IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 2000

I 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.

Well, 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.

But 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.

Maybe 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.

I 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.

Unfortunately, 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. 

I 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.

For 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.

Keeping 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.


Robert W. Lucky