was listening to a motivational speaker talking about how to cope with today’s
harried business environment. I
confess that I was consciously resisting the hype.
However, something that she said caught my attention.
“Give yourself permission not to know everything,” she advised.
that sounded like a good idea to me. Mainly
because I don’t know everything, and this bothers me.
It would be nice to be absolved of the guilt that comes with such
overwhelming ignorance. I imagine
looking at myself in the mirror, and saying, “Bob, you didn’t read that
article on multiflurging, surf the net for information about protocol
conflagration, call in for the latest voicemail, or go through the last 137
emails, but it’s ok – it’s really nothing to worry about.”
And this reassuring message would make me feel calm and confident.
when I think about this advice, I begin to worry. Suppose I’m in a group of people who begin to discuss
multiflurging. I look at them
blandly and say, “You people just go on discussing this, but I have no idea
what you’re talking about.” I
can see their expressions – raised eyebrows and sideways glances among
themselves. I know that they are
thinking that I have lost it. I
consider explaining to them that I have given myself permission not to know
things, but somehow this seems like a bad idea.
instead I need some higher authority to give me this permission for ignorance.
Perhaps I should have a certificate issued by the government.
Then whenever I’m in danger of appearing uninformed, I take the
certificate out of my wallet and show it to people. It looks very official, and it says, “The bearer of this
certificate, Joe Smith, is hereby entitled to know nothing about the following
subjects.” There would be a long
list of subjects, suitably comprehensive, yet vague enough to cover unforeseen
contingencies like multiflurging.
imagine showing this certificate to the group discussing multiflurging.
The certificate is passed around the group, and a newfound respect starts
to grow in their eyes as they look at me. “A
condition of my security clearance,” I explain modestly and with just the
right touch of reticence. I can see
how if properly handled, I could convey the idea that I really do know
everything about multiflurging, but must for secret reasons remain stoically
silent. I imagine that they are
contemplating those classic political questions -- what didn’t he know, and
when didn’t he know it?
Life is full of contingencies like this. A classic one in our profession happens when, having finished a talk on some subject to which you have devoted years of study, someone in the audience asks, “Are you familiar with the work of Josef Titlenut of Sasquatch University?” Of course, you have never heard of this person. There is a moment when the audience blurs and your ears tingle with sudden heat. You cannot, under penalty of death, admit that you’ve never heard of whoever it was. Yet instinctively you assume that this unknown person has done much more than you on this subject and has probably proven whatever you’ve done to be wrong. “Well, of course, but not in detail,” you answer hoarsely and ambiguously, trying to imply that you are completely familiar with what’s-his-name’s work, but find it irrelevant to the subject of your talk.
this little scenario embodies one of life’s lessons: it’s really not
ok not to know things you’re expected to know.
Neither you nor anyone else can really give you permission to be
unknowledgeable. In our profession
of engineering this puts us on the precipice of the dilemma of personal
knowledge management. Whole new
branches of knowledge in things like multiflurging emerge every week, and if you
don’t devote the effort to learn about them, you will be left in the
informational dust. Yet we all
rediscover every day that there just isn’t enough time.
Too much is happening, and we are being overwhelmed.
have heard it said that Leibnitz, in the 17th century, was the last
person to know everything. I’m
skeptical myself – I mean, how did they know that he knew everything?
But in any event, he didn’t have to contend with a billion web pages
and a totally connected society where accessible knowledge was exploding.
The only way that any of us now can claim to know everything is to
continually redefine our knowledge domain to be a smaller and smaller subset of
the whole. Sometimes I have the
sensation of shrinking through layers and layers of knowledge until I am but a
microscopic speck in an expanding universe.
me libraries epitomize the situation. As
a youth I was awed by the immensity of what there was to know as was evidenced
by the innumerable books they contained. But in my youth I had a static model of the world, and I
imagined that if I picked one book every day, I could eventually work my way
through them all. Now I realize
that the world is dynamic, as if thousands of new books arrived each day, and
mysterious keepers went through the shelves every night randomly throwing out
books that I had already read, but now being judged to be irrelevant or wrong.
Moreover, although I once believed that all knowledge was in those books,
now I know that the library is filled with fleeting people, whispering into the
gloom things that I must know, if only I could understand the words in all the
cacophony about me.
up is, truly, impossible. It is a
battle that none of us can ultimately win.
But the more I consider it, the more I think that surrender is not an
option. Never give yourself
permission not to know everything.