Last week, my hallway light burned out. As one does, I got up on my footstool in the dark, unscrewed the set screws carefully to avoid dropping the globe and smashing it on the floor, and removed the globe. Somewhat to my surprise, the previous tenant had left an old-style 60W-really-uses-sixty-watts incandescent bulb in there. Score, I thought, I’ll put in one of my new LEDs – save a fraction of a polar bear life and cut a buck or so off my electricity bill starting next month.
I found the box of lightbulbs in my closet and grabbed one, but as I was squinting at the base of the bulb to make sure it was an appropriate wattage and color temperature, I noticed some tiny print: “Not for use in totally enclosed or recessed luminaires.” (Luminaire, apparently, is the pretentious name for what people who don’t sell lightbulbs call a “light fixture.”) Well, I couldn’t deny that this was a totally enclosed luminaire, so I went rummaging through the rest of the box, and after checking several more lightbulbs, I happened on one that at least didn’t say not to use it in an enclosed luminaire. Was this one really OK? I wasn’t sure given that it looked more or less identical to the others, but I needed a lightbulb and this one looked as good as any, so I put it in.
The new bulb worked fine, but I kept wondering why I wasn’t supposed to use those other bulbs, especially since I have more of the same sort of fixtures and a bunch of not-for-enclosed-luminaires lightbulbs begging to be used somewhere, so I went and looked it up on the web a day or so later. The answer was simple enough: You may have noticed that most enclosed fixtures have a sticker on them saying not to use more than a specific wattage of bulb. That’s because incandescent bulbs give off so much waste heat that in theory, if the space is confined enough and the bulb powerful enough that the heat can’t be carried away by the air faster than it’s produced, it can get hot enough to become a fire hazard. LED bulbs don’t put out nearly that much heat, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve used both types, but their electronics are also much more sensitive to heat. So while using a standard LED bulb in an enclosed light fixture isn’t dangerous, the resulting heat will likely cause the bulb to burn out prematurely. However, some LED bulbs, apparently including the one I’d selected from my lightbulbs box, are specifically designed to perform well at higher temperatures, so they’re OK. (Way more than you wanted to know about LED light fixtures.)
Armed with this knowledge, I walked down to the hardware store on my morning break to grab some bulbs that would work well with the rest of my enclosed fixtures. The guy at the front desk asked me what I was looking for, and when I told him I was looking for LED bulbs that were approved for enclosed fixtures (I could not bring myself to say luminaires), he called a woman from the back who was apparently the resident lightbulb expert. While she was finishing something up, I pawed through a bunch of boxes of lightbulbs in Aisle 8, and all of them seemed to say, buried in a panel of fine-print warnings, “Not for use in totally enclosed luminaires.” Another staff member walked by and said he thought the Ace-brand bulbs might be better in this case, so I started checking those. Just as the originally requested lightbulb expert was arriving, I found the Ace ones indeed said in the same section of fine print, “For use in totally enclosed fixtures.” (Leave it to the store brand to be down-to-earth and call them fixtures like normal people.)
The woman, having arrived slightly out of breath, started asking me a bunch of questions about what I needed the lightbulbs for. Much to my surprise, she said there was no problem with using any of the LED bulbs on offer in this aisle in an enclosed fixture, although probably I wouldn’t want more than a 60-watt equivalent because it would be more light than would be useful there. I explained what I had read on the web, and she held firm, saying that as far as she knows, LEDs don’t produce heat, and going so far as to add, “They don’t call me Lady Lumen for nothing!” (yes, this is a direct quote).
I figured I would just be polite for a moment and then buy the bulbs that clearly said on the package that they were explicitly for my situation, rather than the ones that clearly said on the package that they were not for my situation, but then something surprising happened: as I explained my reasoning one more time, she asked to see where on the package it said this. I grabbed a couple of packages and showed the fine print on some that said they were OK and some that said they weren’t. And she studied them for a minute or so and then acknowledged this must be a real thing.
“Well, guess I learned something today!” she said.
After I got home and was putting away my new lightbulbs, I noticed that one of the boxes I had already had at home had a typo in the phrase of the day: “Not for use in totally enclosed luminaries.” Which is hilarious, and the name of my next exclusive club is going to be “The Totally Enclosed Luminaries” – but it’s also rather appropriate, because a Totally Enclosed Luminary is exactly what Lady Lumen avoided being here. She knew what she was talking about, for the most part, but she also had a blind spot, and yet after starting off being overconfident, she realized I (and the collective knowledge of humanity as projected through the Internet) might be right and she might be wrong on this point, made a serious attempt to figure out if she was wrong, and admitted she was in fact wrong. She also recognized the benefit of this approach (she learned something new), and presumably she’ll change her future recommendations.
It’s so easy to let yourself be Totally Enclosed, especially in a technological and social world that increasingly offers us less exposure to ideas and people we aren’t already familiar with. In some sense, of course, recognizing and admitting that you were trying to give a customer bad advice about lightbulbs is trivial, but following through nevertheless shows off a strength of character and an attitude to life that’s very attractive and, unfortunately, unusual.
I’ve spent much of the last few years being the resident expert on things, in several areas of my life. That’s kind of fun if you like helping people out, and it makes you feel pleasantly competent, but it’s also limiting. To explain that further, here’s something I wrote to a friend a few months after leaving college:
I think last night I pinpointed a weird psychological problem I’ve been having since I got here.…Basically, I’m suddenly among the top performers in much of what I’m doing, and it doesn’t feel good.…
It’s not like I’m turning arrogant about it and telling other people off for being clueless or something, because that’s not who I am at all, but I’m getting subtly frustrated all the time. Why can’t we just listen to the choir director and close to the S and stay on the top side of the pitch? Why am I sitting around waiting for other people to finish writing their code, an hour after the class should have been finished? Why is my program design so much better than these other people’s? Why can’t they see how stupid a way that is to do it? How do people not know the words ‘conflate’ or ‘tangential’ here? (On both occasions I was asked the definition and then told it was a “big word.”)
…There’s something deeply unhealthy about looking either too good or too bad all the time. I have to say, I’m finding looking too good is almost worse. Feeling inadequate isn’t fun, but that’s a feeling we all have from time to time, and the “problem” (if it’s a problem) is you, and at least in theory you have control over improving yourself. Here, I don’t have any control at all; all I can do is get irritated at the world for not being good enough for my standards, or try to find a way to let it go.
Four years on, I think I did find ways to let it go, for the most part. (It helped that I found my way onto a team composed mostly of like-minded people.) But I also think being the expert in too much of your life can be psychologically harmful no matter how hard you try to fight it. I think you can already see that in the part of my letter quoted above. Even to the extent that it’s completely true, and even to the extent that I was just expressing frustration in private, there’s a little bit of arrogance evident in it (despite the explicit claim to the contrary!). Then the arrogance expands from your attitude towards other people to cover your knowledge: because you’re so rarely visibly wrong – or if you are, nobody challenges you, so you never find out – you start to think you really do know everything, even in areas where you aren’t an expert. (Of course, even where you are an expert, you’ll still be wrong or uninformed from time to time, as Lady Lumen was earlier. Almost nothing is ever completely settled, and you can discover things you’ve somehow missed learning at any level of understanding.) In short, my experience has been that when you aren’t challenged by making a bad showing from time to time, your humility gradually leaks away no matter how much you want to keep it – and that’s not just a social problem, it’s also an intellectual one which threatens the very intelligence, knowledge, and skills that started the process in the first place.
Maybe this partly explains why so many of the smartest people always seem to be exploring new things: as they become good at old things, they have to find new things to be bad at in order to preserve their epistemic humility, their ability to question their own knowledge and figure out what they and the rest of the world are missing.
For my part, I’m excited to be doing something totally new right now. I’ve gone from a large company to an early-stage tech startup, where I’m working on new ideas, working fully remote after a fully in-office position, and using a new programming language. It’s frustrating at times to have everything be new at once (I’m also only three months out from moving cities!), and I get some impostor syndrome from time to time, but it’s also refreshing to be comparatively inexperienced and uncertain.
I think early-stage, small organizations are usually like this in general: much of the time, nobody really knows what they’re doing, and everybody is happy to admit it, at least internally. Sure, you have plans and best practices, and everybody involved may be smart and competent, but there’s so much to figure out and so little established procedure that you have to make lots of it up as you go. You’re going to be wrong all the time. Fortunately, it turns out that you don’t have to be right very often to succeed. You just have to be willing to try things and be ready to recognize when they’re wrong and why they’re wrong and try something else.
I suspect this uncertainty is part of the reason that smaller and newer organizations are almost invariably more agile and more capable of delivering on new ideas. Not only are there fewer people to convince and less bureaucracy to turn the rusty gears of, everyone is all but forced to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t and iterate on it. Working at a months-old, 15-person company, you will never be able to keep your head down in your cubicle, doing well-defined work, because neither you nor your boss probably know how to define your work, if you even have a boss at all. You certainly won’t be saying, “That’s not in my job description.” The only way to get anything done is to be bold and experiment.
If there’s a moral to all these stories, I think it’s this: When someone or something questions you or your approach to a problem, try to be at least a Partially Open Luminary. Start by assuming that you’re wrong, that you don’t know the answer, that you’re missing something, even if you’re pretty sure you aren’t. Better yet, don’t wait to be questioned – intentionally put yourself in situations where you might learn that you’re wrong or uninformed.
Once you make this assumption, you can try to disprove it again. Ask questions. Do research. Try experiments and see what happens. Despite what people often assume, this approach doesn’t make you look stupid; as we saw in the story of Lady Lumen, it makes you look careful, gracious, and smart. Beyond that, you learn faster from being wrong than being right, and it’s only by discovering that you were missing something that you can expand your knowledge and skills.