One of the most useful goals in life is to gain competence, knowledge, and wisdom. For most of us, this triad covers a somewhat narrow range. There’s a lot to know out there, and this massive amount of information is beyond the reach of any one person. As we course through life, we slowly gain a modicum of skills that tend to be narrowly focused. Very few of us can be a Rembrandt, a Mozart, or a Columbus. If you do attain this level of competence and knowledge, don’t assume you know more than you know. When we start to believe that our core competence in one narrow area applies to a much broader picture, things can rapidly go south. This happens when we don’t know our limitations.
An Apple a Day…
A good example is Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, the company that makes the laptop that I am using to write this post. Jobs was clearly a genius when it came to personal computers and electronic gadgets. After all, along with Steve Wozniak he developed the first personal computer, bringing the computer within reach of just about anyone of any age. He wasn’t satisfied with this accomplishment. He next moved on to develop the ubiquitous iPad and iPhone.
We are staying at our second home in Greece, and we just returned from the beach. While relaxing in a lounge chair, I noticed at least a dozen people nearby who had their faces buried in the smart phones. The attractive young female next to us was glaring at her boyfriend who couldn’t take his eyes off his smart phone! When it comes to computing, electronics, and software development, Jobs was clearly an outlier genius who has affected most all of us, for better or for worse.
Alternative Medicine: An Alternative to Health?
The next chapter in his charmed life didn’t turn out so well. He developed a form of pancreatic cancer that is treatable and sometimes curable if caught early enough. Instead of undergoing immediate surgery, the most appropriate treatment, he elected instead to try “alternative medicine”. Don’t get me wrong. Both mainstream medicine and alternative medicine have their strong and weak points. The key is always to use treatments based on solid science. The best treatments from both areas will be backed either by empirical solid results or evidence-based and peer-reviewed studies.
According to Wikipedia, Jobs initially refused to have the surgery recommended by his physicians, and “Instead, he tried a vegan diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and other treatments he found online, and even consulted a psychic. He was also influenced by a doctor who ran a clinic that advised juice fasts, bowel cleansings and other unproven approaches, before finally having surgery in July 2004.” He finally got the message that the world of “alternative medicine” is not always a good alternative! The cancer never responded to these treatments, and he eventually underwent a liver transplant. He passed away in 2011 from progressive metastatic cancer. During his health struggles Jobs managed to develop various Apple computers, the iPad, and the iPhone. These accomplishments certainly demonstrate his genius, but he ended up dying because of a simple flaw—he didn’t understand his limitations.
The Narrow Scope of Knowledge and Wisdom
All of us have these limitations. Over the course of our lives, we are blessed with expertise and skills in limited areas, yet most of the knowledge available to humans remains beyond our reach. No one can know everything, or even come close to this ideal even when you know a lot of things. When faced with this limitation, what should we do? The answer is obvious. Once you know that you are dealing with an area beyond your expertise, swallow your pride and find someone who does have expertise in the area you are dealing with. Listen and learn from them before taking another step. Jobs had access to many of the top physicians in the world, yet his hubris took over. He assumed because he was a tech genius, this would carry over to the world of health and disease. That was a massive and fatal mistake.
A New Disease Model
As a family physician, I have solid general knowledge when it comes to common health problems. Because I have a special interest in the connection between diet and brain function, my knowledge and experience in this area is solid. I have taken my knowledge to the point where I have introduced an entirely new disease model to the medical and scientific communities. It’s based on the concept that highly-processed food is neurotoxic, and over time can trigger a form of brain dysfunction that I call Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain syndrome or CARB syndrome. I have received a lot of positive feedback about this concept from many in the academic and medical communities, and I have used this model to manage thousands of patients with complex medical and psychiatric problems. Despite these accomplishments, I cannot play a musical instrument, tune my car, shingle a roof, drive a bus, travel into space, etc. I think you get the picture. The same is true if I move into another area of medicine like surgery, orthopedics, ENT, or other medical specialties. To provide effective and safe treatment for my patients, I need to know my limitations.
You Need an Expert
A person’s knowledge base tends to be reflected in a bell-shaped curve. Each of us has “peak” areas that reflect where we have accumulated the most knowledge and skills. People often turn to us when they have questions about information in our peak skill area. As we move away from the peak, our knowledge and understanding tend to diminish, and at some point we cross the line into the areas where we are fairly ignorant. I call this line “known to unknown line” (KUL line). When you enter this zone, you need to seek information from others with peak knowledge. You need to know what you don’t know.
When you move outside your area of expertise, what exactly is the best approach? The answer is simple. Find someone who is an expert in that area and listen and learn from them. For example, if I want to know about professional singing, athletic accomplishments after the age of 70, or skilled editing, I talk to my good friend Andy Steinfeldt. Per usual, he expertly edited this blog post. My skill set is coming up with unique and original ideas, but I’m not at the head of the class when it comes to punctuation and spelling. That’s why I send my blog posts to Andy to clean them up. If I want to know about running, I talk to my boyhood best friend Dana Greenhoe. Dana has now run 116 marathons, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. If I want to know about art, I talk to Dougie Padilla, another of my childhood friends. His works of original art are absolutely astounding! If I want to know how to build a house, I talk to Jimmy McNulty, another one of my childhood best buddies. If I need a cardiologist or fresh lobster, I to my friend and personal physician Michael Arsenian, MD. He is a well-respected Gloucester cardiologist, and a commercial lobsterman—a unique combination of skills. If pediatric endocrinology is what I am looking for, I won’t do better than consulting with my professional colleague and friend Robert Lustig, MD. If I want to understand and manage inflammation and disease, my friend Barry Sears of Zone Diet fame is my man. If I have questions about how to follow an ancestral diet, I track down Robb Wolf.
The Game Plan
I think you get the picture. Once you step outside your area of expertise, I suggest you do the following:
- Know the precise the limits of your expertise and knowledge, so you will be aware when you might cross this line.
- Recognize when you have left your knowledge base and have crossed the KUL line.
- Be humble and don’t try to fool anyone by pretending you have knowledge that you really don’t have.
- Find someone who is truly an expert in the area.
- Pick this person’s brain and learn everything you can about this new area.
Understand How Science Works
Most useful information in medicine and science comes from making observations in the real world. That’s the case for my CARB syndrome concept. You don’t need a double-blind study to show that the earth is round! I’m not against research, but it’s important that we understand the limitations of controlled studies.
For example, I just read “High Octane Brain” by Michele Braun. It’s a book about how to maximize your brain function–a topic that’s right up my alley. Unfortunately, Braun is clueless when it comes to the proper way to use research. She has 236 references in the book, and thus her recommendations are all over the map without much common sense to back them up. Therefore, her book is jam packed with false and misleading information that could easily be cleared up using empiric observations in the real world.
My CARB syndrome concept really doesn’t need any references because it’s based on empiric observation in the real world. I could certainly find some references to support my views, but it would be just as easy to find references that refute my ideas. In other words, you can find scientific studies that seem to support just about any perspective. Scientific studies are only useful when they are used to evaluation very narrow areas. For example, does a certain drug help treat a specific disease? When looking at broader areas–say diet or exercise, empiric observations are the way to go. Do you need controlled studies to show that an ancestral style diet is healthy or that highly-processed food is bad for your health? Of course not. Look at people who follow a certain diet or try it yourself and observe what happens! As they say, it’s not rocket science, but it is science!
If you follow this wisdom-based outline, the sky is the limit when it comes to how this approach might improve your life and the lives of those you care about. And the starting point is always “know your limitations!” so you will know what you know, and know what you don’t know, the key to success in this complex world.