“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”Mark Twain
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the concept of truisms — those often-simple statements that we all believe to be correct.
These can be helpful, of course, especially in a business context. We can’t each learn everything firsthand, and so it’s often useful to follow conventional wisdom in interpreting the world and making decisions.
The downside, however, is that many common truisms — precisely because they are broadly held — have the potential to mislead us. We are so comfortable in the “truth” they represent, that we don’t think critically about the situation at hand.
Some noteworthy examples that I have had to unlearn…
“When looking for a job, don’t bother calling people during the holidays.”
The logic here — yes, this was a time when phone-calling was a thing — was that since everyone was on vacation, reaching out then was a waste of time. In fact, I found it easier to reach people then, since while many people were on vacation, those who remained at work tended to be less busy and, therefore, more available.
“When seeking outside help — contractors, consultants, etc. — always get three bids.”
This may apply if procuring a commodity product. However, when seeking a professional service, asking for bids may leave out many higher quality firms that don’t bother responding to RFPs. They know that doing so is time consuming and has a low probability of success; they only engage with clients based on conversations, referrals, and established relationships. Requiring multiple bids may only present you with second-tier, lower quality options.
“Nonprofits should not be profitable.”
“Nonprofit” is just a tax category, not a mandate to keep revenues below costs. This came into play as I was advising the leaders of a retail operation inside a nonprofit museum. I encouraged them to see their role as a profitable entity, one that provided additional funding in support of the museum’s operations and mission.
These are just a few examples of beliefs that are commonly held and that appear to make sense at first blush, but that don’t hold up in practice.
And that’s the point. We need to pay particular attention and think critically anytime we are planning to act based on something we “just know to be true.” As Mark Twain noted, that’s often when we get into the most trouble.
P.S. Speaking of truisms, while the quote above is often attributed to Twain, it’s not definitively true that he said it!