Let go of certainty

I'm continuing to write a set of Sunday posts that revisit in turn the 12 ideas Tony Schwartz offered in "Turning 60: The twelve most important lessons I've learned so far". This week, I'm considering the third of Schwartz's observations, "Let go of certainty", in which he claims:

"The opposite isn't uncertainty. It's openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow."

I went to college committed to majoring in chemistry. It's a great science (to me, still, though I know it has made some of my friends want to beg for an exemption), and I always had an affinity for it.

But I was also a writer, not the skill set you think of when you conjure up a prototypical chemistry major. Throughout college I spent half my course time on science and the balance on literature, history and creative writing.

In the end I wasn't that good a chemist. Most of my colleagues and friends graduated summa; let's say that I wasn't close.

The summer after my junior year, I was working two jobs, one in the lab that was kind of my second home. My advisor (and boss) asked me what I was going to do after graduating, and I said I was kind of split between chemistry and doing something in publishing.

My advisor was a good guy, one of the reasons I liked hanging out at the lab, and he volunteered to talk the professors who had taught me to that point and solicit their assessments. I said, "That would be great; thanks!"

A couple of weeks later, he came back with a hang-dog look and asked to talk with me. His collected feedback: "They all think you would do reasonably well at a second-tier graduate school in chemistry."

He liked me, and I think he wanted to see me stick with chemistry, but his small research project helped set me on a path I'm still walking today. I knew how to be a chemist, and I could have put one foot in front of the other and become a reasonably good one. It just would not have been the best path for me.

There's a bit of lab wisdom that I carry around to this day, though. In designing experiments, I was taught to ask, "How would I know if I am wrong?" In science, false positives are easy to find. Experimental design involves choices that open and close certain doors, and you have to acknowledge what you may not have proven (or disproven).

Over my three decades in publishing, I can recall plenty of times when I've forgotten to ask that question, and I'm usually worse off for it. But often enough, I do ask it, and over time the answers have given me insights into things (like piracy) that you wouldn't expect of a writer.

Being a consultant has its drawbacks. Typically, I don't get to see things to their conclusion (something I miss a lot).

But I do get to learn new things every single day. Maybe that would be true if I still had a line job in publishing, but it would never have been true if I hadn't been willing to stand in a lab 34 years ago and hear a frank assessment of what I was actually good at.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.