The Importance of Not Knowing

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 13: Self Quantification

When I was at school, I operated within a very simple set of parameters: open my textbook, work through the problem at hand and check I’d got it right by looking up each answer in the back.

I liked my simple world. I was good at operating within its rules. Sometimes I was right; Sometimes I was wrong. As long I came up with more correct answers than wrong ones, I was happy.

Then one day the rules changed. I was 16, it was my first physics A’ Level (the qualifications you take in the UK between high school and college.) lesson and I’d been handed the semester’s textbook.

Where are the answers?

The book, to my horror, contained no answers in the back.

If there are no answers, how do I know if I’m right?

I soon discovered that the situation was worse than I’d realized; not only were the answers missing but half the questions seemed to make no sense either. They were ambiguous and required an assumption. Where you lacked information, you were expected to hypothesize and estimate.

I was aghast. My world was turned upside down, transformed from black and white into a murky shade of gray.

A week later, I quit. Or at least I tried to quit.

“You’re not quitting.” It was not the response I’d expected from my teacher. Disappointment, maybe; even anger. But my choice of subjects was discretionary; I was under no obligation to stay.

“You think it’s hard, so you’re giving up. You’re afraid of failure, so you’re avoiding it entirely. But you’re here to learn to think for yourself, and in six months you’ll thank me for not letting you quit.”

Though twenty years on I can’t recall the exact words she used, the gravity of the moment still weighs upon me. I can recall vividly the profound impact of her speech, the sense of bewilderment I experienced in response and the rather definitive feeling that quitting wasn’t an option.

Fast forward two years from that moment and after a mixed academic experience, Physics was the subject that I aced – driven to success by the passion and sheer force of willpower of my amazing teacher. In those first few Physics lessons, I started to grasp something that was complete anathema to everything I’d learned previously: Not everything has a right or a wrong answer. Shades of gray exist everywhere, and though I was taught from an early age to think in terms of absolutes, the real test of my skills and aptitude came when I had to fill in the gaps using judgment or best guesses.

Life is a textbook full of questions with no answers; The measure of success is subjective, prejudiced by worldviews and personal priorities. People will often try to persuade you that they have the answers – the missing final pages of this metaphorical textbook – but true enlightenment doesn’t come from discovering the “right” answer, it comes from realizing there aren’t any.

Socrates said:

“I know one thing: I know nothing.”

Though our early childish reinforcements encourage us to seek solace in knowledge, in the pursuit of answers, there is an even greater delight in realizing that the process of learning, more often than not, simply highlights the extent of our own ignorance relative to the modest pool of knowledge we have managed to amass.

In an episode of one of my favorite BBC radio shows, the Infinite Monkey Cage, Jeff Forshaw says:

“I really like, it’s a very important thing for me, to be in a position where I don’t know things…that sense of embracing ignorance and lack of knowledge and really liking it, really wanting to be there – I wonder where that came from, because I’m sure I wasn’t like that when I was a 6-year old boy.”

It so happens that Jeff, like me, is talking about the impact that Physics had on him[^I’m taking liberties drawing comparisons with an intellectual behemoth like Jeff, but I’m sure given the subject he’ll forgive me.] but I think the phenomenon applies equally to our world experiences. In our daily pursuit to achieve, grow, learn, it’s important to remember how important and amazing our own ignorance is and to feel comfortable, embrace even, the need to navigate through that void of ignorance by relying on our good judgment and intuition.

However it would be ridiculous to pretend that there’s no limit to this notion of embracing ignorance – the European Space Agency didn’t land a probe on a comet based purely on good judgement – instead, judgment and intuition takes you from the limit of knowledge into the realm of the unknown; This is where pioneering and innovation occur.

judgment and intuition takes you from the limit of knowledge into the realm of the unknown; This is where pioneering and innovation occur.

It’s often the case that when we don’t understand something, we measure it. Measurement is a very reassuring, almost hypnotic activity; It requires very little thought or effort in itself and is often part of a relaxing and reassuring routine that allows us to coexist with the thing we’re measuring, without actually interacting with it.

Measurement can also be a potent force for procrastination. The act of measuring can feel like doing something – capturing, recording – when in fact on its own it’s no more powerful than taking a photograph or jotting down a thought. The true power of measurement – and what lies behind self-quantification – is in interpreting and acting on the data you have collected. This could be realizing you’re eating too much and cutting down; It could be the driving force in writing 500 words of your book each day. Wherever it leads you, measuring and quantifying your life is only useful if you take the time to understand what the data is telling you about the life, filling in the gaps in the information you have presented and arriving at an answer that feels right to you.

The holy grail of self-quantification comes at the point where you realize that you don’t need complete information in order to arrive at the “right” answer – whatever that may be, but that in stepping boldly into the unknown, in stretching and challenging yourself you will go further and achieve greater things if you can arm yourself with a foundation of knowledge and understanding.

“Know Thyself” is a much-loved and much-abused cliche, but there is a ring of truth in the degree to which self-awareness drives achievement. Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to step outside of our own personal reflections and stare at the hard data generated each day as we go about our lives. Using that data; Interpreting its patterns and routines to unlock a greater understanding and so empowering ourselves to take more decisive action, is what lies at the heart of effective self-quantification.

The secret, much like my early education, lies in realizing that not all the answers will be found in the back of the book.