Why we need to take an ignorant approach
“…knowledge imprisons you. You cannot escape it. What you know you cannot ‘unknow’. That’s why knowledge is dangerous. Learning will redefine your world, irreversibly.” — Noam Shpancer
What you know imprisons you.
Even worse, what you think you know, is what gets you stuck.
Knowledge is an illusion of control. To explain things helps us feel in control.
That’s why we like to name things. Giving something a name turns them into familiar things. Yet, in the long run, everything changes even if their names stay the same.
The Trap of Knowledge
The person you were yesterday is different to the one you are today.
I have a funny anecdote from when I went to New Zealand to visit my older sister, a long time ago.
“How would you like your coffee.”- I remember asking her (again).
“Really. You’ve been here for over two weeks now. You know I like it black with no sugar.” — she replied surprised.
“Yes, that I remember. I was just giving you the possibility to change.” — I replied.
When we assume that things will always be the same, we limit possibilities. When we assume that people will always behave the same, we limit their choices.
Things change, especially those that are familiar.
The Paradox of Familiarity
“If you love somebody, set them free.” –Sting
We feel comfortable (and safe) being surrounded by people and things that feel familiar. Yet, that same familiarity is what normally put the things we love at jeopardy.
Think about your personal relationships.
It’s very common for long-time friends to suddenly stop seeing each other, once they no longer recognize each other. Or for a couple to break up when, all of a sudden, they realize the gap between who they are and who they thought they were.
Familiarity makes us blind. We don’t notice how people evolve, or, even worse, we are in denial. Not recognizing how others changed, hurts relationships.
The same applies to our professional lives.
John, my Advanced Scuba Diver certification instructor in Belize, was originally a lawyer. He graduated from an Ivy League school and became a successful lawyer in the US. After twenty years, he decided to become a Scuba diving instructor.
“But you are a lawyer, you don’t know anything about teaching scuba diving.” — was all his colleagues and friends told him.
Throwing away his successful career wasn’t the only price he had to pay to achieve his goal. It cost him his marriage and many friends.
They felt comfortable with John the lawyer. But John the Scuba Diver didn’t fit in.
Some people cannot let go of who they think you are.
They have a hard time removing the label from the “You” they used to know. When they say “I know you”, their words are more of a trap than a compliment. Like a mirror that got stuck on an image that is no longer real.
The purpose of our life is one of self-discovery. If we spend our entire lives trying to understand who we are (what’s our life’s purpose), how can someone else think they really “know us”?
Curiosity Was Killed by a Cat. Or Was it Adult Thinking?
When I was five I asked “Why” non-stop. All kids do that to experience and understand the world they live in. But it seemed I mastered that art in a way, that it irritated my mom much more than any of my six siblings.
I still keep asking “why” all the time. And it irritates people (a lot).
As I wrote in a previous post, our (education) system is more focused on teaching knowledge than on teaching how to learn.
We spend our school years learning the answers. That familiarity makes us feel safe. Once we move into the “adult world” we are expected to know.
Knowing the answers is much more rewarded than being curious at the workplace.
When I ask “why” over and over. Or when I ask something that I should know –like my sister’s coffee anecdote- I get people looking at me like saying “seriously?”
The “you should know” mindset makes me feel uneasy at first. I feel judged, like I’m supposed to have the answers. I always focus on letting go of that emotion.
I’m not supposed to have all the answers. You aren’t either.
Actually, when we pretend to know, it’s because we are ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s like resting on past laurels. Once they’ve dried, our whole life will feel parched too.
Going back to the workplace, leaders have been trained to have all the answers. Their default behavior is to jump in and provide a solution as fast as possible.
I’m guilty of that faulty behavior too. I now purposefully force myself to be the last to speak in the room. I became more aware of how a leader’s voice neutralizes everyone else’s opinion.
Taking an ignorant approach requires us to talk less. Or actually not to talk at all. And listen more. To ask more questions.
When you start listening to other people’s ideas your own ideas get challenged. And that’s when you learn.
Expert or Ignorant
How would you define yourself?
If I have to choose, I prefer to be ignorant.
Being ignorant is a liberating experience. I don’t need to waste my energy in “defending” a position. I can spend it on learning instead.
That’s why I always choose the underdog side to that of the expert.
And why I push myself into the unknown once I start enjoying my comfort zone,
Last week, I was talking to an old colleague of mine about why I quit my corporate job to start my own business. “You’ve always been successful at reinventing yourself.” — he told me. Maybe he’s right and that’s the best way to describe my path.
Or maybe I simply feel comfortable in a new situation, when I don’t master the knowledge. I feel comfortable being ignorant (though it’s not comfortable at all).
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you consider yourself an “expert” or an “ignorant”?
- How do you feel when you don’t know something?
- Do you pride yourself on knowing others well? Do you like to anticipate other’s behaviors or keep an open mind to their “unexpected” reactions?
- What role does “knowledge” play in your life? Does it limit or empower your ability to grow?
- How do you feel about resetting your knowledge? How do you feel exploring new spaces where you feel completely ignorant?
Use them to reflect on your relationship with ignorance and knowledge.
By the way, how would you like your coffee today?
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