The gift of ignorance

First published on November 2011.

I am ignorant.

And for that, I am grateful, because the infinitude of things I don’t know means that I will be able to learn forever. And that, in turn, means that I can live a life of surprise and wonder.

It also means I can approach situations with a mindset that is prepared to figure things out. There are two essential elements to this: a willingness to admit that you don’t know something and a belief that you are capable of learning it. I have been an entrepreneur my entire life, and this mindset is the biggest difference I see between entrepreneurs and the people who say, ‘I could never do that.’

The curse of our education system is that it is designed to convey a specific set of content rather than a process for acquiring content – the implication being that, once we have gotten a 65% or above on some tests, we are done with learning and can now get on with the business of “‘real life.’”

But when people believe that learning ends when school ends, they get stuck. As soon as something comes up that is unfamiliar or that requires new knowledge, they throw up their hands. After all, we each learned a finite collection of information and, from here on in, life is simply a process of allocating tasks to the right person.

This is hugely dangerous in a world that is changing as quickly as ours. When I hire someone, I don’t only want to know what their skills are. I need to know that when Facebook comes out with new tools for marketers, they’ll investigate how they work and figure out whether they’re useful. I need to know that when I give them a new computer, they will be equipped to learn how to use it, without having to take a course at a local college. I need to know that, as new information comes in, they will not continue to do the same thing and expect a different result. In short, I need to know that they’re not insane.

The miraculous thing about living in this century is that we have infinite tools to learn anything at any time. I have just signed up to a free online course, offered by Stanford University, on artificial intelligence. MIT’s entire course catalogue is available online, for free. Thanks to the internet, you can learn about calculus or genocide or climate change or Photoshop; you can jump to exactly the information you need in the context in which you need it.

There is nothing sadder than being a know-it-all; it means you are done with learning. And that attitude of being done affects more than our ability to acquire new skills. It affects our relationships with those around us. It affects our inclination to understand each other, to learn from each other, to find common ground. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, ‘If we knew the secret history of our enemies, we would find sorrow and suffering enough to dispel all hostility,’ but if you do not tend towards learning, you will never discover those secret histories. Your relationships begin to die as soon as you stop seeing the other with new eyes. The moment you think you know everything there is to know about someone, they cease being a vibrant, dynamic, alive human being and instead become a mental construct in your head, fixed in some moment in the past.

Without a culture of learning, of new experiences, we lose our ability to be creative. Steve Jobs said, ‘Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity.’

We need to stop rewarding answers and instead reward the search for them. We need to teach kids a different perspective on failure, because what we learn in school is that failure is an end point. We forget how many times we failed to walk when we were first learning how, or how many times we failed to pronounce a difficult word or use our fork properly.

We forget that, at the beginning of the learning process, we are all failures. Or, looked at another way, ignorant beginners.

The great gift of ignorance is a lifetime of learning. If you don’t realise that yet, it’s time to figure it out.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -