Have you ever avoided a certain subject because it seemed too far out of your realm of knowledge, only to dip your toes in, live to tell about it, and then decide you know everything about it?
That’s called knowing enough to be dangerous.
I’m a city girl through and through, but when my husband and I decided to move across the country, he insisted we stop at The Grand Canyon. Personally, I had no interest. I prefer beaches to deserts and couldn’t wait to get to the coast. However, we already decided to spend the night at a bed and breakfast in nearby Flagstaff, so there was no reason not to go.
Before we made our way there, the owners of the bed and breakfast told us about a secret trail that had the best views. They said it was restricted but not to worry — that plenty of people went there and some people even had their wedding pictures taken in that spot. Not thinking much else about it, we went with their instructions.
In hindsight, I should have given more thought to why that spot was restricted. I was only worried about getting caught and never considered why it wasn’t a public area. But, that’s hindsight for ya: 20/20.
We followed the trail and heeded the instructions that we wouldn’t see much until the end and that it could get a little muddy in spots. And it was definitely muddy. It had recently snowed and it was melting into a puddle of deep mush, not something my gym shoes were very adept at wading through.
Then, about halfway through the trail, I suddenly realized why it was restricted.
It started with the snap of a twig. I looked to my right and saw what I now know was an elk. At the time, I assumed it was something in the deer family… with the biggest antlers I’d ever seen.
So I acted on what I knew about deer: try to scare them and they’ll run away.
As my husband and I stood frozen in our tracks, I told him that treating it like a deer would work. I mean, I’d seen ginormous deer run away back home at the drop of a dime! So he quickly took my advice and flinched at the elk.
That was a mistake.
The elk snapped his head around and locked eyes with us. Now he was mad. Suddenly, three more elk came out from seemingly nowhere and lined up behind the first one. I looked to my left and realized that another elk came down on the other side of us. We were surrounded.
My husband and I snapped our heads forward, away from the elk on either side of us, and whispered a strategy. We couldn’t turn left or right to go further down on the trail or towards our car. We’d have to walk straight ahead.
That meant crossing over the muddiest part of the trail (that would have us shin-deep and moving as slow as molasses), through the least dense part of the woods, and then veer towards the car when we were close to the edge of the clearing. So that’s what we did.
I can’t even begin to tell you how long it took us to get back. All I can tell you is that I’d never been so scared in my life. It could have been ten minutes or an hour, all I know is my heart was pounding in my ears and my palms were sweatier than they’d ever been.
Even after we were in the car and driving back, I still couldn’t shake the terror that was coursing through my body.
Like all scary situations, we knew we had to tell someone about it. So I called my dad who was raised in the country and knows a lot more about nature than I do. After he recovered from his hysterical laughter, he gave us this little tidbit:
“Well, it’s a good thing you saw elk. Because that means the mountain lions were not going to approach you.”
“Sure,” my dad said. “You were in a restricted area, at dusk, otherwise known as animal feeding time. But mountain lions don’t want to go near elk. You were darn lucky it was the elk you saw, because you’d never hear the mountain lion coming.”
I couldn’t wait to get back to the bed and breakfast and give the owners an earful. What were they thinking telling us to go to that spot?! Don’t they know they could be leading people to danger? Elk and mountain lions and all that? How irresponsible of them!
Of course, when we got back and told them what happened, they broke into beaming grins. “You are so lucky!” they exclaimed. “Did you take a picture?”
It’s probably not necessary for me to share with you what I was thinking at that moment…
When You Know Enough to Be Dangerous
You might be wondering why on earth I’m telling you this story. The reason is because situations like this happen to all of us, and they can be dangerous in a variety of ways.
Let’s go back to the basics of what I knew in this situation:
- I knew the area we were going to was restricted.
I didn’t question that because “experts” told us it would be okay.
- I knew that The Grand Canyon is serious nature, not like the parks I grew up near.
But I didn’t show it the amount of preparation it deserved because so many other people (not all adventurous types) go there.
- I knew that the animal we saw wasn’t a deer.
But it seemed similar, so I treated it as such.
- I knew that the animal we saw didn’t have the desire to eat or hurt us.
But I didn’t realize that there could have been far more dangerous animals besides that.
In short, I had enough “knowledge” to go on the trip and follow directions. I had enough “knowledge” to make me think I didn’t need to ask questions or acquire more knowledge before we acted.
I knew enough to do the thing, but not enough to do it well.
There are situations in life, in work, and in relationships when we have enough knowledge to make us think we know more than we do. So we trust what we know (or who told us what we know), we don’t ask questions, and we act.
Then, we learn the hard way that our knowledge was only the tip of the iceberg, that we still had some work to do before we could or should take action. This is what it means to know enough to be dangerous.
What That Danger Really Is
There are plenty of times like this when we live to tell about it. Perhaps the story is a bit embarrassing (I still can’t tell this story to anyone without being laughed at for a full five minutes), but it’s not the end of the world.
So how dangerous is it really to know enough to be dangerous?
It depends on what we’re acting on.
For example, there are a lot of people on the web these days telling us to “follow our passions” and “live our dreams.” These messages all sound nice – and they can be pretty confidence-inspiring when they come from “experts.”
But they tend to gloss over the details.
What does it mean to follow your passion, exactly? And what do you have to give up to follow your dreams?
Remember that livid anger I felt at the bed and breakfast owners who told us what to do, but didn’t consider what little we knew going into it? That’s how I feel about experts who blindly tell us to “follow our passions.”
Here’s the thing. Life is too short to not live it to the fullest. But that doesn’t mean we should all quit our jobs tomorrow and spend our entire savings (or worse, live off of credit cards) until we can “achieve” our dreams.
I’m a full believer in finding your passion — but doing so in a responsible way. As Kali and I work to build Off The Rails, we aren’t quitting our day jobs. As much as we’d love to spend every waking minute on this, we know we can’t help anyone if we can’t pay our bills.
So, while we’re following our passion (building Off The Rails), we’re also working and saving money and preparing for the day when we can make the switch to full-time.
What does that look like? It looks like a lot of late nights and a lot of working weekends. And the thing that keeps us going? The hope that someday we can do this full-time.
It’s not always easy and it’s not always pretty, but that’s what it looks like to follow your passions responsibly.
Realizing When You Know Enough To Get Started
There are multiple morals to this story. One is that, if you sign up for a mentorship session with us, this is the kind of advice you’ll get. We’ll help you recognize and fulfill your calling, but we won’t tell you to quit your job and give up everything to make it happen now.
If we did, we’d be hypocrites. We want to help you live your dream, but we also want to make sure you have food in your belly and a roof over your head while you do it.
If you sign up for a mentorship session with us, we’ll help you strategize a practical way to achieve your creative dreams.
The other moral of the story is this: no matter what you’re doing, understand the difference between knowing enough to be dangerous and knowing enough to get started.
Knowing enough to be dangerous = thinking you know everything you need to know + not asking further questions.
Knowing enough to get started = understanding that there’s more to learn but having a solid, thoughtful plan of action to begin with.
It’s that simple. If you think you know all there is to know, you’re probably in the “knowing enough to be dangerous” stage. If you realize that there’s always more to learn but you’ve created a thoughtful and strategic plan of action to begin with, then you’re in a good place to move forward.
Life is a trial and error process. This is especially true in a creative life. We have to gather knowledge, build our skill sets, and try and fail at something until we find the right fit. But as long as we remain in a process of creating, measuring, and iterating (never deciding that we know it all), then we can continue to grow and achieve.
Like I said, not always pretty and not always easy, but isn’t the process what a creative life is all about?