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The Clueless Manifesto


Here's to the clueless ones.

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki

Cluelessness is underrated. It's the newbie who does something he didn't know was supposed to be impossible. It's the naive guy asking the one dumb question any clued-in person would diss. And it's that question that leads to the answer no expert would have found.

The clueless accomplish amazing things--not necessarily because we're bold, brilliant innovators, but perhaps because we just don't know any better. We see the simplicity of the forest while Those Who Know are overanalyzing the complex subtleties of the trees (and miss the point). Sometimes NOT knowing about a "problem" weakens (or eliminates) it.

Perception is a powerful tool. Believing there's a limitation can sometimes create that limitation. And for the clueless who don't know about the limitation, well, it's as if it doesn't exist. Belief matters. Not everywhere, not in everything, but more than we give credence to.

And it doesn't take any new-age/self-help foofiness to explain it. This is not about "the power of positive thinking." You probably all know the story of Roger Bannister--prior to 1954, experts believed that running a mile in less than four minutes was beyond human capability. People assumed it was an insurmountable human limitation--not possible. Some believed that even if you could, your heart would explode. But in 1954, Bannister broke the four-minute-impossible-barrier and clicked in at 3:59.4.

That was cool, but the remarkable thing is what happened immediately after that. Just over a month later someone else did it, and then before too long a ton of people were doing the "impossible" sub-four-minute mile. The real barrier was psychological.

In this case, Bannister wasn't clueless. He believed in his training. But I think it still demonstrates the point. The people who broke the record after Bannister were essentially the same as people who'd always been clueless about the "impossible" limit. If--prior to Bannister's run--some of them had missed the memo on the whole heart-exploding thing, chances are the record would have fallen sooner.

Part of the charm of cluelessness is that you approach things with a hopeful perspective, trying to figure out how to do the I'm-too-clueless-to-know-it-cannot-be-done thing, rather than accepting the "reality". Often, by the time you learn you can't do it, your response might be "Oops! You mean this thing I just did?"

Example: a group of seven middle school girls from Petaluma, California--12 to 14--year olds, accomplished something that everybody said was impossible. They fought city hall and won. They created a business proposal, refused to be derailed, and after several YEARS of work pushed through a multi-million dollar project that the best commercial developers in the state hadn't been able to pull off. These young girls simply didn't know that you just can't DO that... especially if you aren't old enough to drive. Their story is one of the most inspirational things I've ever heard.

The clueless tend to be a bit more optimistic--after all, we don't know how bad things really are. But this can be a blessing too--there's evidence to suggest the optimistic live longer and are less prone to depression. So there's that.

As a poster child for cluelessness, I have many clueless experiences I treasure. The Head First book series would most likely never have happened if we'd had a clue about the tech book publishing world. Our cluelessness is the only explanation we have for why two unknown non-authors (who knew zero about publishing) went forward with something so strange. "If books like that would sell," the seasoned publishers told us, "Trust us, someone would have done it by now." (If I had a dime for everytime I heard that one, I wouldn't need royalties to pay the rent.) The ultra-experienced, it seemed, were blinded by their certainty of "the way things work." In other words, they knew it wasn't worth the risk, and had no reason to revisit their assumptions.

Yes, I recognize that it's ridiculous to equate "cluelessness" with "beginner's mind". Or is it? What if "clueless" is simply a label the glass-half-empty folks give the glass-half-full folks. If we're optimistic, we must not have a clue. What if we simply see the world through a different lens? A lens that opens doors and windows the cynical and pessimistic are too busy dissing to notice?

Mathematician/philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said,
"The 'silly question' is the first intimation of some totally new development."

The clueful need us. We're the ones who ask the silly questions.

And in the spirit of Apple's Here's to the Crazy Ones:

Here's to the Clueless Ones

The ones who see things differently

They're not fond of rules (granted, that's because they don't actually know about the rules)

They have no respect for the status quo (see previous statement)

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.
Because they change things.

Maybe they have to be clueless.

How else can you take on city hall at the age of 12?
Or break the impossible record?
Or build an internet startup without VC bucks?

While some see them as the clueless ones,
we see a fresh perspective.

Because the people who are clueless enough to think
they can change the world, might be the ones who do.

Do not underestimate us.

Posted by Kathy on February 19, 2006 | Permalink


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» Why it works from think mojo
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Excellent article, and a very apt way to describe the kind of outlook on problems and life in general that I find so refreshing.

I really think that businesses need to wake up to considering and promoting their users as part of the requirements of a product design and release cycle. This month's Wired has an excellent article on LEGO doing just that: taking their top "users" who never learned to ask 'why', and bringing them into their inner circle as an integral part of redefining their product.

Posted by: Richard Goodwin | Feb 19, 2006 8:52:19 PM

Rock on, Kathy! I've long cultivated my ignorance of "what's possible" for this very reason. Most of the best ideas I ever had turned out to be "impossible." Fortunately, I never knew that until after I had accomplished them.

That's also why I often have more fun when I work outside my fields of knowledge or expertise. Thanks for reminding me… things have been a bit dreary lately and maybe a nice veer into the unknown is what I'm craving.

Posted by: johntunger | Feb 20, 2006 3:00:51 AM

Excellent! Simply excellent!

Posted by: Dannie Jost | Feb 20, 2006 3:20:46 AM

It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.

- Richard Feynman

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Feb 20, 2006 3:33:59 AM


I didn't know it was cluelessness. I always used my impulsivity (hyperactive) to explain why I would try something that others have pre-ordained as silly/unworkable/impossible.

I use the same explanation when I speak about Creativity or Innovation. When you are hyperactive, you say and do things off the top of your head. You don't know or care about the failure rate. Also, you tend to be surprised by mistake and failure, not dismayed - just surprised, so you try again.

Clueless? Hyperactive/Impulsive? Either seems to work.


Posted by: Matthew Moran | Feb 20, 2006 4:11:14 AM

I aspire to be as clueless as you.

Posted by: kris | Feb 20, 2006 6:14:28 AM

I agree with you totally. But there are those people who use these same tactics to totally derail intelligent convo/work/whatever, wouldn't you say? Like, they're not clueless, they're just dumb?

Posted by: Nick | Feb 20, 2006 7:29:30 AM

Old Chinese proverb:

"Man who say it is impossible should not interrupt man doing it."

It seems that the benefits of cluelessness have been with us for many millenia.

But shouldn't we make a distinction between valuable cluelessness as espoused in Kathy's post as opposed to that of, say, politicians who are not usefully clueless? ;-)


Posted by: Andrzej Taramina | Feb 20, 2006 8:11:04 AM

It's like the bumblebee (at least I guess it's the bumblebee): Its physical condition makes it impossible to fly. But you know what? The bumblebee flies on, anyway. It doesn't know that it can't fly. How cool is that?

Posted by: Jonathan Holst | Feb 20, 2006 8:23:01 AM

Sometimes when people succeed by breaking "the rules" it is not because they did not know the rules existed, but because they had the balls to question those rules and try something different.

Take the case of Dick Fosbury who invented the "Fosbury Flop". Until he came along everyone believed "the rule" that you could only perform the high jump by facing the bar. He decided to try it backwards. Not only did he succeed, he also broke the record. Many others soon followed.

In my own case after doing procedural programming for over 20 years I decided to teach myself a new language which had OO capabilities. Fortunately I did not receive any formal training (or mis-training) so I was not inhibited by the stupid rules created by some of the clueless experts. The cardinal rule I broke was "thou shalt not have a separate class for each database table". What rubbish, I thought, so I ignored it. The end result was that I managed to produce an entire framework which is far more flexible and has lower development times than any other I have seen. Because I brole "the rule" I was able to create a Data Dictionary system which allows me to import the database structure from the INFORMATION_SCHEMA, modify to taste, then export it to create each table class used by my application.

So sometimes it's not a case of breaking the rules because YOU are clueless, but because you have the intellect to recognise that the person who wrote the rule was clueless.

Posted by: Tony Marston | Feb 20, 2006 9:36:54 AM

Actually, as I understand it, the whole "Bumblebee's can't fly" thing is only true if you use calculations based on a fixed wing - like an airplane.

So it's not that they're clueless and doing it anyway, it's that we're looking at the wrong proof and saying that they're doing the impossible. To paraphrase Scotty, "They canna break the laws of physics!"

Posted by: Burk | Feb 20, 2006 12:11:50 PM

The fabulous thing about Roger Bannister of course is that he did his medical rounds, took the subway to the track, had lunch (probably bangers and mash) and just trotted out a 4-minute mile. No big deal, just part of a regular day with a wad of work in it.

Vaguely related about the danger of "knowing" you can't do something, and a nice story about someone who got rid of that knowledge. My dad grew up dirt poor in central North Dakota. Fought in WW II in the Navy. Never went to high school. Had a brain, but of course he Knew He Could Never Go To College. Then he was chatting with a shipmate who asked him "Where did you go to college?"

My dad's reaction of course was "Who, ME?" but that comment stayed with him and essentially changed his life. He got out of the navy, went to college on the GI bill (with no high school transcripts), got a good job, and is now happily retired on a ranch in Montana.

He started out "knowing" he couldn't go to college, but his shipmate changed that. (That, and the excellent GI Bill legislation.)

Posted by: Solveig Haugland | Feb 20, 2006 12:43:42 PM

A very good and fun SF book about what clueless people can achieve (and my favorite book ever) is 'Illegal Aliens' from Nick Polotta and Phil Foglio.

Can't be bought at Amazon anymore, though, but from the Author himself instead:


Posted by: Sam | Feb 20, 2006 2:48:53 PM

Examples abound about the "clueless" doing the "impossible" - my favourite is Norman (?) Lear (the TV shows, the Lear jet etc). He made his first fortune out of car radios. He didn't know that the coil had to be a certain size or larger for a radio to have a decent reception, so he made his small enough to fit in the car.

My take on it is that I am hyperactive; I don't bother trying to convince people that i should be allowed to 'give it a go, mate' - I just go ahead and apologise afterwards (if necessary). Obviously, you take precautions, but in the long run, its MY life, MY learning experience - and my employers / customers DO get the advantage of a LOT of 'life experience' !!

Posted by: martin english | Feb 20, 2006 3:59:17 PM

I've always thought it was a left-handed thing...

Spinning the idea toward 'unreasonable' instead of clueless, here's one of my favorites:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
-George Bernard Shaw

Posted by: Gerry Heidenreich | Feb 20, 2006 9:45:36 PM

I hope I can develop a little cluelessness while I pursue my formal education. I think, like you, that it will serve the world well.

Posted by: Tom | Feb 20, 2006 11:50:58 PM

I'd love to believe you're right Kathy and I can see from the responses on-one's disagreeing. Many years ago I was told, give me 10 ideas a week - doesn't matter if 9 and a half are no good, we can make money from the other half of what's left. But that's not the same as silly. Silly gets you laughed out the boardroom. And if you want *real,* sustainable change, that's where you've got to be. Inertia and resistance elswhere will be bad enough as it is. Just my experience...

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Feb 21, 2006 6:36:33 AM

Urhh... while I agree with thinking outside the box, get your facts straight. What it took for Roger Bannister to break the 4-minute mile was not "psychological". It took hard work. Work done over 3+ years of training. Intensive training the was a precursor to what the likes of what the worlds premier athletes do today. For example, he "didn't do rounds". He was conducting research for his doctorate into the stress (and changes) that one could make to the body. He was already a premier runner before he started this effort. He was trained by one of the coaches of the time. He built his own treadmill and scientific measurement equipment in order to precisely control and measure the oxygen consumption (he built one, if not the first, treadmills coupled to a oxygen pumping system). He studied the changes in his hemoglobin O2 carrying capacity. And, ironically, at the time, he was considered a failure because he "peaked" after what the public cared about -- winning the gold medal at the Olympics. Lastly, another wasn't able to do the same thing a month later because the "mental barrier" had been broken. Rather, it was a well-known competition between the two runners to see who would break the milestone first.

Moral: Sometimes it takes incredibly hard-work to make a breakthru.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 21, 2006 6:42:52 AM

I believe this is the right direction, but with the wrong arguments.

It seems that what's really be described here is defeating stubborn or closed-minded attitudes and points to the idea that the clueful should learn to embrace and channel (with light-handedness to avoid squashing) the potential ideas of others. It also deals with optimism and the idea that developing in a vacuum can be a powerful weapon in marketing.

The bad is that the two examples given don't fit - the 1st is not psychological and 2nd is borne out of persistance.

The sad truth is that many blissfully ignorant challenges don't make it - many more than do - but that doesn't mean someone shouldn't try.

Posted by: colin | Feb 21, 2006 8:29:10 AM

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

The more you know you don’t know, the more you want to know what you know you don’t know.

Posted by: Mike | Feb 21, 2006 9:02:34 AM

I was given a CD of sound effects for a play and was asked to set it up so that the sound board operator could play back the effects during the performances. There were many effects and usually about 1 or 2 seconds in length each (usually recordings of just a few spoken words) and they frequently came very close together in the play (actor on stage speaks, recording answers, actor speaks again, etc.).

I decided to transfer the effects to MINIDISC because the "MD" player we had had an "autopause" function (goes into pause automatically at the end of the track, thereby leaving the MD player ready and waiting to execute the next cue).

Well, everything went swimmingly and it was only later that I read that the MD player's autopause function is unreliable for tracks of under 4 seconds in length.

Good thing I didn't know that before, or else I might not have tried!

Not exactly-, but somewhat-related anyway...

Posted by: junior | Feb 21, 2006 9:19:33 AM

Nice Suzuki reference. It's been ages since I read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

This post reminded me of a very off-the-wall reference, Rule 12 of the Evil Overlord list:

One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

Posted by: David Utter | Feb 21, 2006 10:14:05 AM

I couldn't imagine a post with "clueless" in the title would generate so many interesting comments. Anyway, I think many of you (despite my sloppy writing) figured out what I was really trying to say, but I definitely want to clarify that I am NOT "celebrating ignorance." Part of my point was that there are those who mistake optimism for cluelessness, and that there are so many areas where the "reality" or the "facts" are not so black and white. One simple example is when people point to data and say, "This data proves that this would not work." If you do not interpret the data in the same way, and believe it does NOT prove this thing wouldn't work or isn't true, then those who see the data as concrete proof will find you "clueless. Those girls obviously were given plenty of solid reasons why their idea would not work. They weren't clueless and unaware that this would be difficult, they simply chose to not let them stop them.

PHIL: I agree -- as I said, Roger Bannister was definitely NOT clueless. But to an awful lot of people--and the prevailing belief by even the 'experts'-- he may have appeared that way. "There goes that silly Bannister thinking he can break this impossible barrier." At the time he did this, almost nobody believed that there was ANY possibility of training yourself into a condition that could do it (or do it and survive). I think Tony makes the *real* point here -- that Roger wasn't clueless, but he was able to recognize that it was perhaps just the opposite...

But in many ways, this barrier *was* psychological. The point is that almost everyone believed it, and only those who were willing to buck all prevailing thought (and again, much of that by physiology "experts") were able to see that it the barrier was an illusion, and that with proper training and ability, it could be done. But once Bannister did it, that barrier disintegrated for everyone else. Suddenly, the impossible became possible and worth training for.

In most physical activity, it's nearly impossible to do something you BELIEVE is impossible, unless it happens by accident. There's lots of evidence for this -- the brain sends cues to the body that change what it does in very subtle ways, and at these extraordinary levels of performance, even the slightest unconscious hesitation or tightening is enough to stop you. (A long time ago in what seems like another life, I was an exercise physiologist and track competitor. I had a physical therapist once shave a whole minute off my mile time in less than three weeks, just by convincing me with "proof" I believed, that I didn't actually have the structural problems I thought I had. (I was still really slow, but at least I sucked less)

TONY: you made the real point better than I did with this line:
"So sometimes it's not a case of breaking the rules because YOU are clueless, but because you have the intellect to recognise that the person who wrote the rule was clueless."

But those who do recognize that, or at least believe that it's worth testing, are the ones labeled "clueless." Those who keep trying against what appears to be terrible odds are seen as silly newbies at best, dangerous at worst. It is only AFTER they or someone else proves that the impossible (or extraordinarily difficult) was indeed possible that people rethink and relabel how they viewed the person-previoiusly-known-as-clueless.

NICK -- you nailed the tough problem--separating out the *truly* ignorant (and by god I'm going to stay that way) from the ones who are optimistically or strategically open to possibilities that may make them APPEAR clueless to others.

COLIN: I think I agree, and your final point is especially helpful:"The sad truth is that many blissfully ignorant challenges don't make it - many more than do - but that doesn't mean someone shouldn't try."

Another area where I see this whole optimism-means-clueless is that there are at least two profoundly different perspectives on "failure", and the people who hold opposite perspectives have a very hard time understanding one another. There are those who are far more terrified of regretting the things not tried than they are of failure. The completely opposite view would find "failure" far more devastating and not worth the risks. Of course the ones who try are on a spectrum ranging from completely reckless with no regard for minimizing the risks, and those who go into something likely to fail with as much homework and ammo as they can muster. Some people view *not trying* as failure. All the old cliches about how many failed attempts it takes to put you one step closer to success apply here.

I talk about being "clueless" about the publishing world, but that doesn't mean I didn't do truckloads of research and homework that showed--to me--that the conventional wisdom was nothing more than inertia, and that there were strategic ways to punch through. Of course, it was still a risk--there was no way to know for sure. And sometimes, many times, I am just wrong. I take a risk and fail. Perhaps it's a cowgirl thing... we've learned that you gotta get up and get back on that horse... ; )

And thanks for all the great quotes from Feynman, Shaw, and the Chinese proverb!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 21, 2006 10:17:54 AM

I think there’s a lot of stubbornness and negative group psychosis in the world – some of it wrapped in ‘tradition’. I saw an old episode of Star Trek Voyager last night where a race (that had independently evolved on Earth and travelled to a far off Galaxy millions of years ago) refused to acknowledge their past as it would break their "doctrine" which they could only perceive as a negative act.

I was once asked to prepare for a management meeting by creating a summary of business achievements as if I'd written it 2 years in the future (perhaps to create a roadmap to getting to that point). My optimistic projections of net profit were dismissed by a few MBAs...

Is it possible that fear of change or success in business is largely due to the fear of change truly experienced in the personal lives of the individuals in the business? Thesis in there somewhere...

Posted by: colin | Feb 21, 2006 11:20:41 AM

Great post, awsome, I deal with being clueless everyday, I admit it and am a bit proud of it. I'm also a writer, so the two go hand in hand. I love being a writer. Yet often am torn with the practical side of being a writer. So thanks for the great little inspiration.

Posted by: Alex | Feb 28, 2006 2:45:24 PM

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