On The Virtue of Admitting Ignorance
Bill Long 10/5/007
The Key to Developing a Superior Mind
Young people, and especially young people of high ambition and learning, gain the mistaken impression as they go through school that the goal of life is to have an almost unlimited supply of secure knowledge which one can explain, defend and use in many contexts. This is a very good thing, to be sure. Not only is knowledge useful and enjoyable, but an ability to explain things precisely and lucidly is almost as important as learning to be gracious and loving towards others. I live for knowledge and I love putting it together in ways that have not yet been done.
But what I am learning as I mature is that you actually learn more and are more useful to yourself and others if you are constantly aware of what you don't know and if you are willing readily to admit to others the nature (and scope) of your ignorance. No one will ever tell you that a successful interview should consist of statements of your ignorance; but I will tell you that the most successful way to learn and develop you mind to its greatest potential is to live in your ignorance, readily admit it, and know how to use your ignorance to leverage knowledge at a deeper level. The purpose of this essay is to use a subject on which I have recently written (the July 11, 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, Jr.) to probe how admitting our ignorance helps quickly open precise and useful horizons of knowledge.
I. How to Express Ignorance Precisely
When I say that being aware of your ignorance, and being pleased and ready to admit it, is a virtue, I need to be more precise. Admitting ignorance as a springboard to developing knowledge is useful if you can state precisely what you don't know or would like to know. Saying something like, "I guess I don't know anything about the past," isn't very useful. In order for ignorance to be able to open up the world for you, you have to know how to express your ignorance more precisely. This may seem paradoxical, but it really is the key to massive learning.
For example, when I wanted to know something about the duel fought between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, I knew I needed to develop some questions about it. I was interested in it from a number of angles--why it happened, when exactly it took place, what were the immediate triggers of it, why duels were considered a way to settle scores in that era, what were the repercussions of the duel, etc. These are all very precise questions, and I decided that wanted to try to gain some knowledge of it. I had the courage to admit that I really knew next to nothing about the duel, and that I should begin to learn about it.
So, I thought to myself, "What is the simplest question I could ask about the duel?" I decided the simplest question, or the question which allowed the simplest answer, was "when did it happen?" What was the precise date it occurred? Once I was free to ask that question, the whole world began to open. Why? That is my second principle..
II. Admitting Ignorance Opens Up Allied Questions
Once you have learned how to ask a precise question about something of which you are ignorant, you discover something else--that answering that one precise question opens up a host of other questions you hadn't even articulated previously. For example, when I wanted to develop precise questions about my ignorance on the Hamilton-Burr duel, I first listed the several I have listed above (when, what reason, immediate triggers, repercussions, etc.). I chose the simplest of these questions to answer--when did it take place? I discovered it took place on July 11, 1804. Rather than moving to "question 2, " so to speak, I immediately realized that my answer to the first question opened up a whole series of questions I hadn't anticipated when I was just throwing out a bunch of precise questions under I. above.
For example, once I realized that it occurred on July 11, 1804 (I bet you will now never forget that!), I wanted to know exactly where it took place. OK. Weekhawken, NJ. Is it still called Weekhawken? Nope, not really. It is called Union City. One source then said it is just on the West End of the Lincoln Tunnel. Another said it was at the end of 42nd St in Union City. Whoo. See where I have gone in just these questions? I now am building up a knowledge of precise place and its contemporary name. By just doing this you already know more than 99% of people. But the stakes you are playing for are not just to "top" 99% of people's minds. The stakes are to create a most superior mind, a mind that assumes that the 99th percentile is your starting point in searching out all knowledge. So we know more than 99% of all people about the duel. But, guess what? We haven't really begun our task. Well, where do we go?
Now that we have established a few basic facts about the duel, we could go down about 10 roads. We could go down them simultaneously or seriatim (look it up if you don't know it). What are some of the roads? Well, (1) Was dueling illegal? (2) What did an anti-dueling statute look like? When was it passed? (3) But, what gets us in to the "culture" of dueling? Was there a handbook, a list of rules or principles of dueling? (4) So, where did Hamilton live? Burr? Got a map of NYC at this time? (5) Why did they allow their relationship to get to this point? (6) What is the exchange of letters leading up to the duel? (7) What is it about New York politics in the previous decades that contributed to the rift? Well, you see the roads are getting to be rather endless, aren't they? The route I took was to tell a pretty tight narrative which would explain the reasons for the duel, the exchange of letters, the nature of the contest itself and its immediate aftermath. But I could have gone down many many other roads, resting along the way to drink great draughts on these other subjects.
III. Ignorance and the Provisional Nature of Knowledge
Once you begin to let ignorance be your guide, and learn to focus your ignorance by asking precise questions, you learn pretty quickly that you exceed in knowledge even the "experts" in the field. Or, to put it differently, they are of limited help to you. You just go from one natural question to another, guided by your ignorance, and you discover that by the time you get to answering the fourth or fifth question in detail that you have exceeded the capacity of even accomplished scholars to answer your questions. Why? Because they are pursuing their own agenda, which may not be yours at all. For example, you soon learn if you are looking at the duel, that very few sources actually take the pains to tell you much about dueling, expecially the legal aspects of it, other than a general comment that it was illegal in NY/NJ but the law was frequently ignored. So, you have to go out on your own search. Or, others tell you about the political realities that led to the duel, but they stop short on describing the background in NY.
It is not as if I am expecting that any source be the perfect explanation for all of my questions. But you learn by being a person happy to admit your ignorance that you must gradually put the world together yourself, so to speak, from the shards of various sources. That is a salutary lesson for you to learn, especially if you are a very smart person, while you are still in your 20s. Everyone's efforts, even the biographer who worked on a subject 25 years, are simply provisional attempts to explain a few things about the person.
Conclusion--Ignorance and Fun
But I suppose that the most gratifying thing to me about admitting my ignorance is that it leads me to such fun with people and with knowledge. I simply say, when confronted with something that isn't instantly clear to me, "Well, I DON'T KNOW about this." The fun part becomes learning how to ask that first question that will open the subject to me. In this process you meet all kinds of interesting and passionate people. And, you may even run into a person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long