A more human, human being than Anthony Bourdain is rarely seen on television.  Pretense? No. An air of superiority? None. Need to show us a perfect life? Not a chance.

He took us to parts unknown, as promised in the title of his show. He showed us the beautiful and the profane, the elegant and refined and the down and dirty. How we loved him for it.

Knowledge, insight, and whole-hearted enthusiasm for every experience defined his way of showing us things most will never personally experience. Whether dining with world-renowned chefs at restaurants with three Michelin stars or from a food truck, his curiosity was boundless and genuine. He was like Richard Feynman wrapped in James Dean.

Why was this ‘no holds barred’ approach so beloved? Because he did something ordinary in a highly unusual way and he did it openly. Watching his show I was reminded of the advice I often give leaders. I tell them to “learn in front of people.” When leaders learn out in the open they give permission for everyone else to not only be curious but to not know.

The state of ‘not knowing’ is valuable as a catalyst for learning but also as an antidote for the extremely common cause of failure – overconfidence. Bourdain made his life, living, and legacy by not knowing, but wanting to know.

The Not Knowing Mindset

Leaders who seek innovation (and who doesn’t?) can take a lesson from Bourdain. Not knowing something is neither fatal nor permanent. Once we realize there are gaps in our knowledge that we either need or want to fill, we can do something about it. When people hide their lack of knowledge to protect pride, they set themselves up for failure, if only in their own estimation.

To develop and constructively use a mindset of not knowing, a few things are essential and all of these were manifest in Bourdain. 

Learning is the point. The process of acquiring knowledge is best done with experiences that are logically related. Learning to cook requires that one enter the kitchen, understand ingredients and the chemical reactions that occur when combining elements and how temperature affects different substances and in what conditions. It is highly experiential. Chemistry classes incorporate experimentation, statistics need data to analyze and a reason to do it, and advice about how to live an interesting life is best from someone who can show us what that looks like.

Fun is not frivolous. The sort of manufactured fun organizations spend a lot of money on is foolish. Why? It accomplishes only a fraction of what can be gained by doing meaningful work with capable colleagues and achieving a result. Even failure can be thrilling if we mine it for the lessons about what we did, how we did it and who brought what to the situation. A manufactured event simply doesn’t yield results that are as useful. A dour leader, having been told to make things livelier needn’t hire a party planner. Rather, they need to look for what is happening in routine circumstances and highlight the lessons, the achievements and celebrate daring attempts.

Influential people and great leaders aren’t great because they are showing off. They have a point of view and a way of looking at things around them. Share on X

There is no finish line. Even death doesn’t draw the finish line. Legacy goes on whether intentionally created or not. What do you want to be known for? I’ll remember Bourdain for his rampant curiosity, intellectual breadth, ability to interact with people from everywhere and his mindset of consciousness of the interconnected web of existence.   

The ordinary can be revolutionary.

  • Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, tells a story about his father teaching him the concept of momentum by using a ball and a toy wagon.
  • Carol Dweck did groundbreaking work on mindset by conducting seemingly simple experiments.
  • Steve Jobs learned about the importance of design from his father while building a fence. His father believed that the back of an object should be as beautiful as the front.
  • Julia Child was interested in French food and followed her curiosity with gusto. She made something that was once largely unfamiliar, accessible.
  • Walter Isaacson, the author of remarkable biographies, including his most recent on Leonardo DaVinci, brings a curiosity and discipline to his projects and enriches us in so doing.

Every one of these people changed some aspect of the world as we know it. So did Anthony Bourdain.

Influential people and great leaders aren’t great because they are showing off. They have a point of view and a way of looking at things around them. Their view may lead to knowledge, insight, entertainment and even enlightenment but as significant as these are, the mindset that led them to discover, uncover, provoke and teach is equally important. Perhaps it is more important for it leads us to discover what is right in front of us and imagine what isn’t but could be.

How are you shaping the mindset of those who you are responsible to lead? How are you growing, expanding and challenging your own mindset?

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