Here’s a fun mental exercise – on the one hand, we have the “everyone is lost but me” syndrome, where someone will charge off on a course of action, despite many many warnings about the perilous nature of his quest, until he runs smack dab into that windmill.
And yet we have “there is no such thing as a stupid question” – where even though everyone around you seems to know what’s going on, and you see some flaw, the refrain is “it never hurts to ask the question.”
How do we reconcile these? One the one hand, we say that charging off contrary to everyone’s opinion is bad; but on the other hand questioning the course when everyone is charging off is good.
The issue is ego.
“Everyone is lost but me” isn’t about one person heading in a direction that everyone else warns about; it’s about believing that you are smarter than everyone else around you. I can cite two examples and a counter-example from, of all places, Hollywood:
- Batman&Robin, where Joel Schumacher killed a multi-billion dollar franchise because he was sure what the public wanted to see was more camp like the Batman TV show of the 60’s. Never mind that Tim Burton’s dark, adult dramas had raked in sinful amounts of cash – when everything is working right, obviously it’s time to change the formula. The box office punished Schumacher and comic book movies went into remission for ten years, until Spiderman and Raimi’s understanding of the public brought it back.
- Annapolis (and the thought that prompted this post). This one is near and dear to my heart, since I’m a Naval Academy graduate. As I understand it, the director/producer people wanted to make a movie set at the Naval Academy – hoping to trade a bit on the patriotism borne by 9/11 and launch a new era of Top Gun movies. They approached the Navy about filming at USNA. The public affairs officers in the Navy read the script, and asked for a few changes. The producer/director people refused, and the Navy refused permission (so the movie was shot in Philadelphia). This turn of events was crushing to a lot of USNA graduates, and at first we blamed the Navy for being so unbending. Now that I have seen part of the film, I understand. One of the objections the Navy had was about a romance between a Plebe (freshman) and a female upperclassman. This is fraternization and an expulsion offense at the Naval Academy. I’m sure the producer/director people thought this made it a “forbidden love,” but it just came away as completely and utterly unbelievable. I had to turn the movie off. So because the producer/director people thought they knew better than Navy officials what a USNA movie should look like, it tanked.
- The exception: The Lord of the Rings. When Peter Jackson first landed the role as director, he talked about “his vision” of Tolkien’s work. Several hundred thousand angry emails and letters from fans later, he took their rebukes as a challenge and decided to go the other way – be as accurate as humanly possible to the original work. The rest of that, is history.
Of course, there’s an exception to all of this – there are times that you may be so sure in your vision that you decide to ride off despite the warnings of others. Many visionaries have changed the world this way. Sometimes it’s still ego, but I think a large number of times what sets them apart isn’t thinking “everyone else is lost but me” but rather “everyone else is looking for the path, but I think I can find a shortcut” – not doubting the intelligence of everyone else, but believing they’ve found insight into a new path.
A fine line to walk, to be sure.
And yet you’ll sit in a room of people you know are smarter than you who are discussing a plan and settling onto the details when you’re sure you’ve spotted a flaw in their plan. Is it ego to ask about it? Well, it may be ego to assert that you have found the flaw in their plan and their all stupid; but I think again – many folks who ask (or sadly, don’t ask) that question aren’t sure they’re smarter than everyone else – often they just think they are the ones who have missed something.
Who was it that said “don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash…”?