The Wisdom Paradox

“I don’t know.”

No, really. I don’t.

The more I read, the more I realize I don’t know anything. Or at least I don’t know many things with any degree of certainty.

I used to think I knew a lot. Indeed, at one point in my life, I thought I knew everything. (That’s called being a teenager.)

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge...
— Charles Darwin

The less we know, the more certain we are. The world is black and white. There’s a definitive answer for everything. Certitude is a given. Over-confidence oozes from every pore. “Maybes”, “Possiblys” and “It depends” are reserved for non-commital wimps.

To the most uninformed, the world is binary:

  • Yes / No
  • Love / Hate
  • Agree / Disagree
  • For / Against
The Internet...has taken us further away from that illumination, or wisdom, that is essential to living a life that matters.

[O]urs is a generation bloated with information and starved for wisdom.
— Arianna Huffington, Thrive (2014), p. 132 & p. 140.

To the greener minds of the world, answers to anything you want to know are somewhere, you just have to find the right search engine or the right person who can offer the definitive answer. Depending on the question they’re trying to answer, the process can leave them pretty frustrated…

The cure lies in what I call “the wisdom paradox*”.

I was first exposed to the wisdom paradox at age 35, when I went back to school to add another major to my undergraduate degree.

My sports psychology instructor said to me one day that she very much appreciated having a mature student in her class. A bit taken aback, I asked her why. She said [I’m paraphrasing here] “I appreciate the fact that you know there isn’t a definitive answer to every question. You know that ‘it depends’, along with whatever information qualifies it, is a reasonable answer. To students right out of high school, that's not good enough. For them there has to be a definitive answer to everything.” 

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.
— Albert Einstein

That comment has stuck with me for years now. At the time, I hadn’t yet come to appreciate how my mind had changed from opinionated teenager to wondering—or is it wandering—adult.

And it keeps changing. The more I learn, the less I know. The more I learn, the more I find myself saying:

A visual representation of what I knew as a teen and what I know now (the circle would be INFINITESIMALLY small if I could draw the actual size of the total wisdom available, but just work with me here). The circumference of the two small circles represents awareness of ignorance as much as it does knowledge & wisdom because the more we understand in this world, the more we're exposed to what we don't yet know or understand. And that awareness is utterly humbling.

  • “It depends.”
  • “Maybe.”
  • “Possibly.”
  • “I’m not sure.”
  • “I have to think about that.”
  • “I don’t have an opinion on that issue.” or the infamous
  • “I don’t know.”

And I have a better appreciation now of why that is. 

The Wisdom Paradox:

The more you learn, the more you are exposed to what you don't know.

The wisdom paradox tells us that the more we’re exposed to thoughts, points of view, new situations, cultures, ideas, and facts, the more we appreciate just how ignorant we are and that the ways to see the world are virtually infinite (see right for a feeble attempt at providing a visual representation of what I mean).

Don’t worry. There’s a payoff to that growing feeling of cluelessness.

There’s power hidden in it. That power rests in the lack of assumptions:

[O]ne of most important lessons I’ve learned as an astronaut: to value the wisdom of humility, as well as the sense of perspective it gives you.
— Chris Hadfield, "An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth" (2013), p. 282.
  • We stop assuming there’s an easy answer. 
  • We ask more questions. 
  • We listen more intently to fully appreciate and understand a point of view. 
  • We realize that anyone and everyone can be a teacher.
  • We tend to dismiss comparisons among individuals as irrelevant or at least of little use.
  • We’re comfortable exploring a fuzzy topic, knowing full well we might never get to the bottom of it.
Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.
— Alice Miller

Finally, we’re more empathetic because empathy is difficult—if not impossible—when we assume others think and see the world like we do.

And so, I will continue to bask in my incompetence, in my deficiencies, in my ineptitude, knowing full well that, with every book I read, speech I hear, conversation I engage in, exposure to my own ignorance grows.

I’ve learned to appreciate this level of awareness because it means that, just as a good thriller can, the curiosity that results will always make me want to turn the page.

*Not to be confused with the book by the same name. They are two different ideas (though I've still to read that many books, so little time).

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