Most people who perform well at their jobs and achieve career advancement, no matter what the level, do so in great part because they know how to do things well. They have learned what works and apply that knowledge to solving issues and problems that interfere with optimal performance.

But there’s a downside to knowledge – it can tend to crowd out alternative ways of thinking. That’s what happens when knowledge morphs into certainty. And certainty about something leaves little room for the curiosity that fuels innovation: “I wonder if there’s another way to think about this?”

When we supplement certainty with curiosity we open the door to new, and potentially better, ways of viewing the world and making things happen. 

Early History

Two vivid and famous examples of this phenomenon come from the 16th century. Up until that time there was pretty much absolute certainty in the scientific establishment that the Sun revolved around the earth. And just about all learned men (women weren’t concerned learned back then) knew that the body was made up of four humours. It took Copernicus in astronomy and William Harvey in medicine to pose alternative theories that ultimately dethroned the “wisdom” of many hundreds of years.

Another example (and one that feels very personally relevant, having just returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands) is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which evolved out of his curiosity about why identical species of animals on different islands exhibited different physical characteristics (like coloring, beak shapes, and neck lengths).

Recent Growth

In our century, Amazon, Netflix, and Tesla are examples of businesses that were created, and have thrived, by reconceptualizing conventional wisdom on the fundamental principles of shopping, entertainment, and personal transportation.

Following their example it’s a good idea to be a bit skeptical of “common knowledge” or “conventional wisdom,”  and to at least occasionally devote some time to imagining alternative ways of approaching problems. 

Only by questioning “truth” is knowledge advanced. And advancing knowledge of how to make things happen or get things done better is a surefire key to career advancement.