How being ignorant can help you succeed

Nov 30, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. Being ignorant can accelerate your progress
  2. What is the hiding hand principle?
  3. Finding solutions to problems
  4. How to apply the hiding hand principle
  5. What are the risks of being ignorant?
  6. What can we learn from the hiding hand principle?

How often do you think if you had known how difficult something was going to be, you would have never started in the first place? Underestimating how difficult a task is going to be can be a valuable form of ignorance because without it, you might not start the project in the first place.

In this article we are going to be looking at how ignorance can be beneficial when it comes to choosing what you should be working on.

Being ignorant can accelerate your progress

When choosing what to work on, most people choose tasks that they think are easy, or straightforward, manageable, but not challenging. We are more likely to choose projects and tasks that feel transferable from our existing experience. All projects have a set of potentially unknown problems and difficulties, and these problems have a list of potential things you can do to overcome them.

However, if you knew all the potential problems in advance, you would never start the project in the first place because it would no longer seem easy and straightforward.

This has negative consequences on what you can achieve because a lot of the most valuable things will cause you problems, and will not be straightforward and easy. Finding solutions, being able to adapt, learn, and overcome problems are all part of the course of achieving great things.

If you succeed, you get the obvious value of the project, but you also benefit from new skills and experience in overcoming a new set of problems.

We tend to avoid tasks where it’s obviously going to be difficult, but choose tasks where the difficulty is hidden. This is known as the hiding hand.

What is the hiding hand principle?

The hiding hand principle is a way to induce action through error, the error being your underestimation of how difficult a task will be to complete. By being naive to the problems you will encounter, you choose to start working on the task. The hiding hand principle was first introduced by Albert O. Hirschman in his paper “The Principle of the Hiding Hand”.

Once you have started to invest your time, money, and ego into the project, you are more likely to preserve and find solutions to the problems, finding creative solutions, learning new skills and gaining more experience along the way. If you had known about these problems before starting the project, you wouldn’t have started it in the first place.

Of course, charging into a project with unknown risks and problems is not always a good thing. Often the problems or difficulties you will face will be insurmountable, and you will not only lose your time, but also money or other opportunities.

When you benefit from the ignorance of what a task entails, it is known as the benevolent hiding hand, and when that ignorance costs you, it’s is known as the malevolent hiding hand.

Finding solutions to problems

When encountering problems, you need to find solutions in order to complete the project. If you don’t attempt to find a solution to the problem, the value of the project is lost, including the time, money, and resources you have already invested.

If you do find solutions to all of the problems you encounter, you not only get the value of the project, but you also gain new skills and experiences of overcoming the types of problems you face.

The time in which you encounter problems is key to whether the trade off of giving up makes sense. If you hit problems early into the project, it can be tempting to just give up because you haven’t invested much up to that point. Sometimes it’s better to find problems much further into the project because the fact that you’ve already invested your time, money, and ego into the project gives you the motivation to find a solution.

How to apply the hiding hand principle

The hiding hand principle is essentially a crutch for decision makers that provides confidence in order to commit to projects where the project’s difficulties and risks have not been fully evaluated. There are two techniques to applying the hiding hand principle to your projects.

First, you think of the project as being a straightforward implementation of a technique you already have experience with. This will make the project more approachable and therefore feel easier and more straightforward.

The second, is that you believe the project has already been thought through and planned correctly. This gives you confidence to proceed with the project because you feel like you have more insight into the project’s difficulties and likely problems you will encounter.

What are the risks of being ignorant?

Being ignorant and charging head first into unknown endeavors is usually a bad thing. Most people suffer from the planning fallacy and will already be overly optimistic about how long they will be able to complete a given task, despite their knowledge and experience of completing previous, similar tasks.

The sunk costs of a project also have to be evaluated carefully. Just because you have already invested your time and money into a project does not mean you should continue to invest in it. When you take on projects where you are ignorant of the problems, the likelihood of committing to projects that have no hope of success is much higher.

Taking on additional risk should be managed carefully, and so the value that you will gain from completing the project should be greater than the potential costs of the errors. Weighing the potential upside to the cost of investment is a good strategy for deciding whether to take on a project when the path is unknown.

What can we learn from the hiding hand principle?

Whilst you probably shouldn’t ignore the potential risks and problems associated with the projects you choose to work on, there are some key things we can learn from the hiding hand principle.

Firstly, you should take on projects because of the value you will receive, not because of the perceived difficulty in what is required of you. Think of the opportunities you are missing out on when the difficulty of a project is too obvious.

Secondly, be wary of sunk costs, especially when the value you will receive isn’t worth it. If the potential upside of completing the project outweighs the current and future investment, it might be worth continuing. However, you don’t want to face a situation where you are throwing good money after bad.

Thirdly, you have to be careful to not waste your resources on a project that just isn’t going to work, but you have to also be mindful that it is possible to rescue a certain project and get not only the value, but a new set of skills and experience. It’s often through adversity that we gain the most benefit.

Having an experimental or entrepreneurial mindset can help because encountering problems is often not a bad thing. Problems help to direct us to the right path of finding the solution.

You will learn a lot when you choose to tackle problems head-on rather than just walking away from the project, as you usually learn more from dealing with problems than if everything went smoothly. You will also have an increased ability to appraise projects going forward, as well as a willingness to face uncertainty and difficulty through grit and perseverance.

So, the big takeaway from the hiding hand principle is, don’t only pick projects that feel straightward. Often tackling the unknown problems you will encounter will ignite the creativity and problem solving mindset you have been searching for.

Philip Brown


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