How To Embrace Ignorance

And become better at everything you do

One of my favorite things about Medium is the little number at the top, “_ min read”. How many minutes of my life will this take and is it worth it to me right now? It really helps me prioritize my read now from my read later. (Most of the time) Sometimes curiosity gets the better of me and I read it anyway. Like the one I just read about how a 7 min post is the sweet spot. So just a heads up, I am not sure if this will be a 7 min read or a 3 min read since I am just writing it, but if you are looking for a quick answer to the headline above and the number you see is longer than you want to spend (and you have come this far anyway), here is the answer in two words: Listen without. That’s all. If you have a little more time I hope you read on…

Learning to listen

Listen without — see what happened there? If you are like me then what your brain did is what a brain is really good at, it filled in the gap. Listen without what?

What did you think of? Without talking? Without prejudice? (For all you George Michael fans). Without interrupting?

What I think about is without judgement. But that is because I have tried to make a habit of pausing for a moment and actually listening to what the other person is trying to say, without all of my own filters getting in the way. I am not always able to exercise the restraint needed, but when I am able to, I find that it has an immediate impact on the conversation.

I have always been of the mind that if there was anyone in the world who knew what was best for me, well, it was me. And I’d like to tell you that I have never thought that I knew what was best for other people, but that’s just untrue. I still have those thoughts all the time. Looking around at the mall or the airport, I see people and I think that if they just read this book or ate this food then their lives would be better for it. But what do I know about their lives? Nothing. The same way they know nothing about mine. I don’t know about their struggles or their secrets. Maybe my ideas for them would be a total disaster. Maybe not. But the point is, I don’t know. So at this point in my life I am trying really hard to assume ignorance. And when I combine these two ideas, listening without judgement and assuming ignorance, it exponentially improves whatever I am doing at the time. Whether it’s trying to be a better husband, father, friend, writer, human being. Everything.

I should have it figured out by now

A common refrain that I notice in almost everyone around me goes something like this: I should have it figured out by now. Even if they are unwilling to say it out loud, I see it in their eyes. The disappointment in themselves because they didn’t know something. Sure, some of us are able to ask some of the time. But even we do, there is still that little voice in the back of our minds telling us that we shouldn’t have needed to. And I heard the same thing in my 20’s and in my 30’s and now into my 40’s. I think about it all the time. All of the things that I should know but don’t. All of the things that I should have executed on and haven’t.

My mother just drove out from Texas to visit me in California. Before she left she called and asked if I wanted her old Road Atlas because she was going to pick up a new one. I told her that I was fine and that I still had the last one she gave me. She laughed. She asked how old it was and I had to think about it. 1993 maybe? I made a comment about Google Maps and how it wasn’t like they were taking away any roads and she said maybe, but what about the new roads? And what if your phone/tablet/device — fails/dies/breaks? I fell into the exact trap that I try so hard to avoid because we were talking about something that seemed fixed in my mind. What about the new roads?

What happens is that we think we should have already made a nice clean map of the world and that we should have figured out each and every facet of our lives and yet when the opportunity for us to learn something from one of our fellow travelers comes along, what do we do?

We say we are fine or we wait for our turn to talk. And more times than not, we just change the subject. Why?

Dark Matter

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. — Stephen Hawking

I think the reason for this is because of the way we learn as human beings. We watch others and see what they do and then we mimic it. It’s the way we have learned since we first laid eyes on the world. We watch for patterns and then we repeat them. And because of the way our brains work, we jump to all kinds of conclusions about the results (or lack of results). This gives us the illusion of knowledge. But just because we can see what works for someone else does not mean that it will work for us. Or that it is really working for them either. This is where listening comes in.

Maybe there is something deeper going on that we can only understand by letting go of our ideas about it. Think about the dark matter in the universe. Or DNA. When we first sequenced our DNA, we came across what we decided to call junk, but it turns out that this dark matter in our genome controls a lot of things that we are only now beginning to understand. People are like that too. Maybe what you see on the outside is a pale reflection of what runs deeper. But the best part is, we don’t have to have it all figured out. We can take a moment and listen, be ignorant, and learn a little bit more about our own dark matter than we knew yesterday.


I would be lying if I told you this was easy. Clearly I don’t have it down. I wouldn’t even take a new map from my mother. (I have it now BTW). So where can we go from here?

In To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink recommends an exercise that I think works really well: Listen with the intent to agree. Try it sometime and see how it changes the way you process the information coming your way.

Another great idea is from James Altucher in a post on his blog: Always assume you are the least intelligent person in the room. Whether the room has two or two hundred. You will listen more and ask better questions.

Two last tips that relate here but may not seem to at first. Whenever you are practicing any of these ideas Be Kind and Forgive (Yourself and others). I have found tremendous benefit when I am able to do this. I am less defensive and more loving.

So boiled down my own personal bullet points would look like this:

  • Listen without judgement
  • Assume ignorance
  • Be kind
  • Forgive

But again, maybe these ideas will be a total disaster for you. Maybe not. Maybe that’s why I threw be kind and forgive on there at the end! But whatever you end up doing, I hope it works for you. And if it does, share it with others because that is how we will all get a little better over time, by sharing our stories and learning from our ignorance.

Good luck.