On the importance of admitting how much we don't know


I don't really know anything. Well, to be clear, I know a few things (e.g., rules of semicolon usage, proper laundry procedures, how to make excellent fried eggs). But against the scope of the universe, I know almost nothing.

I recently read this interesting article in Inc. that talks about why you should surround yourself with more books than you could ever possibly read. Basically, the argument is that this becomes your "antilibrary" — a palpable physical and visual reminder of all of the things that you don't know yet. It keeps you humble. It keeps you learning.

The article hit me hard, given the rather insane sociopolitical climate we're all currently trying to function in. Because I can't help being haunted by the tremendously simple idea that if everyone could just remember how much they don't know on a daily basis, we'd all get along so much better. Instead, we all keep forgetting that, in the larger scope of things, we're just figuring all this out as we go. We'd do far better to start by acknowledging what we don't know and THEN do our best to work together to figure things out. 


Even supposed geniuses are well-served to remember that they can't possibly know everything even about the subject they're supposed to be a genius in. There's always more to learn. Also, if you're a genius in one thing, it doesn't necessarily make you a genius on anything else. People forget that all the time, too.

It's a problem with smart people: They're so smart in certain ways that they forget about all the ways they're not smart. So what am I saying here? A modicum of humility — combined with an ongoing awareness of how much we don't know — is the bottom line of what's needed to start fixing all the seemingly insurmountable disagreements we're facing. 


None of us are exempt from guilt on this: We all forget how much we don't know. But it doesn't make us bad people. It's how we cope. It's how we get by. It's how we ourselves strive to do our best, and to figure all this insane and sometimes terrifying shit out. It's not innately bad that we do this. It's just not terribly helpful. 

So what am I trying to say with all this? I guess this: Next time you want to pummel someone literally or figuratively because they Don't Know Shit, picture all the books in the world that you'll never have time to read, and make yourself remember how much there is you don't know. Then, do your darnedest to be sympathetic about the fact that everyone around you is in exactly the same boat. If we can all start from a position of greater humility — and more open acknowledgement of how much we've yet to figure out — we may actually get somewhere. 

(Gratuitous postscript: Within one paragraph alone of the Inc. article, there are two words missing. I prefer to think the author was giving a live demonstration of the inevitable incompleteness of our knowledge.)