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The Best Advice I’ve Ever Gotten at School

Going to University offers a lot of benefits. These benefits are of course widely accepted in our society. Education is at the heart of how our society functions. It is who you get to meet, which friends you make, what skills you end up learning, and of course, the diploma. However, the best advice I got at school involved none of these.

The professor was rather cynical. It was the first class, and the first thing he said was: “Look around you. 80% of you will fail this class.” I’m not sure who celebrates this kind of nonsense, but that’s what happened. Having said that, there was something important he would later say that was going to stick with me.

Towards the end of the semester, we were all presenting how we would plan to execute our entrepreneurial idea and apply the different technology techniques we had learned. One of the teams was explaining their plan to implement something related to Air Conditioning units. The professor asked them to pause while he checked the slide. He then said: “I worked for 15 years at a company that built AC units.” Uh-oh. He asked them where they got some of the information from. They thought about it for a moment and said they just made some assumptions about some AC metrics. To which he replied:

“Assumptions are the mother of all foolishness.”

That was the advice. It really doesn’t seem that earth-shattering, but it is. Over the years I’ve assumed many things, and it almost always backfires. For instance, I’ve assumed a contractor had understood what we agreed on, or they will remember (follow) the written contract we signed, or that they will keep track of their own work and the quality of it. I’ve assumed workers will notify their superiors if they see something being done incorrectly.

Assumptions are assumptions because what is clear for us (or them) may not be clear for others. Worse, if there’s no commitment or accountability, even with clarity there may be no follow through. Assuming anything will be executed correctly without verifying is a problem, especially from a third party. We must know when to delegate, and we must have a system to monitor execution. Prevention, while annoying, can literally save a fortune.

Assumptions have all sorts of pitfalls. Consider more mundane situations like: assuming that when you most need it, money will come in a timely fashion, no additional bills will be coming in, there will be no traffic, someone will show up on time, or that something or someone you have been relying on will continue to show up. Assumptions are the mother of all foolishness because there’s no upside. They are full of dormant risks. Assumptions are complacency in disguise. So what can we do about it?

You must ask these questions:

  • What am I assuming in this situation?
  • What are others assuming?
  • What is not being said?
  • Are there issues that are being postponed?
  • Are there any details being left out?

The problem with assumptions is one regarding information. We must dig to find the right evidence, and not just hope everything was understood (even if it’s claimed it is). What would be the opposite of an assumption? Fully disseminated, clear, and verifiable information. How do you get this? Again, finding what is not known or isn’t said or shown. That’s our job. And why is that so hard? Because no one likes to feel like they don’t know. We all have to navigate and respond positively when involved in clarifying work or even personal matters. What is not said isn’t said because there’s a degree of vulnerability involved.

It is not about knowing and doing more, but about figuring out what is not known, not said, or not done. If the problem with making assumptions is about hidden, distorted, or unknown information, then the solution revolves around exposing it. Find out what information is being kept hidden. Or be honest about why you aren’t sharing certain information. Maybe the most difficult part is to just be aware that assumptions are always made, and consciously try to look for them to see if something needs to be clarified. It’s virtually impossible to know what assumptions are being made when it’s not your field of expertise, but you can always ask the experts the hard questions. Try to feel empowered (or seek being empowered), and empower others.

I personally like being respectful but unapologetic when asking questions. Even at the risk of looking dumb. More often than not they lead to better outcomes. I like asking: “What might you be seeing that I’m not?” Or “What must be addressed now, rather than later?” It requires more work, it is emotionally tough, but it really does pay off in saving resources, time, and energy of everyone involved. So the professor was right after all. Assumptions are the mother of all foolishness because they put you at the risk of downside. Your power? Uncovering them.

Juan F. Diaz

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