Monday, October 31, 2011

Wise enough to know what I do not

My friend David taught me a valuable lesson about the limits of wisdom and the folly of overconfidence. I met David about 5 years ago, and at first, we didn't get along. We were both members of a social group, and when the group would meet, we'd each have some job to perform.

I took the group very seriously, and whatever job I was assigned I did as well as I could. But David did not. He would talk about things way off topic. He was distracted by other things, and so he was distracting me and others from our purpose. His lack of ability to focus was a constant irritant.

Then, one day I received an e-mail informing me that he'd taken his own life. I learned that many months before, not long before I met him, he'd been diagnosed with a disease like Alzheimer's, and would experience diminishing mental abilities for the rest of his life. Evidently his mother suffered from the same condition, and it pained David greatly to see her mentally fail the last years of her life.

Whether David's choice was right or wrong is not my subject. The limits of my knowledge and poor judgement is. I judged David's poor performance and mental sloppiness to be the result of a lack of desire on his part. I considered him to be an inconsiderate annoyance. Until I learned that David was really doing the best he could.

In 2007 and 2008, Lute Olson, the head basketball coach at the University of Arizona for 25 years, displayed erratic and uncharacteristic behavior. He fired two different assistant coaches who he had selected as his successor, divorced his wife, and had sudden leaves of absence from work. After all this, his doctors and family announced that Lute had suffered a stroke some time ago that had not been diagnosed until recently. They believed his unusual recent behavior was caused by the damage the blood clot had caused to his brain.

I think of my friend David and Coach Olson reminders to me that things are not always what they seem, and that it is easy to think that I have most, or all, of the relevant information when in fact, I do not. I have learned that an important part of wisdom is to consider what I do not know along what I do.

How do you overcome the overconfidence of thinking you have all the facts?

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