Things to Stop Saying: “I Know Enough to Be Dangerous”

Industrial Design

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Engineer Fail - I know Just Enough To Be Dangerous

You’ve heard it said before.  Maybe from a manager or coworker. Maybe during an interview to try to connect or relate.  Maybe during crunch time as a misguided offer of assistance.  Maybe from someone that slapped their knee and gave you a little bump with their elbow like they were the first person to ever think of and say it.

I KNOW ENOUGH TO BE DANGEROUS.

What… did you just say?

Maybe you just gave a polite little laugh of acknowledgment… “ehh-he-he-BLEEEEEH.” And maybe that was the end of it.  

“I know eno..” Do Not Say It. Do Not Even Think It.

So what’s the big deal, Dan?  Don’t like jokes? Or are you so protective of your turf that when someone shows interest or tries to lend a hand you throw a hissy fit?

First, I like jokes, although this one is just plain tired and unfunny. I’m even very tolerant of bad jokes, I come from a long and proud lineage of bad joke tellers.

Second, sure I’m passionate about mechanical design, you got me there. But I’m equally as excited about sharing it with others as I am investing myself in it. I’ll try to pull anyone into the fold that shows a spark of genuine interest in wanting to learn and contribute. I’m attempting to cosmically pay back all the great mentorship I’ve had and I selfishly believe a rising tide raises all boats. We all start as clueless blundering newbies, and it takes the patience and generosity of our elders to show us the path and ensure we keep our digits. When I was first learning to use a lathe, I probably did know just enough to be dangerous… Gah!

Anyway, I do want to differentiate between those who are getting started and those who are just trying to look smart.

The Real Danger: Affecting a Project’s Success

What we do not need is dilettantes. Dilettantes come into the picture and hang around only so long as their fickle interests hold. Then they move on, chasing another shiny object, leaving behind a mess of misinformation and unfinished business for others to clean up. The misinformation creates false expectations about the realities of time and resource needs. It’s not merely that they aren’t providing help; they can inject poison.  Enough of this, (and it doesn’t take much) can change a project’s delicate trajectory from success to failure. 

While the ramifications of these Sunday drivers are rarely “dangerous” in causing actual bodily harm, they can endanger a project’s success. And the side effects are often demeaning, debt inducing, deleterious, and downright destructive.

Enough to be… Not Trustworthy?

The phrase “I know enough to be dangerous” triggers a mental flag, an alarm bell about the person’s intent, the why, and ultimately their trustworthiness. Why did they choose to step out of their area of core competency? Why have they chosen not to “stay in their lane”? Are they moving to the slow lane so others can pass or doing 20 below the speed limit in the fast lane? Are they avoiding debris in the road ahead? Or are they just veering and swerving sporadically like an exhausted and road rage-filled commuter trying to eat chicken fried rice while changing the radio station?

A Parasitic Risk

With 20 years’ experience being surrounded by professional engineers (and being one), I can speak to a common mindset and core personality traits. Designers are systems thinkers with a need to understand the technological world around us. This curiosity is possibly our greatest asset and propels/compels us to go deep in our understanding, far beyond the textbook or assigned responsibilities.

The ability to understand and control technology can cause some to feel superior to the point of arrogance, particularly when compared to the regular majority that is controlled by the technology. Caste systems can develop amongst engineers based on the relative emergence or perceived complexity and importance of their technological domain. 

Some become seduced by the concept of control and obsessed with increasing their locus scope. Bit by bit, they seek to expand their domain by absorbing unoccupied or poorly defended neighboring projects, engineering disciplines, professional specializations, and departmental territories. Eventually, their control-hungry hubris has the devious idea to no longer focus on just the inanimate and shifts focus from territories to their occupants, namely you. In a word, it’s parasitic.

Find the Source

Conduct an audit into the parasite’s encroaching trespass “work” and historical behavior to pinpoint what quadrant they fall into on the motive/attitude chart.

My recommendation is to perform a brief analysis based on a review of the parasite’s work and historical interactions then pinpoint what quadrant they fall into on the Motive / Behavior Attitude chart.

Motive / Behavior Attitude Chart

Challenging / Controlling
The acknowledgement that the work being done is inherently difficult in nature and execution may be safeguard enough.  Putting up with a little back seat driving and a bit of pandering is just the reality of the nature of the beast.  If you have agreement that the race is a marathon not a 5k, that reality alone is going to self preclude people’s ability to participate.  But it won’t limit their ability to “coach” or tell you what you’re doing wrong.

Challenging / Curious
This is the only positive quadrant.  It is acknowledged that to do the work you do requires special skills, talent, and education. The learner values what you do and is trying to learn enough to build conversational competency to better bridge the gap.  This quadrant is based on mutual respect, teamwork and communication.

Childish / Curious
When design is believed/perceived to be simple (and the reality is that the opposite is true) there exists understanding incongruity.  A degree of incongruity is always to be expected but the differential can reach thresholds that are irreversible and cataclysmic.  Besides the fact that this can underlie a lack of respect it also creates expectation divides as understanding correlates to expectations.

Childish / Controlling
Undervalued and overpowered? Skedaddle.
Underappreciated and dominated? Evaporate.

I have had occasions where I have inherited, through circumstances, no fault of my own, years of backlogged tech debt. Often this was created by equal parts of a single individual’s knowledge (enough to be dangerous) and what they don’t know (best practices and years institutional knowledge). The ego that allowed them to think they could do serious professional work without experience is the same ego that prevented them from admitting they’re being engulfed by a quagmire of their own creation. So, before they’re fully subsumed, they bring in a rube and pull a switcheroo (like me or you). But at least they have the courtesy to do it with a wink and a nod.

Dealing With the Danger

When working in “dangerous” situations, the first rule is always Safety First. If you can accept, or even thrive, under the current circumstances then staying put may be a good option. If you need serious change and are trying to impart it or wait for it, realize that changing the course of a battleship is difficult or impossible. The Brinell hardness of an engineering manager’s stubbornness exceeds that of 17-4 PH and the corrosive effect is off the charts. And it’s fine to remind people when they’ve had a slip of the tongue that there’s only one person professionally qualified to say, ‘I know enough to be dangerous’ in any situation.

Albert Einstein can say, I know enough to be dangerous.
Albert Einstein is completely qualified to say, ‘I know enough to be dangerous’ in any situation.

My real wish isn’t for people to stop saying ‘I know enough to be dangerous’ but to exhibit the self-control to recognize and stop the underlying behavior of control and interference that is counterproductive to the project’s success and life in general. Otherwise, I’m all for people saying it loud and proud! Wear it on a hat or t-shirt. Add it to your e-mail signature…  Like a foghorn in the night alerting me to stay far away.

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