Acknowledge and embrace your ignorance
Ignorance is not a sign of your shortcomings, so don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Embrace ignorance to increase happiness and productivity in all aspects of your life.
Feeling shame for not being a genius
I’m a Technical Writer. My organization relies on me to know words — lots of them — and to know how to deploy them with professional precision. To be caught using the dictionary feature of my MacBook, which I do every day, felt like admitting ignorance implicitly. In this knowledge economy, what you don’t know could mean getting left behind or overlooked. Because words are my competitive advantage and my value proposition to my employer, I’ve felt like the stakes were really high for knowing the definition of complex words.
“Are you using the dictionary, again? You sure use it a lot. Aren’t you supposed to be a writer?”
That’s what I imagined a colleague saying when they discover my reliance on looking up the definition of words in my chat messages.
Early in my career I’d try to Google my way out of problems. I knew how to do proper research, but the things I needed to know weren’t in books or easy to find online. They were inside people’s heads. Some of those people posted in online forums like StackOverflow. But digging through discussion boards can be time consuming, and more importantly, the people with the answers were often sitting right next to me. I was just too scared to ask, fearful of admitting my ignorance.
At one job I was even accused of being aloof and not being transparent enough. I seemed to be rushing before deadlines, and stressed out or secretive. Even when I figured out what I needed to know often it was so complex it would take a while to teach myself (trying to learn the intricacies of product-agnostic reverse proxies in a few weeks can lead to a bad time). I was spending a lot of time figuring things out instead of asking for help. To make up for the lost time and ensure I didn’t miss deadlines I was working at home in the evenings, stealing time from my family and giving it to work. My job satisfaction plummeted, and I was losing sleep.
Recognize that even the best of us is unsure sometimes
The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, RadioLab, the episode about renown scientific author Oliver Sacks. The episode explores “the sound of someone thinking out loud, struggling to find words and ideas to match what’s in their head.” It’s a “dip into the unfiltered thoughts of Oliver Sacks… one of the greatest science essayists of all time.”
The episode is fantastic for a lot of reasons, but I found it especially inspiring for me as a writer. What struck me most about Oliver Sacks was his penchant for demanding his partner Bill Hayes look up the definitions of obscure words (affectionately, of course).
Even though this Sack’s vocabulary was probably richer than generations of people combined, he would still regularly refer to a dictionary to look up the definition for words. Better yet was that Sacks was actually asking Hayes to verify his definition of some insanely obscure word, just to make sure it was a better choice than some other slightly-different yet nearly-synonymous and equally-obscure word.
Until I’d heard Sacks doing it I felt like my dependence on using the dictionary was a shortcoming of mine. I felt incompetent I hadn’t memorized the definition of every word I’ve ever read (perhaps that’s a feeling left over from school, where vocabulary tests were a regular source of tension for me). The realization was a confidence boost. It was also reassurance that I shouldn’t be ashamed to admit I don’t know something. It may feel like a deficiency to admit ignorance, but it’s actually a sign of intelligence, and the best way to get work done.
This isn’t a new concept, but still can take some time and deliberate effort to overcome. But you can take solace in a quote from a pretty smart dude who understood that ignorance is unavoidable:
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
Embrace your ignorance: When you can say, “I don’t know,” you open yourself to the possibility of learning, and can negate feelings of guilt or shame over your ignorance. And remember, everyone has felt this way at some point.
Can you think of a time when you felt ashamed about not knowing something, only to find out that it’s perfectly normal? Leave a comment and share your story.