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Steve Hoy

Nobody Knows Anything

William Goldman, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade wrote when it comes to deciding which movies will appeal to the public “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work,” he said. “Every time out it’s a guess - and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

So there it is: Nobody knows anything. It doesn’t matter who said it (was it Sam Goldwyn?) it is a truth which ought to be universally acknowledged.

You Know Nothing, Jon Snow

No matter how smart you are, or how senior, or how experienced; you know nothing. Well, next to nothing, relatively speaking.

It’s easy to see why this is so: the more you know about a subject and the more specialised you become; the more you narrow down your area of expertise and the more areas exist about which you know nothing. Smart people know this and are suitably modest when it comes to areas in which they are not expert.

Less smart people extrapolate their expertise into other areas, believing one or both of

  1. You’ve got to be pretty smart to get to where I am today in my field, and so (this other field) can’t be that hard for me, or,
  2. My skills are directly applicable in (this other field). Tech Bro’s are especially prone to this delusion.

Smart people are modest when it comes to punditry; it staggers me how many people pronounce on subjects about which they have no expertise, or in which no expertise is possible. Very few people properly understand the background to the war in Ukraine, and yet the streams are filled with commentary about what should be done. I’m tired of LinkedIn posts along the lines of “do this thing to achieve this other thing and you’ll be successful” - because they’re clearly dross or silly analogies (‘be like the mighty Lion’ - honestly, while writing this post I looked at LinkedIn and there it was, fifth in the stream. Jeepers.) Worse still (from my point of view) are the strategy templates and frameworks, and needless terminology around the stages of product/market fit.

Besides the hubris of imagining that you are equipped to deal with the current situation because of your previous achievements and status (which might be true, I guess, if you’re doing the same thing again) there is also the likelihood of another, enthnocentric bias, in which situations and problems are evaluated according to priors originated from within your own culture and experience. This is a failure to understand that different points of view, lived experience, priorities and desires drive motivations and actions and prevent courses of action which seem obvious to you.

Chesterton’s Fence

The person who finds themselves swimming in unfamiliar waters needs to recognise they’re not the expert here, find those who might be experts, and keep a strong sense of humility.

There is a fallacy called Chesterton’s Fence, in which a fence bars the way. Why is it there? It might make no sense being four metres wide and easily walked around, or it’s a ludicrous ten centimetres tall. The urge would be to go around it or step over it or remove it altogether. But, someone put it there, and they had a reason.

Until you know the history and the reason for the fence you should leave it alone. Until you are sufficiently knowledgeable in the area in which you now find yourself, you should resist the urge to do the common-sense thing and get rid of it. Instead, ask questions until you find the actual experts in this field who know the history of the fence. The reason for it might still be valid and if that’s the case, you have gained new knowledge in this domain. Maybe the reason was valid but now isn’t and so the fence can be removed without harm.

It may also be the case that no-one can remember why the fence is there. You may think they’re all idiots for not getting rid of the thing before, but they were actually respecting the limits of their knowledge. Before removing the fence you would be wise to think through all the possible repercussions, talking widely about your intent (so as to surface the likes of Bob, the beardy guy in the corner that no-one listens to but who remembers the specific Law this fence was put in to comply with, a Law with severe penalties for breach).


The ethnocentric bias is where current situations are experienced and reasoned about mostly through the lens of one’s own culture and experience. A Lawyer sees business problems in terms of rules and contracts, risks and liabilities. An Accountant reduces everything to numbers. A software programmer sees code. A Tech Bro sees everything through a technocratic lens.

Overcoming your own biases starts by accepting that they exist and are powerful. They will blind you to pitfalls and opportunities. It might seem harsh, but if you set out to explore your current situation with an open mind and an acceptance that you know nothing, you can bring your skills and experience to bear more effectively, avoiding error on the way.