The More I Know, The Less I Know

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” — Albert Einstein — the smartest man to have ever lived in this universe (despite it being totally subjective).

When I first encountered the quote, I laughed at the ridiculous nature of this paradox. I thought to myself, “Surely, if you actively seek for more information, you will become more knowledgeable. Right?”

The frugality of my thoughts were soon confuted as I found out that the heights of new knowledge are constantly being challenged. As I grow older, I soon became more aware of the differences of opinions that people hold. The most interesting and profound thing I have discovered is that while they are different from each other, they are definitely not wrong. Instead, each of them are right in their own way. Why? Because opinions are rooted from individual perspectives that can come from a variety of experiences. The personal nature of our experiences help to explain why as humans, we tend to sculpt truths into the way that are the most relatable to us. Thus, it is safe to conclude that we see things the way that we are, instead of the way it actually is. And so, the more I dwell on this idea, the more I have come to realize that there can be one bazillion versions of truth which are practically impossible to obtain, given the limited time I have on this planet. And even if I am immortal, it will be impossible to remember all of those truths anyway. So all in all, the more I know, the less I know.

However, this is a paradox misunderstood by a lot of people due to ignorance — the factor that causes claustrophobia in our mind. To me, ignorance isn’t only referring the lack of knowledge but also the self-grasping beliefs that we choose. What this means is that we close our mind to other possibilities and opinions that others may have; we only believe in our version of reality that we think is the only appropriate answer. While this helps to simplify situations to prevent ambiguity and lead to a faster decision making process, it does not guarantee the best possible outcome. Let me give you an example. Recently, most of my peers and I have engaged with college applications. Most hold a belief that listing every single extra-curricular activity and achievement would help them to gain a competitive advantage. While this is right to a certain extent since colleges want to see that you have broad interests in multiple subjects, what they also want to see is your passion in at least one specific domain. By listing everything that you have done, you might be doing yourself some harm because it shows colleges that you do not have commitment to a specific field of interest. And if you cannot commit to a domain, how is it possible that you will commit to the school? As a result, your chance of acceptance can reduce significantly; you are unable to achieve the best possible outcome.

This goes back to my idea about ignorance. According to my beliefs, to make the best decision, you must be well-informed. To be well-informed, you must open your mind. And to open your mind, you must consider the possibility that everything you’ve ever thought of may be wrong. Ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s a curse that can cost you a handful of valuable opportunities, energy and most importantly, time. While you can always seek for new possibilities to compensate for your past mistakes, you can never get back time. This is the pure reason why all of us should be stepping out of our comfort zones.

When we are comfortable playing small, we never explore the deeper waters. Despite the intimidating nature of the unknown, it is the only place where the horizons of knowledge can be expanded. Essentially, we humans were created to question the things around us, to be curious about our environment and so, what is a better place to cultivate knowledge other than the unknown? As Alexander Pope once wrote:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts;
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

Through all its subtleties, Pope cleverly uses the paradox of drinking to represent the misconception that most of us have — drinking largely (equivalent to obtaining more knowledge) will drunken us, for it will seed confusion and chaos into our mind. However, this proves to be wrong since the act of drinking largely will actually help us to find the root explanations of things; cleansing out the ignorance that we used to have. By choosing to fear the novelty, we are restricting our mind into a one-dimensional space where “short views we take, nor see the lengths behind.” This is essentially Pope’s bold way to warn the readers about the danger of a fixed mindset. According to Carol Dweck: “A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way.” The danger of this mindset is that people spend time documenting their intelligence, rather than developing them. They also believe that success solely depends on talents, not efforts.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a foundation for further growth and stretching existing abilities. In the two decades of research of both adults and children, Dweck writes:

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

So, embrace challenges. Persist in the face of setbacks. Learn from criticism. Find lessons and inspirations in the success of others. And thereby, thrive seamlessly.