There is a very important topic of being open to new ideas and being able to learn new tools related to your profession, and it amazes me that this subject causes quite a bit of misunderstanding. So I felt that it might be a good idea to express my thoughts on the matter and to clarify some misconceptions.
I work on extracting knowledge or business value from data and information. This is a truly interdisciplinary area where we use machine learning, statistics, mathematics, computer science, together with software development and business analytics. Essentially, on a daily basis.
Of course, when so many tools are involved and so many skills are required, there is noone who knows everything in this profession. Therefore, it is essential that you learn something new or perfect some of your skills on a daily basis. I followed this advice since my student days and now, after 20 years, there are still endless opportunities to learn something useful and it is extremely easy to find an area where to improve yourself.
A crucial ingredient to success of this approach is the ability to evaluate your skills adequately. You hinder your progress or even stop it completely if you get overconfident and generic in your self-evaluation. On the other hand, you are also wasting your time and efforts if you are undervaluing some specific skills that you’ve already developed. Adequacy is the key.
Now let’s give a very common example. In my interactions with dozens of departments, I probably had close to a 100 situations of this type 🙂
Imagine you’ve done a Ph.D. on hypothesis testing or published papers on classification in machine learning. And then there comes a colleague of yours who just saw a Wikipedia article on A/B testing or read some blog entry about that new hot classifier that was recently proposed in a poster at the local college conference on AI.
Your colleague is all excited, says that’s the coolest thing since sliced bread and demands that you write a seminal joint paper with him or, at least, abandon all of your current work and reorganize the company analytics to have his new favorite method at the core of the business 🙂
A typical twist in this type of stories comes from the fact that you’ve probably either already tried this method and found a better one, or you know that the method simply doesn’t work for your task. After all, sometimes this can be a mathematically provable statement. And you tell this to your colleague, as politely and constructively as possible, of course.
Now, there’s a probability that the colleague still gets upset and claims that you’re a know-it-all, and that you aren’t willing to learn new things and that you aren’t open to new opportunities.
Do not get into the trap of feeling guilty and switching to the obviously ineffective method. These remarks aren’t coming from your colleague’s brain, they come from his ego that is temporarily hurt. If you both waste your time working on something bogus, this will do no good for both of you and for the employer.
At the end, you might feel even more guilty for not stopping the madness earlier, you can damage your reputation as a domain expert, and your colleague might still blame you for the fact that his bad idea didn’t work out as he expected. A fairly unattractive perspective if you ask me 🙂
Willingness to abandon your good results and to discard your knowledge just because someone else got excited about a new buzz word, is not to be confused with openness to new ideas and willingness to learn and improve.
A proper name for the former is being a “yes-man” and a pushover. You wouldn’t learn or improve by working on a bogus method, indeed.
As for you colleague, if he is really open to new ideas, eager to learn something new, and strives for perfection, a moment like this is exactly the right time for him to prove it and to learn something from you. Something useful.