“Mistakes can’t melt mountains”


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So, this happened …

Browsing social media is a fast but brainless, dopamine-driven process. And you’re an expert!

   Scroll, Click.

   Scroll, Click.

   Scroll scroll scroll scroll, Click.

Most posts are designed to give instant gratification, without your having to think much about what you’re seeing. Indeed, even nonsense masquerading as fact can get you nodding, since your brain is barely engaged.

So when I recently saw a very simple question coming through my Twitter feed with so many likes and retweets, I became curious. It was almost as if people were . . . thinking about that tweet!

Even though the question was simple, I didn’t know the answer. But I was curious because of the debate that the question had clearly triggered.

Before Everest was discovered, what was the tallest mountain in the world?

While moving to click on the tweet and see the discussion, my mind started guessing.

Hmmm, was it another mountain in the Himalayan range that had been discovered before Everest? Was it maybe Kilimanjaro, because that’s high relative to the surrounding land, but not relative to sea levels? Was it an undersea volcano that is huge, but doesn’t go much above water?

And then I saw the answer. Damn!

How could I be so dumb? The answer was so obvious.

Before Everest was discovered, the tallest mountain was . . . Everest.

Of course! Just because we didn’t know that Everest existed, didn’t mean that K2 or Annapurna was the tallest.

No, Everest was always the tallest.

The question could have been “Before Everest was discovered, what was believed to be the tallest mountain in the world?

Maybe that’s what the person meant? I don’t know. But that is a different question. As it stood, the correct answer to the question was “Everest”.

What a great reminder to us, that just because we don’t know about something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Simple Definition

Mistakes can’t melt mountains: Not knowing something, doesn’t mean it’s not true, in the same way that not knowing that Everest existed didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Summarizing what it means

(If you’re in a rush, you can read just this summary to learn the core message. Of course, you’ll get more if you read the whole chapter – it’s not a long one! – but that’s your choice.)

This story is about facts.

  • Regardless of when we discovered Everest, it was always the tallest mountain.
  • (When I say “always”, I mean for the last 10 million years, since the time when two continental plates collided to create the Himalayan mountain range.)

This story is not about beliefs.

  • We might have believed that a different mountain was the tallest, before discovering it was actually Everest. But that’s not the point here.

This story is not about progress.

  • Before Roger Bannister ran the mile in under 4 minutes, the previous record was, of course, more than 4 minutes. The record changes every time someone beats it, which makes this a statement of milestones, which is different to our statement of fact.

Not knowing the truth doesn’t make something else true.

It seems so obvious a lesson, but it’s actually even deeper than you think: And there are many interesting ways where we all still screw this up in our day-to-day lives, making things so much more stressful for ourselves.)

Simplify Your Life, by being able to spot these “Melting Mountains” moments for what they truly are.

Discussing what it means

The huge unknown (Even though it is what it is)

There are many things WE don’t know. We don’t know which is the nearest planet to Earth that supports intelligent life. We don’t understand the exact mechanics of anesthetics. We don’t know exactly why quantum tunneling happens, only that it does.

There are many things YOU don’t know. If you’re not a lawyer, you might not understand your country’s specific laws on non-disclosure agreements. If you’re not a doctor, you might not understand how important a coronary artery calcium score is. And you might also not know what the second tallest mountain in the world is.

But in spite of our ignorance, life goes on.

We can’t know everything. And so we act, unaware of the potential consequences. We make assumptions. We hire experts because they know things that we don’t.

That said, sometimes we need to remind people – including ourselves – that just because we don’t know things, doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

Examples of “Melting Mountains”

You will often come across the concept of “Ignorance of the law is no excuse”. People routinely try to get out of convictions by arguing that they didn’t know an act was illegal. The Law responds sensibly: It says you are still guilty of a crime, even if you didn’t know it was a crime.

  • Can you see how this is the same as the fact that not knowing about Everest doesn’t mean Everest didn’t exist?
  • And further, if ignorance allowed us to commit crimes without a conscience, if it justifies the screw-ups described below, then that would be a fantastic excuse to stay ignorant. Imagine what society would look like then!

Think about someone who takes a pair of noise-canceling headphones that he found in the office Men’s Room. His excuse? “I didn’t know who they belonged to, so thought it was OK to take.” No, that’s stealing, regardless of whether you know that it was me who left them there by mistake.

Or when I went on a date, many (many!) years ago, and the woman made a racist comment. I got annoyed, mentioning that I was from South Africa and therefore probably knew many black people socially. Her response? “Sorry, I didn’t know you were South African.”

In her mind, her racist comment was justified by the fact that she didn’t know where I was from. It was more one of those hollow “sorry you caught me” kind of apologies!

I remember when my friend bought a second-hand scooter for more than the cost of a new one! When I challenged him on what he paid, he justified it by saying he didn’t know it was available cheaper. “Did you shop around, or just buy from the first advert you saw?” Yup, he hadn’t even looked around, but still felt his purchase was reasonable because he hadn’t known otherwise.

Think about that time you agreed to meet up with someone, but along the way realized it’s actually a lot further to get there than you thought. You’re welcome to be disappointed that it will take longer, and you’re welcome to be annoyed that they didn’t tell you more clearly where the place was. But it is what it is, and you can’t miraculously shorten the physical distance, no matter how indignant you are.

You can’t negotiate with reality.

Or what about someone who picks up an STD after a night of unprotected sex? Do you think an acceptable response from them would be, “I didn’t use a condom because I didn’t know the person was infected”?

They are Who they are  (eg. admiring & hiring)

Think about when you start dating someone, or you hire a person to join your team.

You build an impression of who they are, even forgetting that they may be trying harder in the beginning, so may come across as nicer than they really are.

But … they are who they are.

Just because you didn’t realize they had a dark side, just because you weren’t aware of their nasty habits, doesn’t mean they’ve changed since you met them. It also doesn’t specifically mean you’ve been deceived.

Yes, people do change and people do mislead. But more often than not it’s just that you weren’t aware of “that side” of the person. Yet.

So don’t act surprised that they turn out to be different from what you assumed. Did you really think you could know everything about someone in such a short time?

Similarly, don’t make it seem like they’re under some obligation to become who you originally thought they were. You were wrong.

They are who they are.

These are not Black Swans

Many of you will be aware of the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, even if you haven’t read it. Most people appear to misunderstand what a Black Swan is, and might even think it’s the same thing as “Melting Mountains”.

It’s not.

A Black Swan is an event which (a) comes as a surprise, (b) has a major impact, and (c) is inappropriately rationalized with hindsight.

There is some overlap between “Melting Mountains” and Black Swans, but I wanted to reiterate that they are not the same thing.

So why is there a #hashtag-story about this?

Each time you attempt “Melting Mountains”, or when the people around you do, your brain needs to immediately flag what is happening.

The empowerment you create by correctly highlighting “Melting Mountains” each time you fall into the thinking trap, is immense. It reminds you of your flawed logic, and helps you break that habit.

If someone you work with keeps justifying thinking and actions on the basis of such ignorance of facts, then telling them the story of “Melting Mountains” is a great starting point, thus allowing you to use that #hashtag in future when pointing out the inappropriateness of their response.

Spot it. Flag it. Understand it. Act on it.

Hashtagging is the secret ingredient!

Have you ever felt justified responding in anger to your children, because you didn’t know you could solve the problem calmly?

Did you ever assume your partner had bad intentions, simply because you didn’t know what they were actually thinking when they said something? This particular example of “Melting Mountains” is called #[The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches], which you should read.

Have you ever done what you’re told, simply because your mind didn’t know that you weren’t under any obligation to obey? Your compliance may be explained by – but is not justified by – not knowing they have no authority over you, not realizing their opinion needn’t be your priority? You can read about this scenario in #[Luxury Bridges].

In all the above examples, your perspective was wrong, and your response was not the most effective.

But you didn’t appreciate that another perspective, the truth, existed. And so you didn’t realize there was a more effective way of responding.

Ignorance is no excuse. And that’s why you need to make sure you don’t miss any future chapters, each of which provides you with similar tools for simplifying your life and performing better. Subscribe to the #HashtagYourLife newsletter today – you’ll find plenty of additional material that doesn’t appear anywhere on this website.

Making it personal

I’ve given a lot of examples in this chapter of how “Melting Mountains” can happen in your life.

Take out your #HashtagYourLife journal (is it a password-protected Word file? a paper book?) and make some notes …

  • When have you confused what you knew with belief about what exists?
  • Where are you making this mistake at the moment?
  • Is there someone around you who keeps falling into this trap?
  • What is the best way you can use this story (even just sending them the link) to make future discussions with them on the topic more effective?

Take your time to think through this, I know you’ll be surprised at what actually comes up!


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Related Stories

#[Tomato – fruit or vegetable? Yes]
#[Umbrella in the sun]
#[The field that became a black hole]
#[The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches]
#[Luxury Bridges]

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