ago, as a student, I have learned something during a class of “Ergonomics” at the University Politecnico of Milan that would have changed my way of thinking and acting forever…
Something that probably my professor has repeated thousands of times in the arc of her life to her students, without even paying too much attention to it. Something that probably thousands of designers-to-be have been listening to, without finding in it anything particularly relevant or interesting beyond the objective truth of the fact.
Our teacher was sharing with us the ergonomics theories and related safety rules behind the design of the cockpit of a high speed train. I remember that woman, as if it was yesterday, standing on stage and telling us with a long series of examples and analogies the reasons why those trains had multiple safety measures to prevent and mostly to correct both human errors and mechanical dysfunctioning. If something was going wrong the designers had created multiple mechanism in the machine as well as protocols for the operators to fix the problem. Imagine for instance if the breaks of a train like that one would stop working when the vehicle is moving at a speed of 300km/h. Or imagine if any device to control the machine shuts down with hundreds of people on board while speeding that fast. Well, if something like that happens that train is designed to always have multiple emergency mechanisms that would perform anyway the task that failed to happen at first. If the breaks switch doesn’t work for instance then there is another emergency control that the operator can use to stop the train anyway. And if even that one doesn’t work either – and it can happen! – then there is another one again. The back-up of the back-up.
It seems smart and obvious if you think about it, isn’t it? The fundamental assumption behind that ergonomic design approach is that we have 100% of chances that sooner or later, somewhere in the world, eventually even just in one train out of thousands produced, something will go wrong. It could be a human error or it could be a mechanical failure: we know that for sure something will happen and therefore we need to design mechanisms and protocols to be ready to correct that failure promptly during and after the fact instead of ignoring the issue.
What a precious truth! Right there, during that same class, I had one of those unique, unforgettable, connect-the-dots “AHA! moments” and my mind started to venture in other dimensions that were transcending the cockpit of that train that we were there imagining to design.
Apply this to your life..!
How many times you look back, you think about your past, about your actions, and you realize that you have made mistakes on the way. There is no human being in this world that can look back to his or her life and find no missteps, no wrong actions, no poor decisions. Frequency, density and magnitude may vary, but each of us has failed now and then. The statistical calculation is very simple: there is a 100% probability that every person in this planet has made some form of mistakes in his or her life.
Now try to identify one of those mistakes and focus on it for a moment: go back in time to the instant you did make that error and remember how you felt and what you were thinking. The vast majority of the times in the act of doing something wrong we are totally unaware of the mistake we are doing. We act thinking that we are doing the right thing. Sometimes eventually you may have doubts, but very rarely you act consciously knowing that you are making an error.
Now, if that’s the case, stop thinking about the past and project this fact to your present and your future. If you do so you realize right away that there is then also a 100% probability that you will make a mistake again. I may make a mistake right now, writing what I am writing here. You are mathematically certain that sooner or later in your life you will do something that is wrong. There is no doubt. And the most of the times you won’t be aware of that mistake while doing it.
The implication of such a truth is huge. And the reactions could be very different: on one extreme you may ignore the reality with self-confidence and blind arrogance; on the other extreme you may react by paralyzing yourself in the lack of confidence and in the inability to act. The truth is that the ideal scenario lies in the middle.
These are the three behaviors that I have imposed myself and developed, year by year, to react to this reality and act at the best of my possibilities:
1. BE AWARE THAT YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES.
Awareness is the first step. You know that sooner or later you will be wrong. You know that sooner or later you will make a mistake. Maybe even in this exact moment. And you know that when that will happen you will not be aware of the error that you are making. Be at least aware, always, of the fact that you may be wrong. And you will be wrong. Sooner or later. Never forget this.
2. OBSERVE AND LISTEN WITH HUMILITY.
The vast majority of us has the fantastic and obvious opportunity of not living in isolation, of being part of a society, of not being alone in this world. In that society you have a magnificent support system that is made of the people that surround you. In your private life those individuals are your family, your friends, people that you meet in your journey or simply people that are in your proximity within your context. In your business world those individuals are your colleagues, your team, your bosses, your customers and the people you design and innovate or provide a service for.
Each of them, no matter their age, their gender, their ethnicity, their culture, their education, their story, has something to give to you on the base of base of his background and experiences. They may give you an advice that make you realize something or they may simply help you by changing your perspective without even consciously realizing it, through their actions or behaviors.
Leverage them! Like an ethnographer open your ears, open your eyes, open your mind. Start observing, listening, feeling. Absorb everything like a sponge! The realization of a potential mistake you are about to make could be there within the eyes of a person in front of you, an unconscious catalyst of a reaction that can happen just if you are open to see and receive the right signals.
Do not fall into the trap of arrogance because you will become blind to your potential mistakes about to happen and that will decrease your opportunities of doing the right thing.
Leverage your support system, leverage the collective intelligence and experience of the people that surround you.
3. BE CONFIDENT.
The fear of making mistakes can paralyze you. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Be confident in yourself and in your decisions. And act!
Confidence comes not from always being right, but from not fearing to be wrong.
You know that sooner or later you will be wrong: just act leveraging your support system, your intelligence and your experience. And be ready to adjust, tweak or change your direction on the way, always aware of who you are, where you are and why you are (your purpose).
Let me close with one of the most precious lessons that Socrates gave us already thousands of years ago. The great greek philosopher synthetized the fundamental truth at the base of the three behaviors that I have just described in this letter with one wonderful sentence:
I know one thing: that I know nothing.
In this short aphorism, at the base of what has been defined as the “docta ignorantia” (learned ignorance or scientific ignorance), two fundamental facts lie in fine balance with each other:
On one side a profound awareness of the fact that our knowledge is limited and therefore we are fallible by nature and we will make mistakes in our life.
On the other side a deep trust in that human intelligence that makes you conscious of your limitations without paralyzing you in inaction, guiding you with humility and confidence in the journey of your life.
Be aware of your limits, leverage the collective knowledge of people surrounding you by observing like an ethnographer and listening with humility, and then act with confidence.