Are You Sure About That? - How to Cure Ignorance

I'm ignorant, and I'm OK with that. But it doesn't mean that I don't try to be a little less so every day.

Our knowledge, skills, abilities and experience are tested all day long, with every decision we make and in every conversation we have with others. Well, they are tested, unless we tend to do the same things every day/week/month, thereby exposing ourselves to the same type of information and the same types of conversations over and over again with the same people (like the movie Groundhog Day, which I’ve written about here).

And, because knowledge, skills, abilities and experience differ greatly from one person to the next, we experience the world in a unique way, and still would even if we were living pre-determined cookie-cutter lives as does Jim Carrey's character in The Truman Show

Disappear the context, or fragment it, and contradiction disappears.
— Neil Postman, Amazing Ourselves to Death (1985), p. 109

I’m not just talking about cultural, gender, income and age differences. I’m talking about differences in our level of awareness, context, understanding, ignorance. In one word differences in contextual stupidity.

Many stories have been written and movies made about ignorance/stupidity/cluelessness because it's something we're exposed to regularly. We can relate to these stories on many levels. Mostly though, thanks to illusory superiority*, we witness it in other people. 

We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
— George Orwell (1946)

News flash: to others, we’re the “other people”.

Here’s the thing: Unfortunately, we don’t know what we don’t know. And that makes us all ignorant on countless fronts. It stinks, but it’s true.

The key to our lack of awareness regarding our own stupidity is that there’s an inverse correlation between knowing much about something—a topic, a field, a skill or ability—and our perceived competence relative to it. Driving is usually a favourite among examples to—pardon the pun—drive the point home: an inordinate number of drivers think they’re above average (rating themselves as 7/10 on average), which is, of course, impossible.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
— Confucius

It goes without saying that we can’t be good at everything. We’re all stupid to a certain extent about virtually everything. However, what can make the greatest difference in how we go about our day-to-day is whether we’re aware of it or not.

The Cure for Ignorance

Now that we’ve established that we’re all comfortably sitting somewhere on the ignorance continuum—when it comes to anything and everything—from being totally clueless to achieving mastery, I want to offer some comfort. Though there's no cure for ignorance overall, there are some things we can do to manage or mitigate the negative effects associated with cluelessness. 

We can:

  1. Be aware of it.
  2. Seek to reduce it in the areas that matter most to our lives.
  3. Stay curious and open about as much as possible.

Here’s more on each of these points to help us lead better, more enlightened, lives:

1. Be aware of it.

We can think of the whole of our personal knowledge and understanding as a circle: everything inside it is what we know and understand and everything outside it we’re ignorant of. The more we learn and experience, the more this circle grows in size.

What matters most isn’t just what’s inside the circle, but its effect on the circle’s circumference. The larger the circle, the more we know, but at the same time, the more we're aware of what we don't.

As we learn and grow, as we experience new things, thoughts and ideas, we come to realize the extent of what we don’t know. And, unsettling as it is, it grows exponentially. The more we learn, the greater our understanding of still having much to learn, along with the realization that we can never know it all. This epiphany makes it easier for us to admit our ignorance with responses such as “I don’t know”, “I’m not sure”, “I’ve never heard of that”.

Once [students] do understand what is necessary to get there in one area, they understand, at least in principle, what it takes in other areas. That is why an expert in one field can often appreciate those in other fields.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 255.
A regular glimpse into the vastness of our ignorance is nothing if not sobering. 

Being aware of our ignorance is powerful. It makes us stop and consider whether we really know enough about something to make a decision or to offer advice. It makes us appreciate that there are subject matter experts, mentors and advisors out there and that we should seek their counsel when making an important decision.

An additional benefit of awareness is that we become more cautious around people who are too confident about their knowledge on any given topic. We grow more watchful around people who never seem to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”. 

2. Seek to reduce ignorance in the areas that matter most to our lives.

We won’t all be astrophysicists. There’s simply no way to know it all. Given this impossibility, we can still invest our time in the areas that matter most to us. If we carefully consider our goals, we can identify what we want to learn most and focus on that for a time. Areas could include:

Better to learn from how others fell than to repeat their mistakes out of ignorance.
— Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall (2009), p. 24-5.
  • Professional development (knowledge, skills, abilities)
  • Personal interests
  • Relating to or understanding others
  • Relating to or understanding ourselves

We can accomplish this learning via a number of means: classes, seminars/webinars, tutorials, books, magazines, websites/blogs, mentors, coaches, friends and family, colleagues, observation and practice, etc. If anything, learning about anything and everything is more accessible to us than any other time in history!

Understanding more about what we care about most is sure to make us better versions of ourselves. We become better at fulfilling our purpose, better family members, and happier people and better citizens in general, because the more we’re exposed to new information, the more patience we have for ourselves and others; and as we realize we don’t know it all, we don’t expect others to either.

3. Stay curious and open about as much as possible.

Actively reducing our ignorance in the areas that matter most to us is one thing, but there’s more to it than that. Increasing our openness to new ideas and being more curious in general is a good thing. Not only do we learn and experience in unexpected ways, but we increase our exposure to greater unknowns and discover things we enjoy or want more of that we wouldn’t have come across otherwise. We’re also more willing to expose ourselves to contrarian or alternate points of view and that makes us more empathetic and understanding of differences.

Education is a lifelong journey whose destination expands as you travel.
— Jim Stovall, The Ultimate Gift (2007), p. 61.

Best of all, the more we explore, the more we want to explore. Exploring increases our fascination about the world around us. It’s a second childhood of sorts. Becoming increasingly curious can even make us wonder why we bothered to leave our childlike fascination behind in the first place. Why do we do that? I'll have to look into it...

*For more on illusory superiority, you might enjoy this short video from Brain Stuff from How Stuff Works: Are Stupid People More Confident?

Image credit/copyright, in order of appearance: hyena reality & Sura Nualpradid/

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