Some time ago, I was invited to deliver a lecture at a university that boasted a leading hotel management school. I am embarrassed to say that while I was there, I asked my host what could be the intellectual content of that program. That was not only uninformed, but also rude. Nobody trained as a hospitality professional would have been so boorish.
Later, I was working with an assistant I had been assigned. I had only just met this individual, but his work was most impressive. He was a recent college graduate, so I inquired as to his major. When he replied that it had been hotel management, I realized that there must be a significant skill set that had been transmitted.
The mistake I made, which I constantly remind myself to avoid but cannot help but repeat now and then, is dismissing what I am unfamiliar with. Almost all of my mistakes are rooted in this basic mistake of hubris, the arrogance of a closed mind. I assume I either already know what another person has to share, or I will never need to know it.
The worst ignorance is failure to appreciate other people’s knowledge. I am chagrined when I come around, as I do invariably: I have missed out on more than information that might be directly useful or simply enriching; I also have lost an opportunity to form a relationship with someone. Even if it does not smack of elitism, the attitude is not admirable.
All around us and within us, however, are forces and impulses that destroy curiosity. We are busy and concerned with our own status. Social standards only irregularly celebrate the free search for knowledge; it is as common to be corrected for challenging authority and faith, as not.
Children wonder about the world. They are easily interested though regrettably as easily disinterested. Adults have to make an effort to sustain that passion. We proceed directly from innate inquisitiveness to contrived boredom.
I was discouraged by others. When I was about to enter high school, I met with a guidance counselor. I had pored over the course catalog with a pure excitement, and in addition to the curriculum that was “college preparatory,” I had circled for consideration many electives that were offered on the first floor of the building — which I had to be told was for the “vocational track.”
The good faith of the counselor should not be doubted. He was doing what he was expected to, and he would have been criticized had he done otherwise. He explained politely, with the implicit offense not toward me but to those others whom he would send to auto tech 101, that I was not destined for happiness down there.
I also have been encouraged by others but taken it poorly. Throughout my adolescence, my parents wished for me to achieve fluency in Chinese, practice the piano, and, eventually, take up engineering like my father. My indifference, which pained them more than I would care to acknowledge, was genuine enough but also intensified by my insistence on my individuality.
The good intentions of my parents likewise should not be mistrusted. They only sought the success of their progeny for which they themselves had sacrificed and which unfair limits had denied to them. There is so much I would study now that I am an adult that I could have studied earlier as a child, and as much as I would prefer to believe I am smarter now it is not true.
In each case, I conformed. My life would not be the same if I had enrolled in even one high school shop class, and my career would be quite different with proficiency in another language. In listening to the guidance counselor, my error is easy to see: preferring convention. In not listening to my parents, the blunder is more subtle: it is preferring the norm that pretends to be its opposite, of teenage rebellion.
The day I reflected on the myriad mistakes I have made to select a single theme to describe here, I had a chance to learn anew. Every day, as mundane as it may appear, offers these moments if we are observant. This particular evening, I took advantage of openings that were obvious. I listened to someone practicing the Prokofiev piano sonatas, scores full of disturbing spikiness, which I might have avoided; and I attended a lecture on soil science, a subject of which I was prior to then altogether unaware but which is not without controversy.
I am determined to nurture in myself as an adult that desire of the child: to discover everything.
This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Frank Wu is the Chancellor & Dean at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
Image: A man walks along an empty street near the central financial district in Hong Kong. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.