How Do You Deal with Your Ignorance?

“How do you deal with your ignorance?” I had just asked my good friend. He seemed taken aback by my question. After all, I surmised, he was a Professor Emeritus and I was a Bachelor of Arts. He was knowledgeable in more subjects than I could shake a stick at, modest and inscrutable to boot. I was also a guest in his home.

This was about three years ago. What caused me to remember this potentially embarrassing incident just now? I had been wondering what kind of questions should I be asking? More precisely, if I had been allowed to ask only one question of someone who could answer any question I asked, but only once, what should that question be. I even googled that precise question and received all kinds of stupid wasteful questions. I’ll leave it to you, my readers, to guess what those questions were or to google it and see for yourselves.

Anyway, back to my good friend. Immediately after I had asked him the question, a thought insinuated itself in my mind that he might feel insulted by it. This might have explained the seconds of uncomfortable silence that ensued.

I rushed to explain myself to my friend before he might respond. “Please don’t misunderstand my meaning or intent,” I hastened to say. “I know that your knowledge and experience are orders of magnitude more than mine; however, when I think about what I know or think I know, although others might find it useful or interesting, I find that I am less interested in what I know than what I have yet to know or what I’ll probably never know. In other words, I am more interested in my ignorance than my knowledge. In the spirit of Socrates, it seems to me that the knowledge of both the best of us and the least of us is somewhere between nil and minuscule, but our ignorance is infinite. We can chip away at our ignorance, but it will always be infinite. So, I ask myself, how should one deal with his ignorance? Run toward it? Run away from it? Ignore it? Cover it up, hoping no one will see it? There’s also the practical side of the question. I was a professional consultant. My clients paid me for what I knew. Should I tell them I don’t know the answer to their questions, but I know how to know the answer probably quicker than them, because knowledge is a process. This was the spirit in which I asked you how you deal with your ignorance.”

My good friend exhaled and smiled. What ensued was a lively dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis all afternoon into the evening.

Thinking back on that afternoon-evening, I’d say, that’s the best single question I could ask.

1 Comment

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One response to “How Do You Deal with Your Ignorance?

  1. It seems like the biggest thing to realize about our ignorance is that we can never be an expert in everything. There just isn’t enough time and energy. Which means solving our ignorance about a particular area usually means being dependent on the experts in that area, although we should demand that they communicate clearly enough that we understand their conclusions.

    It is an excellent question!

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