The Fear of Not Knowing

By Alice Mollon, Thursday 15 January 2015


Why not knowing should be the most exciting thing of all.

I’m often met with an apologetic “I don’t know anything about code,” when telling people I work for a code school. Well, of course you don’t — just because you use a computer every day doesn’t mean you should know how it works. We drive and we read, but we wouldn’t apologise to a car engineer for not knowing how he builds the engine, or to a publisher for not knowing the name of the glue that binds the pages together.

The number of students who come to me with perfectly valid questions but what they worry are ‘silly questions’ makes me in turn worry that there are just as many out there, squirrelling away alone trying to make sense of a world they don’t understand, anxious to come forth with their doubts.

When did ‘beginner’ become ‘new-to-the-subject-but-somehow-expected-to-have-been-born-with-an-innate-knowledge-of-the-topic’? Why do we feel such pressure to have this ever ranging encyclopaedic knowledge, and feel embarrassed to admit when we don’t?

“When did ‘beginner’ become ‘new-to-the-subject-but-somehow-expected-to-have-been-born-with-an-innate-knowledge-of-the-topic’?”

Perhaps it’s a result of the vast amount of easily accessible content available to us. You can sit at a dinner table with friends and be, with the aid of a furtive iPhone google under the table, the expert in mid-17th century colonialism. Or, a quick scroll down Wikipedia later, the most informed on who died when and why and what happened on which date where.

Or maybe, it’s not because of how much information there is, but because of how easy it is to share it. Herbet A. Simon was already pointing out in the 70’s that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” — we skip from one fact to the next, sharing wildly but never really pausing to make sense of it all. Trying to know everything about anything all at once.

It takes time to really know something — time to translate information into useful knowledge, time to really understand it and make something of it. And then it takes time to keep learning.

Only in this way can we expect to navigate through the incredible forests of information. Knowing every word in the dictionary leaves you mute without the grammar, and all the facts in the world can’t help you if you don’t really understand them.

There’s bravery in admitting what you don’t know. It points to the possibility of learning — of being taught. It opens up a world of sharing knowledge, not just the facts. It allows others to be the experts, and even the experts need experts more expert than them sometimes.

“There’s bravery in admitting what you don’t know.”

As Neil Gaiman said, “Google can bring back 10,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.” So every now and again, when you’re lost in a mass of answers, worried that your question is too silly to put to a real person, throw caution to the wind. Just ask.

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