Are you basing your actions on the best knowledge available to you?

Johanna Drott
Jul 18, 2016 · 5 min read

This might seem like a simple enough question. Yes or no. But any attempt to answer it leads to further questions.

If you answer yes, then how can you really be sure? Couldn’t there be some overlooked possibility or point of view out there that would be more appropriate to the situation? Have you really exhausted all knowledge available to you?

If you answer no, then how can you justify this to yourself? Is that really the kind of person you are, charging into situations without really knowing what you’re doing? Are you sure?

As is the case with all good questions, the point is not to give a definite answer, but to become aware that there are further reasons to keep thinking.

The best way to think about any question is to analyze it. “Analyze” is one of those words that sounds fancy and hard to understand, but it simply means to break things into smaller things and looking closer at these smaller things. In this case, the smaller things are “the best knowledge”, “available” and “you”.

The best knowledge is, to be sure, an elusive concept. “Best” is always relative to some specific situation, presumably the one you are in. From a purely probabilistic standpoint, odds are that the knowledge inside your head is not the best there is with regards to confronting the situation you are about to confront. Whatever it is you are about to do, someone else is bound to have done a similar thing in the past, and recorded their efforts. Whether they failed or succeeded in their undertaking is less important than what they left behind, and what you can glean from partaking of their documentation.

The basic assumption here is that you can’t be sure you possess the best possible knowledge there is by virtue of being you. There is always the possibility of someone having recorded a better nugget of knowing than what you possess, and if you find it, you will be better off for it. And even if you do not find it, the fact that you searched and failed will make you better off — it simply means that you are less likely to do any obvious errors that those in the know would have written down.

There is a certain certainty in knowing that you are not about to make a rookie mistake. As the well-known saying goes: pride goes before fall.

Knowledge being available is a key factor in partaking of it. If you can not avail yourself of it, it is by definition useless to you. If you can partake of it, however, it would be a mistake not to do so before commencing. Ideally, this would mean reading all the things, but as always there are real world limits to how much any one person can read. The sheer scale of available knowledge (let alone information) is sufficient to last a scholarly lifetime. Efficiency is required.

Fortunately, there are shortcuts. Most subjects have introductory books that will give you a rough draft of what you do not yet know, which is useful for knowing what questions to ask when moving forward. If you know roughly what to ask and can phrase it with some degree of precision, there are any number of people who can help you along, such as those who engage with the subject on a professional level or — better yet — librarians. A simple, well-put, polite question can be more informative than it has any right to be.

The key point here is not to know all there is to know, but where to go when you need to know something. Whether it be the local library, your peers or your favorite search engine, knowing that these options are available to you will help you along more than you’d think. Familiarize yourself with your available options: who to ask, what to read, where to go.

The quick and dirty version of this is, of course, to always double-check Wikipedia. It is always available, and has saved many from accidentally putting their proverbial feet in their mouths.

The last part of this puzzle is you. As you might have gathered from the discussion above, all of this is based on you being able to know what you know and don’t know (and thus need to find out). At some level, every human being possess these skills. However, these skills are akin to muscles, in that they become stronger with frequent use. The more you use them, the better you become at using them. You are all the equipment you need, as it were.

Situating yourself in relation to what you know and do not know is not an easy thing to do. It takes time, dedication and hard work. The hardest part, ironically, is knowing what you actually know, and to have confidence that this is good enough. It is easy to fall into the trap of doubt — of thinking that you do not know enough, or that it is flawed in some as yet unthought of way. You have a limited presence on the world, and can only ever know so much. There will always be a better way of knowing what you know, and continually striving to find out what this might be is a virtue.

But, at the end of the day, you are the one having to do the knowing in your life. Life is not about finding out the most perfect ways to do things, but rather it is about actually getting around to doing these things. It does not have to be perfect — it just has to be good enough. In time, with enough practice, you will come to trust yourself, and trust that your efforts have been sufficient.

Knowing what “good enough” looks like is, arguably, the most important thing you will ever learn how to do.

In conclusion, the question of whether or not you base your actions on the best knowledge available to you will — for better or worse — remain unanswered. It is the human condition. The point of this question is not to be answered, but to remind you that you do not need to be stuck in your own head. If you cannot find a solution to a particular problem, you have options that will take you closer to finding a solution. More often than not, just asking someone will yield more insight than it ought to.

You just have to know you can do it.

[Shameless self-promotion: you can find most of my writings listed here.]

Johanna Drott

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