Selling Ignorance

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“Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire.” — Richard Saul Wurman on Charles Eames


What if the single biggest thing you have to offer is not what you know about a given subject, but how you approach it?

What if your unique lens, applied to anything in that special way, is your greatest gift?

Take legendary designers, Ray and Charles Eames. The wife-husband team generally committed to projects that took years to complete. Why? They needed to allow for the migration from novice to expert.

They were experts in their process of inquiry and elaboration and creation. But they constantly took on challenges in entirely new fields. Along the way, they’d need to learn about the specific content, materials, products and needs. But what people were really buying and what they were selling was faith in their ability to figure out it on a level most others couldn’t.

That led to a paradigm-shifting volume of output that spanned a mind-boggling diversity of fields. They designed everything from splints for injured World War II soldiers to entire structures, interiors, fabric, exhibits, images, patterns, brands, games, movies and even toys.

Design firm, IDEO, is another powerful example. On the surface, this now legendary design house is just that. A design firm. Thing is, clients don’t come to them because they’ve got expertise in this widget or that. They come to IDEO because they know IDEO is driven by a process that moves them rapidly from ignorance to inquiry and then genius. And IDEO hires people who’ve demonstrated a similar approach to creation in their own endeavors, along with a capacity to apply that process to new challenges. So, at IDEO, you’ll find everyone from classically-trained designers to writer, musicians, entrepreneur-types and beyond. Because it’s more about the lens.

Reflecting back to the quote that opens this piece about the Ray and Charles, the full quote reads:

Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire. He was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject. The journey of not knowing to knowing was his work.

In other words, they were selling precisely what we’re so often told to see as our greatest flaw.

Thing is…

Ignorance unexplored is the seed of impotence.


Ignorance mined is the seed of innovation.

Increasingly, I realize that I function in a similar, “ignorance as fuel,” process-driven, way. The son of a once hippie potter mom and cognitive scientist dad, I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in the way I look at the world. When I was younger, it didn’t always serve me so well. Thus the 6th-grade moniker “Freaky Fields.”

But the more I own it, as an adult, the more I realize it’s my greatest asset. One that fuels my own endeavors. And, one that’s increasingly a sale-able asset.

So, what about you?

Are you selling ignorance or expertise?

And, how’s your choice (or default mode) working for you?

Share your thoughts below…


P.S. – Wanna tap that Freaky Fields process of inquiry and learn to develop your own? We are now accepting applications for the Good Life Project 2014 Immersion, a once-a-year, 7-month aligned business and personal growth training experience like no other. Spoiler alert – it includes 6-days in Costa Rica, so if you want to stay somewhere freezing and gray for a few more months, do not apply! ;-).

Photo: Eames Office

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29 responses

29 responses to “Selling Ignorance”

  1. g says:

    Back when I was designing and overhauling information solutions—rather astonished at the amount of money clients were willing to pay us over and over again to fundamentally draw a straightforward line that would get them from A to B —my partner would remind me over and over again, “we sell common sense, our clients buy rare sense.”
    Evidently, not knowing “it’s always been done this way” or “no one does it that way” was the single most valuable tool we brought with us to each project. We were ignorant (there’s that word again) of the boundaries our clients took for granted, so, to us, anything was possible. In fact, everything was possible.
    “Bring someone from the outside and look through his eyes if you want to describe the absurdity and preposterous reality that is accepted amongst the ones who are inside.” ~Christoph Waltz

  2. lone says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    This made me happy. Also an ‘outsider’ who’ve lived in different cultures and worked on many different projects I have the hardest time building a business around an expertise that I then have to taut at any given moment. It’s not who I am. I’m an explorer, I inquire, I learn, I create, I share – it’s my process in all and where I do best. With me we go on journeys and learn along the way. Great to see this talent / skill / expertise expressed so eloquently. Feels like an invitation to step it up and make it official. 😉


  3. […] people you’re fortunate enough to spend time with more often than not. When I can share that great new post by Jonathan Fields, you’ll really likely only remember that you feel smarter and that I […]

  4. Paul Bond says:

    We’re trying to inject a little humour, ( that’s the correct European spelling Google !), into the otherwise dull grey world of workwear.

    Loved the post and got a kick out of the mysterious ‘g”s comment :
    “we sell common sense, our clients buy rare sense.”

    • Lisa Weikel says:

      Fancy seeing a post from you here, Mr. Bond. You are most adept at selling through beguiling innocence and playfulness. It is most seductive and compelling.

  5. Jamie Grove says:

    At one level, I suppose this is how I operate. I sell a process, which ultimately leads to a better product. The process is based on an immersion in data which is further informed by testing and general experimentation. This is how you arrive at insight, which guides the development of formal procedures.

    At another level, I suppose I sell myself as an artist who might ruin a few canvases along the way but ultimately executes a vision with swift and sure strokes (combined with a little luck).

  6. LA Mock says:

    I think this “ignorance” is a byproduct of being the weirdo/outsider as a kid. For me it resulted in seeing things other people don’t see. When I was in the traditional workforce people created positions for me because I didn’t fit into any existing ones. Still, I was always told (after I became bored and resigned) “I don’t think we ever fully utilized you”. I never have quite gotten the hang of selling “it” effectively, although working for myself is a much better fit. In the world of LinkedIn, the focus is still on the “what you know”. Too bad there are not more places like IDEO.

  7. I dig it. Being comfortable with the unknown and not needing to know while presensing and creating the possible is the asset.

  8. The way I see it, you are talking about being open to learn from everyone/everything, all the time, humbly and sincerely. That is not ignorance, that is wisdom.

  9. Jody Hollis says:

    Great article at so many levels, but what I want to concentrate on one issue that raise you so often in many different ways – you don’t have to be the best in the world, you just need to reflect the world through your own lens of understanding. Thanks. J

  10. This post didn’t just speak to me, it sung. Like a Glenn Miller band playing A String of Pearls, this made me want to dance.

    You see, I love to explore. Somewhere deep in my soul there is a constant craving for the new.

    When I worked at GEICO, where a 15 minute call could save you 15% on your auto insurance, I taught myself the computer language Visual Basic. I used it with Excel to create amazing programs and often people would come to me to build their project before they would talk to the IT guys. Once, the IT guys came to me, too. Nobody liked the red tape required of an “official” project. I could complete in a week or two what would take six months just to get approved by the IT overlords.

    I left GEICO because I got a large contract to do a build in the virtual world of Second Life. I learned a bunch about graphic design and Photoshop to land that contract, all because I was exploring something new.

    In late 2009 I started to teach myself woodworking. I’m not an expert, but I can hand cut dovetails, which is a bit of a challenge.

    On Jan 2, 2010, I wrote my first blog post. I hated writing, but I was bored. Now, it’s 2014, there are 5 of my novels for sale and one non-fiction. I’ll publish four more this year. One of my novels, Henry Wood Detective Agency is up to 156 reviews with a 4.3 average…and on Jan 1, 2010, I thought writing was only done when one was being punished.

    Learning fuels my brain. The last two weeks I’ve been doing recreational algebra. By the end of today I’ll have completed a semesters worth.

    Why? You ask.

    Two weeks ago I read that M.I.T. offers all their courses online for free. I decided I wanted to take calculus. After watching the first class, I realized I had forgotten a lot of the rules of algebra and calculus is basically advanced algebra, so I decided to go back and review that which I had learned in my teens.

    If I weren’t completely happy with being a novelist, I’d send a letter to IDEO group you mentioned in your article, because I think they’d like me and I’d fit in well.

    Anyway, I loved this post. It made my day. Thanks for writing it.

  11. Ah, you speak to my heart! I’ve always been so different, and thought so different. Always approached life from a new perspective. But, just like you, I was not at all popular in school because of that. And, just like you, I’m realizing more and more that my unique perspective is very sale-able. As long as I can get off my butt and actually put it into practice. I always prefer sharing in someone’s journey of growth rather than their expertise. It just makes them more… human. And relatable.

  12. Aaron says:

    I love this, because we get too worked up by pedigree.

    “Should I listen to this person? Should this person listen to me?” Perhaps the better question is “does it resonate?”

    You can give clients the answer or you can invite them to explore the question. Which would you prefer, the answer or the invitation to explore?

    Me too. I prefer to explore.

  13. Scott Asai says:

    The way I’m reading this has more to do with your style/process than your product or service. For example, as a coach that’s my perspective. What I actually do is build people’s confidence. I think it makes sense because clients that hire me want to feel confident that I can get them to where they want to go. They’re buying me, not what I sell. Appreciate the post, it’s definitely a “thought leader” type concept!

  14. Ah Jonathan, this is simply brilliant. “Ignorance mined is the seed of innovation.” I’ve always been pulled by the unknown. Most of my life that has meant the exploration of the inner world, first as a psychotherapist and then as a meditation and spiritual teacher. The past dozen years have been in the technology world as an engineer who knew nothing about engineering. Now, as I embark on the next level of inner discovery to write “the” book about inner research, your words mean so much. Thank you, thank you.

  15. […] people you’re fortunate enough to spend time with more often than not. When I can share that great new post by Jonathan Fields, you’ll really likely only remember that you feel smarter and that I […]

  16. This post is me. I have struggled with how to offer what I do. Since 2009 I have sat in Union Square in New York City with two folding chairs and a table with great regularity with a sign that reads “Creative Approaches To What You Have Been Thinking About” and a smaller sign that reads “Pay What You Like or Take What You Need” with a jar full of money.

    I have worked with over 3000 people with situations ranging widely from personal, professional, spiritual, artistic, criminal, etc… I try to never give advice or even necessarily approach the problem directly. My approach is creative. I listen for assumptions, ask questions, ponder, do art with them, sing, whisper.

    I never know what I’ll get, what I’ll say, where I’ll go or where we will end up.

    And yet people love it and I do to.

    But I have been told to “find a niche”, “promise an outcome”, “discover their pain point” to market myself.

    This post speaks to me…now what?

  17. Darla LeDoux says:

    Love this! Especially because when someone is selling ‘knowing an answer’ there is no room for discovery or change, and these days answers are outdated before we know it – its a lot to keep up with any topic with the abundance of information available. Developing a consistent ‘how you approach it’ that works makes a lot of sense. Oh, and we try so hard not to be ignorant! (At least I wasted a lot of life on that!)

  18. Julie says:

    LOVE this post. Thank you thank you for giving my unarticulated thoughts and feelings a voice. You are so on the money.

  19. Fraser says:

    A very interesting shift in perspective. I have always enjoyed learning new skills, which has led me to worked in a number of diverse industries. The journey from not knowing to knowing is very much the source of my motivation to learn. I have always felt my unbiased eyes have offered an advantage when approaching new fields of study and work, where others have viewed my lack of subject based knowledge a point of weakness. It is refreshing to earn my gut feeling has credibility.

    Thanks for sharing.

  20. Love the sentiment here – I describe it a bit differently, as I find that most adults have so much knowledge that isn’t properly associated together in a way that works really well, rather than being ignorant per se. Perhaps it’s a semantic thing, and certainly there are some times when people truly do not have any knowledge about something, but not as often as they seem to think.

    I tell my clients that what they pay for is my skill at facilitating a-ha moments. Basically, I walk them through the process of leveraging the deep islands of knowledge they already fully have and help them mentally build a bridge to the new concept through metaphor, transference, analogy, story. Once they have that a-ha moment, the full force of their experience and creativity can be brought to bear on a problem or venture. I have always been able to do that for others, but only recently discovered a way to describe it.

  21. Nick B. says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    I appreciate you sharing this perspective. Normally, when I think of someone who has achieved a prosperous career, you think of someone who has all the answers and is able to charge a lot for providing those answers.

    For instance, I’m taking a class on marketing at CreativeLive now and that is exactly what is being pitched by the teacher. And there is nothing wrong with this approach! The teacher is thoughtful, experienced and fairly good and communicating the basic concepts of marketing. Consequently, he is rewarded for his expertise with a classroom filled with budding entrepreneurs and small business owners.

    But, your article has definitely provided me something to ponder. The expertise has shift from the body of knowledge itself to the approach to acquiring the body of knowledge.

    Again, thanks for sharing.

  22. A Benavides says:

    I also LOVED this post. I am also a seeker, although my professional life has been constricted to some extent by being a transactional legal advisor. Can you make a life out of this hunger to learn that is so much who I am? Thank you.

  23. Jonathan,

    This is the story of my life and business, and it is a great train to be on. I branded myself around being ‘the bliss doula’, not because every single day I lead is bliss, but I have a process that helps myself and others discover bliss on a daily basis.

    In a lot of ways, the kind of coaching I do is mirrored off IDEO’s model of design thinking. I work with clients to create a dream life via a care process of small questions which leads to big results.

    I never thought of what I do in this way specifically, thanks for the reframe and the reminder. Field notes always make my day.

  24. Nancie says:

    My first sales job was in legal publishing, and I really new nothing about the law. I wasn’t shy to tell a customer that I didn’t have an answer to their question, but I would get them the answer. I always did, and I gained a reputation as someone who always kept their word.

  25. Adaeze Diana says:

    Thank you for this post Jonathan/:

    I made a decision at the beginning of this year to start stepping in the name of COURAGE. I’ve always been considered “different” from folks, mainly due to the fact that I’ve always had a fascination with philosophy and the psychology/spirit behind human behavior.

    I told myself at the beginning of this year that if I am going to manifest my vision (to teach people the spiritual practices I have learned and am still learning that afford us the choice to have happy, fulfilled, God-centered lives) then I must:

    1) Be brave enough to stand in the glory of my “difference” even though some people dislike it – which means as I like to say, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”, and

    2) Be brave enough to be honest with the people my life’s work is meant to serve – which means refusing the title “expert”. I believe it gives a false sense of perfection and leaves no real room for a person to grow in their field.

    I’ve come to learn that the mark of a great teacher lies in his/her ability to remain a great student of his/her course. I want to be a lifelong student/teacher/:

  26. I enjoy getting lost! It does annoy people who are with me. But the answer is, “When you get lost you will discover things and places you never knew before.”

    For a great example of an extreme form of getting lost spiritually, physically and financially have a read of The Inspired Heart by Jerry Wennstrom.

    I loved the post Jonathan because it put into words what I have been doing for years without naming it. Mind you that can be a danger as giving a thing identity gives it a persona.

    Maybe it’s time to go and get lost again.

  27. I don’t even know how to respond to this. I need you! I constantly find myself grateful when your work is again in front of me.

    I struggle to know what I sell. The people who know me keep signing up for more, but explaining what I do seems nearly impossible.

    When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m an artist. Then they want to know what I paint. I neither paint nor draw. I DO sing, I dance, I explain knitting, alternative-ingredient baking, mailart, feltmaking, polymer clay and computers.

    Maybe thinking of your words will help me find better ways to explain. I don’t just sell knitting classes or computer classes… I sell encouraging, explaining, and a little bit of loosening up. I’m more of a cheerleader and a teacher, but I can’t seem to find a way to distill that into an elevator speech or a tagline.

    My blog tagline is “Art as an everyday attitude.” I like it, but it still doesn’t help people who think art is paint.

    I have long wanted to use a lightbulb as my logo. I think I may go back to that idea again. Thank you again.

  28. William says:

    Evig ist das Streben, fuer de Kunst zu Leben is a refrain from Ludwig II, a German musical. Informally translated it is ‘ever is the striving, for the art of your life.’
    This post resonates just like that refrain; be open, be a student of your life, and practice giving first.