Monday, April 30, 2012

The Gift of Ignorance

"I began asking for things which in my ignorance were impossible to do...."

Thanks to Brain Pickings for this wonderful clip of Orson Welles from 1960 discussing the filming of Citizen Kane.

In the clip, Orson tells a story about the first day of filming.  His background was in theatre, not in film.  So when he got on set for the first time, he took the initiative and began arranging the lights which theatre directors do but film directors typically did not. Apparently his cameraman, Tollen, told everyone to be quiet and not correct him.  Five days into filming, someone finally cracked and told Orson he was doing things he wasn't "supposed to do."  Tollen got angry at the people telling Orson he "shouldn't" do this or that.  As filming progressed, Orson kept asking for things that weren't usually asked for and Tollen kept saying, "why not?" The innovations in the filming weren't intentional.  They were the result of systematically exercising ignorance of normal processes and trying new things.

What happened wasn't by the book but what resulted was cinematic history.

If we are really searching for innovation in the association community, sometimes we need to purposefully strike out into areas that make us uncomfortable, or that we don't know much about.  To "discover as we do" - which a great friend of mine phrased so beautifully in an email exchange we had this past weekend.  How encouraging to look at ignorance as a strength, and not a weakness. To approach a new project or a new plan with a beginner's mind and simply find the courage to start.

Maybe it's okay to be working at the very edge of our competence, and sometimes fall over and fail.  Maybe if we are too comfortable and too "smart" we will miss the opportunity to take the less beaten path. Maybe confusing people with sudden shifts in direction or intention is better than simply repeatedly living up to their expectations.

I don't have all of the answers, but I found this clip inspiring and really encouraging.  We are not taught to embrace ignorance...we are standardized tested and quizzed into our "proper places" by a system that only wants us to regurgitate predetermined answers, not create something new. It makes me wonder about leadership succession plans in associations and whether or not all of the careful conditioning to minimize disruption, actually starves off the innovation we so desperately need.  Maybe in our well meaning efforts to "orient" our board members so rigidly, we actually rob ourselves of the insights the beginners mind might provide.

Considering our own ignorance to be a gift may not be a message we get very often.  But maybe if we embrace the idea we might actually radically change the trajectories of our associations...and maybe our lives.

Here is the link to the clip for those who can't see the embedded video.


  1. Great post Shelly! In our need to provide a framework, we tend to go overboard and basically shut things down before they can get started. I recognize this behavior when it comes to our boards.

  2. Thanks for stopping by! I agree with you. It's a really careful balancing act between not enough orientation and too much. There has to be a nice spot somewhere in the middle to aim for.

  3. This reminds me of a feature that Ta-Nehisi Coates does on his blog over at the Atlantic Monthly: Talk to Me Like I'm Stupid in which he lays out a topic he wants to learn more about and invites readers to assume he knows nothing and to share any morsel of knowledge that they have on the topic.

  4. I will totally have to check that out! What a really great idea for a blog feature....:D Thanks so much for telling us about it....


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