Conventional Wisdom: Assume Nothing…


A prologue to “Conventional Wisdom”…

I was nervous. It was 8am on the first day of my first job as an attorney in Johannesburg, South Africa. As I arrived in the office manager’s office, he handed me a note. The senior partner wanted me in his office the moment I arrived.

I reacted to the senior partner’s summons as any self-respecting insecure 23-year old new lawyer would have reacted: I freaked out… Could this be the shortest first job in legal or other history, I wondered? Had the senior partner already changed his mind about offering me the job? My anxiety was now spinning totally out of control…

With only unhappy thoughts swirling around my head, I somehow dragged myself up to his executive suite. Breathlessly, I knocked on his door…

The senior partner…

The senior partner was an icon. With a towering legal mind, he was known as South Africa’s most brilliant business negotiator and strategist. He’d now built a large and prestigious law firm headquartered in Johannesburg, the commercial center of the country.

It was apparently a very big deal that he’d personally offered me the job. And, needless to say,  when he did, I was over-the-moon. I don’t think I breathed once before accepting his offer. That had made him grin…

As I now knocked on his door, I found myself firmly back in earth’s orbit. As I heard him invite me into his office, I opened the door slowly. I peeked in and, magically, my anxiety evaporated. A wide grin can do that!

As he walked towards me, he shook my hand with his grin seemingly growing. As he welcomed me to his firm, he said he knew this was a day I’d remember forever. He thought it might be cool if he offered me some advice that I’d also remember forever. Because couldn’t think of a single thing to say, I smiled like an idiot.

Incidentally, as you might imagine, he was now my hero. I would have done absolutely anything for him. Looking back, it was kinda scary! As it turned out, he would later brutally test my devotion to him by making me work insane hours in the following days, weeks, months and years. That seemingly infectious grin turned out to be a diabolically evil one!

Anyway, I’ve always remember the advice he offered me that day, which is why I want to share it with you. And when he said I’d always remember it, my-oh-my, was he right!

Incidentally, what I later came to realize, was how much old lawyers love to give young lawyers advice. Maybe one day, when I’m old enough, I might find a young lawyer who might appreciate my own advice. Fortunately, right now, I’m not old enough to dispense any  remotely worthwhile advice…

The advice…

So, this was the advice he offered me that day:

“In everything you do, Michael,” he said, “assume nothing—absolutely nothing. And, trust me,” he continued, “if you assume nothing, you’ll rarely be caught by surprise by a judge or by a client—or by life itself. You’ll always be better prepared.”

From that day on, I’ve used this advice as a filter that I apply it to almost everything, but particularly to anything regarded as conventional wisdom.

In particular, whenever I come across something that I’m told is “conventional wisdom,” I always try to apply the filter. And, almost always, whenever I do, it never ceases to amaze me that “conventional wisdom” is hardly ever conventional.

I was again recently reminded of this as I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s terrific book, “David and Goliath.” 

If you think

Conventional Wisdom and the Underdog…

Who could take issue with the conventional wisdom at the time? In his epic biblical encounter with Goliath, David was the clear underdog—and this is why:

  • On the one hand, Goliath was a huge and powerful warrior. He carried a sharp and lethal weapons. And, to defend himself, he wore an almost impregnable suit of armor and he carried a quite massive shield…
  • On the other hand, David was just a small and slight shepherd. Apart from a single slingshot and just a few stones, he was unarmed. David wore no armor and carried no shield…

It so happened that the conventional wisdom about that biblical encounter was quite wrong. And this is why: In those days, there were three branches of the military—

First, there was the infantry…

These were the foot soldiers who would fight hand-to-hand with swords, knives and spears. They would wear heavy armor and carry large shields. Because of this, they were also relatively immobile. In facing either cavalry or artillery, for example, they were at a distinct disadvantage.

Then there was the cavalry…

These were the soldiers who would storm into battle atop fast horses. They would carry spears and swords and had light armor and shields to protect and defend themselves. They were very mobile and extraordinarily effective against enemy infantry and artillery.

Finally, there was the artillery…

These were the soldiers who, from a distance, would propel projectiles into enemy positions using slingshots and other larger devices. Slingshots, in particular, were quite lethal. They could propel projectiles with the force of a modern bullet. The slingers were also often quite accurate at distances and some could even hit birds in flight. 

King Saul

It so happened that David was extraordinarily skillful with his slingshot. He had honed these skills as he defended his flock against fast-moving wolves and lions. And that’s why he knew that his upcoming encounter with the giant Goliath was actually extraordinarily unfair—to Goliath. So much for that initial conventional wisdom!

Looking back, it now seems impossible to believe that Goliath could survive an encounter with someone so skilled with a slingshot. David knew this with an absolute certainty—and, again, this is why:

  • He knew Goliath would be standing close to him—but not so close that he could reach David even with his long spear.
  • He also knew Goliath was also extraordinarily large—and quite immobile.
  • Despite Goliath’s heavy armor and large shield, David identified his specific target. He knew that Goliath could have no defense to an incoming slingshot aimed at his unprotected forehead. It would be like someone having to dodge a bullet fired at very close range.

But there was even more…

  • From the biblical account, it seems that Goliath also had some physical ailments. His eyesight was apparently very poor. He could hardly see David until he approached quite close to him. Also, because of his extraordinary and abnormal size, he needed help to move. He was quite immobile.

So, knowing all of this, can’t we all feel just a little sorry for the poor helpless giant? Clearly, we should!  Again, so much for that conventional wisdom!

What does this teach us—what’s the gift here?

The gift of this story is the same gift that I was given oh-so-many-years-ago by the senior partner—

“Assume nothing—absolutely nothing…”

Clearly, just because someone appears to have huge advantages and be quite invulnerable, this might not necessarily be so. In fact, a person’s apparent strength and invulnerability might well reflect some weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

When it comes to testing conventional wisdom, this is something well worth thinking about, eh?  🙂

Assume nothing question everything

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