Knowers and Learners

Quick thoughts on different world views


My work these days involves spending a lot of time with early stage companies, where we’re racing against the clock to turn bold new ideas into usable products, and see if they work.

It’s a land where you’re knee-deep in ambiguity, and surrounded by a sea of unanswered questions. It’s an environment where short-circuiting feedback loops pays off big time, and where fast action is highly valued.

But with so much to do and so little time, teams often get into hard scoping discussions. There’s no way to know for sure in advance what a product needs to offer in order to be validated. I’ve noticed two different types of people emerge from those discussions:

  • The ones who want to be right
  • And the ones who want to learn

The ones who want to be right defend their ideas based on their experience, their seniority, on their unmeasurable powers of divination of customer behavior. They come up with dozens of possible failure cases, just to justify their more complex solution. They get married to their ideas and never let go, irrespective of what’s learned.

They say “trust me, I know what I’m doing”, “no, that won’t work” and “let’s just do it my way this time”. They breed self-doubt and disempowerment.


“I know one thing: that I know nothing”
– Socrates (supposedly)


Then there are the ones who want to learn. They’ve realized that when you’re first building something, chances are you’ll be wrong about at least a couple things — and try to identify them early on. They try to keep projects simple, so they can be tested fast, even if they have obvious holes. They maximize their opportunity for learning, by focusing on the problem at hand, and not on who came up with the solution or how it matches the initial big idea.

They can still have a bold vision, and they still listen to their gut, but they’re open to being wrong and eager to find out what will work for their audience.

They say “this is what worked for me before, would you be up for trying it?” and “which option would let us learn faster?”. They breed progress and are fun to hang around.


These days I just try to surround myself with people who are open to being wrong (even if they’re right most of the time), and above all interested in learning the truth, whatever it may be. I interview candidates looking for that heart-warming balance of experience and humility, and only invest in friendships with people who are willing to review previously held ideas. And I try to constantly revise what are facts and what are simply my own assumptions.

What about you? Would you rather be right, or would you rather learn the truth?

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