Business lessons from...Carl Sagan?

Billions and billions of people go to work all the time and do the exact same thing day in and day out that they did the year before and the year before that and so on until infinity. That may sound a bit dramatic, but give it a second to sink in. How often do you find yourself doing things throughout the course of your day simply because that’s what you’ve always done? If someone were to walk in and say, “Hey there, I’ve got some ideas that might help you get your job done a little more efficiently," what would your immediate reaction be?

Yep, me too, if I'm being honest with myself.

So that got me thinking when I read this quote from, of all people, Carl Sagan:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future.

Tall order, isn’t it? Sure we think we’re really good at our jobs and know when it’s time to go to the well for a new idea and when it’s time to surf the current wave. But does that keep us from recognizing game changing or even just day changing ideas when they’re sitting right there in front of us?

Now I’ve certainly written this post from a decidedly cynical angle, but there have been times in my life when I’ve really wanted to believe something and didn’t take the time I should have to try and poke holes in the solution in front of me. This balance that Carl Sagan talks about? It’s not easy. But I have a feeling it can lead to great things. What do you think?