The following is an excerpt from my new book, Clueless at The Work: Advice from a Corporate Tyrant, which is now available for purchase at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. (Kindle & audiobook versions coming soon!)
In any profession, 90% of people are clueless but work by situational imitation, narrow mimicry & semi-conscious role-playing. Except social “science” and journalism where it is 99% and 100%, respectively.
I didn’t know I was clueless until a conversation with acclaimed guitarist Steve Vai on September 29, 2014. Steve introduced me to the transformational power of mindfulness. His life had changed through learning to be present in every moment, a practice developed in meditation. The concepts were so far beyond my understanding and capability, I just pretended to know what he was talking about. I was clueless. I didn’t actually see the depths of my cluelessness until a rude awakening six months later.
In February 2015, I was in Tepoztlán, Mexico with Robert Fripp, another world-renowned guitarist and composer. I was attending his week-long introductory course about music and the guitar. A few days in, Robert spoke at length about connecting our bodies, minds, and instruments with the present moment. He emphasized the importance of training our bodies to be still, appreciating silence, identifying musical opportunities, and self- control. I listened and nodded intently while mindlessly bouncing my right leg.
Suddenly, Robert said, “Everyone look at Anthony bouncing his leg for reasons he cannot even begin to describe. Is he controlling his body or is it the other way ‘round?”
The whole class turned to look at me and my leg. My brain began processing this unexpected moment of humiliation. I was desperately searching for a witty comeback to deflect and defend my injured ego. Everyone laughed and Robert smiled at me. I decided to say nothing, laugh at myself, and pretend I was fine. It’s better to play it cool and take it in stride, right? It took a few minutes to get my blood pressure and heartrate back to normal.
And then I had one of those “a-ha” moments. My brain was flooded with memories of Steve talking about mindfulness. I heard his voice in my head saying, “Being present in the moment means having full acceptance of who you are and what is happening around you. Do you see these flowers in front of us? They’re not pretending to be anything other than what they are right now.”
I felt both gratitude and nausea as I began to recognize my cluelessness. I was grateful that two of my biggest musical heroes had personally shared priceless, life-changing wisdom with me. I felt nauseous because I was acting like a hypocrite. Instead of digesting and practicing what my heroes had shared with me, I nodded my head, acted like I knew what I was talking about, and pretended to be someone I wasn’t. Robert saw right through this and I became the perfect example of mindlessness for the class.
My brief moment of embarrassment led to a much greater realization. I had spent 33 years of my life learning how to appear successful to the world through “situational imitation, narrow mimicry, and semi-conscious role-playing.” I had no idea how to respond to my cluelessness or how to fix it. Yikes. It was time to change, quit acting, and start authoring my own life.
Steve’s gift of knowledge and Robert’s gift of feedback helped me to start living life more earnestly, authentically, and humbly. I began studying every aspect of my own behavior and with great scrutiny. I learned to sit still, quiet my mind, and be comfortable with extended periods of silence. My relationships changed. My control over my body improved. My awareness of thoughts and mental habits changed. And for the first time in my life, I started feeling a calm confidence in my capabilities while being tested by life’s challenges.
For 33 years, I represented the cluelessness described in Nassim Taleb’ s quote on page 1. Though my cluelessness was revealed to me through musical practice, I learned that I was just as clueless in my professional work life. I’ll share dozens of stories about that in the following pages. Addressing my cluelessness has meant spending the last several years voraciously reading, observing and analyzing my behaviors, having in-depth conversations with mentors, practicing what I preach, putting my skin in the game, and failing. Through this work, I have developed the invaluable skill of knowing when I actually am clueless and sensing when I probably am not. I now feel as though a veil has been lifted from my eyes and I’m able to see myself and the world much more clearly.
As for Taleb’s “90% of people are clueless” bit, I’ve since seen plenty of that in my own work experience and personal history. From CEOs who can’t make decisions until they’ve met with some advisory group to fresh-outta-college young people in their first real jobs, many people just don’t know how to succeed in their jobs.
People unfamiliar with Taleb are likely to misunderstand his words. He does not believe people are stupid idiots living with their heads where the sun don’t shine. He does, however, hold people accountable for their beliefs and is quick to call out their hypocrisy, especially if those people put themselves in positions of authority. Having read all of his books, nearly every tweet over the last few years, and watched every speech of his on YouTube, I think he’s largely misunderstood. There’s a big difference between believing people are idiots and telling people they are acting like idiots.
People are “clueless” and “work by situational imitation, narrow mimicry, & semi-conscious role-playing” because they simply don’t know any better. Schools don’t teach us how to succeed. They teach us how to be good at school. I’ve mentored and coached C-suite executives, departmental leaders, line managers, and individual contributors who’ve all suffered from these (and other) symptoms of cluelessness.
In most of these coaching conversations, it’s clear they haven’t augmented their real life experience with honest discussion, meaningful books, community participation, or failure. They often haven’t sought out help before. They do well enough in one job, move up the ladder, apply for and get other jobs with increasingly longer titles and higher pay, and eventually find themselves in jobs that no longer make sense to them.
Taleb wrote a chapter in his book Skin in the Game about a type of person he calls Intellectual Yet Idiot, or IYI. The chapter is available to read for free online and I highly encourage you to check it out. Read it from top to bottom, and don’t stop when you find yourself offended.
The main point is: he has no tolerance or respect for armchair experts who make decisions for other people while keeping all the upside and transferring the downside to others. Once you grok his message, you start seeing it everywhere you go. Bureaucratic and political managers at work who don’t seem to do or know anything, but never get fired. Family members with pot bellies giving diet and nutrition advice to others. “Entrepreneurs” who never started their own businesses and bought their way into leadership positions. Cluelessness everywhere you look.
It’s all over the place.
And there are a lot of IYIs. They often enjoy positions of high status and visibility, never getting their hands dirty with real work. They somehow manage to have high salaries and get to decide who to fire when the revenue is running dry. They get undeserved bonuses during economic downturns. They have corner offices and no discernible relationships with people “in the trenches.” They provide drive-by decisions in meetings, take conversations off the rails, and leave teams unnecessarily bewildered. They go back to school when they are bored in their careers. They think education will close the gap between the current and desired circumstances, all the while believing they have a clue.
They want to change the world, but they can’t even keep their bedrooms clean and their beds made. They rarely have original ideas. While they aren’t the entirety of the 90% (and they couldn’t be or else the world would fall apart), they’re probably a decent chunk of that 90%. I certainly don’t want to be part of the 90%.