Knowing that you don’t know

A solicitor friend of mine was recently asked for his opinion on the Oscar Pistorius case. His response was typically lawyerly. He said that he couldn’t answer because he didn’t know the case. He only knew what the media had published. And the media often spun the truth to create drama. He said that even if he knew everything about the case, he didn’t know anything about South African law. Or their legal system.

He reserved his opinion until he could justify it. Until he was willing to back it up.

Many wouldn’t have done that. Maybe would have presented their opinion with conviction despite their position of relative ignorance. People do that because they believe that is what is expected of them.

In Dave Trott’s book, Predatory Thinking, he discusses how accepting a lack of knowledge can be enlightening.

There was a time when each of us didn’t know anything. Not a single thing. In fact there is still an infinity of stuff we don’t know. Maybe, rather than defending the tiny bit of knowledge we do have, we should be embracing what we don’t know. Lao Tzu said, ‘The wise man knows he doesn’t know. The fool doesn’t know he doesn’t know’. We think it’s a sign of strength to have an immediate opinion on everything. But actually all that does is shut down the enquiry. It can be much more powerful to say, ‘I don’t know’. That opens up the way for something new.

It is Ok to not know. In fact sometimes it can be valuable. Rather than force it, accept that this is the case. Search for the deeper knowledge that is needed to justify a real opinion. Don’t shortcut the real work. Don’t argue with conviction from a point of ignorance.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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