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.