Experience is a costly teacher, but wise men will have no other.

Why the Smart Ones Choose Ignorance

You surely know the phrase, “He doesn’t know Jack” or  “He doesn’t know Jack ____” – I’ve left off the last noun, but you know that part too.  And you prob­a­bly know that the antonymic phrase, “He knows Jack” means pretty much the same thing…knowing nothing,…or ignorance.

Most folks wouldn’t really want igno­rance closely attached to their name, but as a Jack, the more I’ve learned about igno­rance, the more that I’ve come to like it.

To be clear, I am not refer­ring to igno­rance in the way that it seems to be used in Bud­dhism, where it is a syn­onym for a will­ful un-awareness that, when com­bined with other emo­tions or per­cep­tions, often man­i­fests as hatred (i.e.: “…anger is borne out of igno­rance.”)  Instead, I refer to the power of a will­ful denial of know­ing – the pur­suit of a state in which  you reject the saccharine-sweet and intel­lec­tu­ally nar­row temp­ta­tion to accept what you know as fact, and instead assume that what you know is not really the answer, i.e., that despite actu­ally hav­ing an answer, you still may not know, um, Jack.  I’ll explain.

It all started years ago at RAND.  I was sit­ting in on a meet­ing with about ten peo­ple in it, just to learn.  There were sev­eral of our top “six-sigma” researchers and a vis­it­ing aca­d­e­mic who knew one of them.  It was a sort of a test-the-waters dis­cus­sion – smell test, pro­fes­so­r­ial preen­ing, and friendly chat with high-wire top­ics. I’m pretty sure that they were dis­cussing eco­nom­ics of trade, a topic which, given the fact that I had two econ­o­mists for par­ents, can make me nod off a bit.  The meet­ing had gone on for a while, maybe forty min­utes, and then it just sort of slowed down, as if they had all been eat­ing a meal and were simul­ta­ne­ously full, and a moment later they stopped their dis­cus­sion, the guy got up, hastily said farewell and then left.

I’ve been in a mil­lion meet­ings and I’ve never seen one end like this.  It  was very strange…even abrupt.  I know that I wasn’t pay­ing atten­tion fully, but I usu­ally see the end com­ing(!)  As every­one sat back down and the door closed behind the depart­ing guest, I asked one of the researchers what he thought of the guy.  He said, “he was okay”.  I quickly thought back to the dis­cus­sion and could not pick out the “okay” (which really meant “infe­rior”) in the dis­cus­sion that I had heard.  I remem­bered the man speak­ing well, even a bit author­i­ta­tively, and pretty much always able to respond with infor­ma­tion or an insight.

I didn’t get it.  So it was time to be what I really was at RAND – an MBA that was hang­ing out with a bunch of high-end PhDs – and say some­thing that might seem incred­i­bly silly.  I told him that I didn’t see why he was say­ing that: the guy sounded like he knew the topic pretty well.

Unfor­tu­nately for me, right at that moment every­one else at the table stopped chat­ting and started lis­ten­ing to our dis­cus­sion.   Usu­ally not a prob­lem for me, but at that moment I did feel lit­tle exposed – he was a nice guy about it though.  He nod­ded, smiled and said, “Yeah, he knew all the answers.”

Every­one around the table leaned back in their chairs and smiled too.  They were going to take the smart-ass MBA kid to school again.  I chuck­led, sighed, smiled and leaned back into the chair as well.  It was a fun rit­ual that they had devel­oped – and I had learned early in my days there that humil­ity would get you very far with these folks.

Okay, I’ll bite.  What’s wrong with that?”

They were all groov­ing on this moment, so much so that one of the other researchers jumped in and said, “Hav­ing the answers is the end of all learning.”

Another added,  “Yes, he’s not learn­ing anymore.”

And at that moment I first under­stood the power of ignorance…how these peo­ple had all built their careers by insist­ing that they did not know enough nor could ever know enough, and in that way being junkies for the next ques­tion, the “ques­tion behind the ques­tion” as they called it.  It was not enough to know whether a cer­tain gov­ern­ment pol­icy would impact a cer­tain indus­try.  They had to know if that very ques­tion was the right one to be asking…and if not, then how would some­one deter­mine what a bet­ter ques­tion might be?

These men and women of RAND are the peo­ple whose first pub­li­ca­tion was “Design of an Earth-Circling Space Ship” (in 1948); who in the 1960’s, amidst fear of nuclear war, cre­ated the con­cept of a resilient net­work that led to the inter­net; the peo­ple who said in the 1990’s that there is no one answer to Gays in the Mil­i­tary, inform­ing the pol­icy that we know today.

Find­ing answers, I real­ized then, is not what they did for a liv­ing.  Their quest for knowl­edge, one might argue the true quest for knowl­edge, is not the quest for answers, but rather, the relent­less pur­suit of the ques­tions.  Of con­tin­ual igno­rance.  Ignor­ing those things that they know now, in order to pur­sue that which they do not.

Igno­rance, or maybe ignore-ance, is really a sacred prac­tice that mar­ries the need to know with an acknowl­edge­ment that one will likely never know.  At the core of this reli­gion is the tenet that one must never suc­cumb to the mind-weakening sen­sa­tion of believ­ing that there is: One. Sim­ple. Answer.

The sin­ners in this church suc­cumb to the belief that they have exhausted the ques­tions.  The pen­i­tent ded­i­cate them­selves to a life of seek­ing but not finding…a jour­ney that is among the most wor­thy of all journeys.

We all have our inner Don Quixote, and now you know mine.  From that moment I was hooked.  I love my wife and live every day as fully as I can, but at the end of the day the thing that makes me what I am, the Jack that you Know, is my love of learn­ing and in some very strange way, my devo­tion to this idea that some­thing this unat­tain­able – the embrac­ing of igno­rance on the path to knowl­edge – deserves some groupies.  I hope that you’ll join me on the tour.

So take some time to pro­fess, demon­strate and embrace your igno­rance.  For­get some answers and ask ques­tions anew.  Dis­miss the idea you actu­ally know some­one, and ask them some ques­tions that you have never asked – ask them what you don’t know about them!

Step back from what you do for a liv­ing and ask your­self the ques­tions that you never seem to ask: why am I doing this, what should we be doing, what should I be ask­ing that I am not?

And stop, look, lis­ten and learn.  Sit on a park bench.  Talk with a stranger.  Under­stand that we all pro­ceed as if we know a lot…and we know far less than that.  See the world as a child sees it – filled with things that we don’t know.

Cel­e­brate and embrace our igno­rance – it is scary to not know, but it is also bet­ter than knowing.

Become an un-knowitall.


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