A Lesson from Lemon Juice: The Perils of Partial Awareness

We all know the advice of creatively changing lemons into lemonade. However, a story about lemon juice offers us another valuable lesson.

This story begins with a man robbing two banks in one day without wearing a mask or a disguise.  When the Pittsburgh police arrested him, he was shocked and told the officers, “but I wore the juice.”  He had coated his face with lemon juice and, therefore, confidently assumed his face would be invisible.  This assumption stemmed from his knowledge that lemon juice created invisible ink, so he concluded lemon juice would obscure his face.

He is not the only individual who combined incredibly incomplete knowledge combined with faulty logic to act unwisely.  Oblivious to their narrow perspective, parents in Lake Wobegon assume everyone in their town has above average intelligence.  They are not alone.  Bad drivers assume they excel, high school performers consider themselves ready for Broadway, and 94% of professors consider themselves above average.  My favorite was a forger who tried to pass a US $1,000.00 bill at a grocery store. He was shocked the cashier was not willing to provide change.  Luckily she knew the largest denomination of currency in the US is $100.

After we chuckle at these obviously implausible actions, we need to evaluate our own thinking practices.  Are we fully aware of opportunities, risks, and creative solutions?

Underperformers consistently overestimate themselves, and high performers regularly underestimate themselves.  Getting it right is rare, and getting it wrong is costly.

This is not a new phenomenon.  Charles Darwin wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  Given these pervasive misperceptions, we need to re-examine our abilities to assess contextual awareness, conduct disciplined analysis, and employ rigorous scrutiny.

In the era of the knowledge worker, we must ensure better thinking, comprehensive data collection, and effective analysis.  Leaders must shift their expectations from providing all the right answers to asking all the right questions.

Consider the following:  Do you accept that what you see on the surface is not all that there is to see?  Are you rewarding those who ask tough questions?  Are you developing your staff’s critical thinking skills?  Do you use a checklist to prevent overlooking key factors?

As Mark Twain noted:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

The Pittsburgh thief paid a high price for not knowing more about lemon juice.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. A company is a bit like a love story, when you take too many things for granted, catastrophe approaches. Similarly, when you think you are a leader, have the total respect and devotion of your team, then it’s time to ask yourself a few questions.
    In my experience I have learned that it is wrong to sit on our laurels: to stop committing is to stop understanding.
    A leader must continually train to continue being one.

    • Aldo, Thanks for reminding us never to sit on past achievements. The world is changing too fast to expect that what was is the same as what will be. We do need to ask questions and listen to the responses. I remember a quote (but not the source) that reminds us we can never learn if we are the ones who are talking.

  2. Jeff, Thanks for the comment. I love the image of leaders removing their chains. And the reference also mirrors the story about the committed crimes. In response to your question, I think the judge took the lack of injury into consideration and probably hoped that while he took classes while in jail. I would think reason more than compassion drove the judge’s thinking.

  3. Dr. Mary — Brilliant! For some reason the word “Humility” first popped into my head as I read your piece. And then the word “Relief” quickly followed.

    Leaders! Remove your chains. Set down the world from your shoulders. You don’t need to know everything. (And you don’t want to either.)

    A wonderful read. I wonder if the judge was at all compassionate with the lemon-faced robber?