You’ve probably heard the joke where one fish asks another fish: “How’s the water?”
And the other fish answers: “What the heck is water?” We become so used to what’s around us that we can’t see it anymore. We’re not even aware of our surroundings, they’re so familiar.
That’s what professionals (and volunteers) can slide into — assuming that the “truth” is found in what you hear at conferences, what you hear in professional settings, what you read from the “experts.”
You soak it all in and it becomes a part of you. The conventional wisdom turns into your familiar, comfortable surroundings.
It’s the water you swim in.
So you never question the assumptions … the unspoken, taken-for-granted ways of doing things.
In the field of development, I did play a part in creating the conventional wisdom.
Guilty as charged. After all, The Raising of Money was one of the very first books in the field. I got in early and helped build the framework.
Since then, the book has been quoted (or ripped off without attribution) so many times that its insights have become part of the water we swim in.
Even though many people who’ve entered the field more recently haven’t heard of the book, they’ve heard of the ideas. (Or at least some of the ideas. It’s amazing how some deep truths are still often ignored.)
I’ll admit, I was lucky. What I wrote in my late 20s has proved to be durable and I still stand by it. People are still using that little blue book to strengthen the philanthropic culture in their institutions and causes, even today.
But here’s where this gets interesting: If much of what you hear from experts and colleagues is just self-reinforcing conventional wisdom, people quoting each other and repeating the same ideas over and over until they’re assumed to be true, then …
How do you know what is true?
How can you be sure people know what they say they know? How do you know who to trust?
It’s a big puzzle for any thinking person, isn’t it? For anyone who wants to be really effective, really excellent at what they do.
It’s something that I’ve been puzzling over my entire professional life. How do we know what we know? How can we be most effective? Well, I’m getting deep here, more than some may be able to stand.
But for good reason. I want you to have a handle on how assumptions get set, how conventional wisdom can turn into the taken for granted, how we can get into a professional rut.
My personal answer to this puzzle may have been a little extreme.
You see, some years ago, I just plain stopped speaking at professional conferences, I stopped reading the growing literature on “fundraising,” stopped having much contact with my colleagues in the field, as much as I liked many of them. (Well, except for the very few I selected and invited to my workshops over the last 20 years, where we were working through new ideas, then applying and testing them.)
The point is that I wanted to take myself out of the swirl of conventional wisdom and find really new influences, new perspectives, new ways of thinking about things.
I mean, how else would you find the true heart of this work, and the innovation, the social innovation, deep shifts in the way you think, unless you go outside your usual circles?