“I never thought I was committing fraud,” he said. “I knew what I was doing was misleading — but I never thought it was illegal.”
That’s Andrew Fastow. In 2001, he was named CFO of the year, and just a few short months later, his company Enron Corporation went bankrupt after committing one of the largest corporate frauds in history.
He was released from prison in late 2011, and these days he makes the odd appearance at business schools to talk about the lessons he learned the hard way and the importance of ethics in the everyday world.
I don’t bring him up to judge him. I know enough of the story to find it fascinating, but not enough to hold any sort of a strong position about the man himself. That said, I do find that comment very interesting.
It’s a comment that illustrates a point not just about a situation as grave as the one Fastow found himself in, but it also sheds light on a subtle gap that shows up in many of our own personal experiences.
Most of us have a tendency to think that we know more than we do, and we don’t often realize that until we make an oversight big enough that shows the divergence between what goes in our mind and how we act in the world. Sometimes, the obvious isn’t all that obvious.
Let’s break this idea down a little further.
Everything is Common Sense
If you’re even remotely curious and you spend any amount of time reading, then at some point, pretty much everything becomes common sense.
If you read up on happiness, you know that, in one way or another, gratitude matters, relationships matter, and so does creating a sense of purpose.
If you read up on business, you know that, generally speaking, shipping beats perfection, you need to spend more time on marketing than you’d like, and it’s probably a good idea to test rather than assume when it comes to the product.
If you read up on creativity, you know that, quite often, quantity will lead to quality, waiting for inspiration is a waste of time, and having a plan in place for any sort of resistance is important.
Ultimately, most things can be made quite simple. The complexity and the confusion comes from how we interpret and make sense of it. It comes from the interactions that are produced when these things are applied to the real world. That’s when things get messy.
Many smart people make the mistake of thinking that just because they know something that appears obvious when it’s written down without the complexity, they can stop trying to learn or to understand these things on a deeper and more fundamental level.
I know this because I used be one of those people (not smart, but mistaken). I’d read a lot of self-improvement and personal development stuff, and I’d be smug about the fact that I already knew it. Well, that’s what I told myself.
Except, I was wrong. I overlooked a key distinction.
Knowing vs. Internalizing
When it comes down to it knowledge is only as useful as the result it produces.
It’s easy for me to read a book or to listen to someone talk and think to myself that I know this, but it’s more important to maybe take a second to ask myself whether or not I’m actually living it, whether or not it’s something I have internalized to the point where my actions prove that I know it.
This is the mentality I think many people get stuck on. They are so intent on knowing things and finding new ideas that they forget that much of their current knowledge isn’t actually doing them any favors.
It doesn’t take all that much to get good at something. It takes a lot of work, sure, but honestly, it’s just about doing a few, small things right consistently, and if you’ve done your basic homework, then you probably already know what these things are. Application is what makes the difference.
So, the question isn’t what you know, but it’s what you have internalized and what you live by. It’s not what you can recount off memory or what you can nod your head to as you read it, it’s the behaviors your knowledge inspires.
There is a world full of people that know how to run a business or how to live a productive life that they can be proud of, but there aren’t as many people who are actually running their businesses effectively or who are actually in control of the direction their life is taking.
This is a critical distinction, and it takes a dose of humility, but it’s one that distinguishes between those who keep progressing and those who don’t.
What’s the Point?
For the most part, things are as simple and easy as we make them. If I hear a string of familiar words and decide that they’re common sense, I may be right.
That said, when it really comes down to practicing the ideas behind those words, things tend to get a little more complex for most of us, and it’s worth remembering that. Knowledge alone is quite cheap and even misleading.
A guy like Andrew Fastow should know better than when he is or isn’t breaking an accounting law. After all, that’s his profession. Maybe he was lying about being unaware, but if he wasn’t, then he likely fell victim to the same narrative most of us fall into when we think we know something.
To really learn and grow, a degree of skepticism of yourself is healthy. Any time you feel too confident about where a conversation is heading, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on whether or not you deserve to feel confident.
If you’re not living it, you still have work to do.