The Less You Know

The more you learn, the less you know.

What? How can this be? Some sort of weird paradox? No — the more you learn, the vastness of what you do not know becomes more apparent, and hence, you become increasingly aware of how little you know. The ignorant are unusually blessed for they know not what they do not know.

I think it is true to say that knowing what you don’t know is even more important than what you know. So many mishaps have occurred because we assumed we knew, when we deep down we knew we didn’t. You should not make a virtue of trusting in your ignorance. Instead, admit that you don’t know, because it is the first step in knowing deeply.

Half-knowing is just as bad. But not knowing and assuming that it’s okay is worse. I’d feel much safer with a doctor who would tell me he did not know what was wrong with me than with one who said he did when he didn’t. Or a lawyer for that matter who gave me false hope or advice. Because in the end, the truth is most important, and someone who leads you on as if he/she knows pushes the truth further away, and in some cases, such as medicine, it can be quite dangerous.

Admitting one’s ignorance to one’s self is very hard, and often our egos won’t allow it. But letting in the admission is winning the battle. It marks the beginning of the learning process. Sometimes you have to learn it the hard way. I remember the first few months of my graduate education at Berkeley when I was studying computer science. I was the only one in class with no background in engineering or computers, so was pretty lost in those early weeks. I was floundering and not sure what to do as jargon and terminology, as well as math, kept whizzing by. Having had plenty of experience with continuous math, I found discrete math hard, but failed to admit it, so I just assumed I should know, and that I did know. Yet, I didn’t and nothing would change the facts. I was stuck and not learning.

In the end my frustration got me to admit to myself that I did not know a lot. I began to carry a little notebook around to jot down every word and concept that I had no clue about and that I needed to know. I would return to my cubicle after class and then bug whoever was around to tell me about the new unknowns in my notebook. This little book was my confession of how little I knew. It was also my salvation. I went home every day enlightened by answers to the ever-growing list in the little notebook. It became the symbol of my salvation, my new found knowledge. I began to feel good about how little I knew, because it was gratification wrapped up in humility. The less I realized I knew, the happier I became.

Make a list of stuff you don’t know (see http://swanson.github.com/blog/2011/12/04/whats-on-your-learning-list.html )– it is your gateway to knowledge. Of course, it is impossible to make an exhaustive list, it would take forever. So make a list of things you do not know, and are interested in. Keep it short. Even if there is just one thing on that list but you spend time to get to know it well, it will be exhilarating.

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3 Responses to The Less You Know

  1. Ruchir (ISB 2010 student of yours) says:

    Glad to see your blogs again Prof!

  2. dindin says:

    you’re right..

  3. shankar Rao says:

    the more we live,sooner we realize what we really we do not know !
    that is what life teaches us..to probe the infinite.
    Enjoyed reading your blog Prof Das.

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