Big fools with bigger titles

It’s a mistake not to learn and seek out help from others

I’m 64 years old, and I’ve been learning all my life. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to learn something. It’s part of what makes working and life exciting and fun.

And even with all this, I’m sometimes disappointed at all the things I still don’t know or have forgotten.

When I was a teenager, I sometimes felt that older folks just didn’t understand the new realities. Then one day I saw a Mark Twain quote on a plaque, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” 

Touché and quite humbling. Yet even when I thought I might have been ahead of some folks, it never stopped me from trying to learn more. Although there are plenty of people my age who think they know it all, I feel like I’m seeing an even greater proportion of this foolishness in younger people. 

A primary purpose of education is to create a thirst for learning. It’s why we call graduations commencements. They’re not supposed to be the end of education, but the beginning.

I recently had the misfortune to meet a grand prize winner in this regard. A friend’s company was bought out a year ago, and every month or so, the big boss flies up from New York to spend a couple of days telling them how to do everything. He looks like a teenager but is probably in his late 20s or early 30s. He has an MBA and keeps reminding everyone over and over.

It seems no one can tell him anything. He won’t even review relevant data before making decisions. When someone tries to politely explain why something won’t work, he replies, “That’s the way I want it!” This used to be a great place to work, but all the enthusiasm seems to have disappeared.

I was invited to see if I could talk to him. One of the problems I solved years ago was rearing its ugly head again. They thought he might actually listen to someone who had been able to make it go away.

He came breezing in about 10 o’clock and greeted us with “Everyone in the conference room. Now!”

What followed was a kind of public flogging of everyone, each in turn. After three or four of these, he got to me, but I was a new face. “Who are you?” They introduced me and told him why I was there. “No consultants! I have an MBA, so we don’t need you. I want you to leave right now.” 

So I did. 

As I walked to my car, I was reminded of an old quote, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” It bothered me so much, I had to find its originator. Thanks to Google, I found it was Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman.

Now business has actually been improving for this company despite the damage this guy is doing. The numbers everyone watches are increasing nicely. They might be exploding if he didn’t keep throwing these monkey wrenches into the works. In any case, it’s probably going to take his superiors a long time to figure out what’s going on. In the meantime, everyone dreads those visits and the phone calls in between.

No doubt this guy is an extreme example. I think they should put him in a museum. Even so, each of us has some of these tendencies to greater or more probably lesser degrees. We may not be anywhere near as bad as this guy, but are we missing smaller opportunities that could enhance our performance and make us more effective?

Although we all like to think of ourselves as wise, we’ve all done foolish things and continue to do so. What’s really bad is when we don’t at least learn from them.

Never be afraid to ask others what they think about a situation. Two heads are better than one, even when they don’t agree. 

In fact, if you don’t agree, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn, if you agree to keep talking until you find a solution you both like. 

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or