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Expose Your Ignorance

Exposing your ignorance while learning a new discipline takes courage, humility and vulnerability. In fact I strive to do this in my posts; it is this blog’s raison d’être.

Having the courage to say “I don’t know,” or “I don’t understand this” is absolutely necessary to grow in one’s learning. As the saying goes, ‘no pain, no gain,’ and growing more often than not involves some measure of pain.

To elaborate more on this important point, I find the more I learn, the more I find I really know diddly-squat. Diddly-squat is a quaint American-English Southern colloquialism for jack-shit. The Classical Greek philosopher Socrates had it right, to paraphrase Plato’s interpretation of his words: ‘the more I know, the more I know nothing.’1

The part in Plato’s Apology of Socrates2 which really rings true to me from beyond the centuries is where Socrates, after having visited the politicians and poets, found them all wanting in knowledge. He then visited the craftsmen.

Socrates found that the craftsmen had knowledge of their own craft, but that they subsequently believed themselves to know much more than they actually did.3

This particular statement recalled a blog post I had read a few months back, written several years ago but still relevant. I happily managed to dig it back up, ‘How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner’ by Erik Dietrich.4

In it Erik describes the advanced beginner: someone who has surmounted the initial difficulties of learning a craft and is now able to tackle more complex rigorous problems. The familiar idea here is of progressing from beginner to intermediate, and ultimately to expert and master level of experience.

However, after achieving the advanced beginner phase, the expert beginner risks getting caught in a loop of their own making. They voluntarily or subconsciously cease to improve, in his words,

“because of a belief that expert status has been reached and thus further improvement is not possible.”

To bring it this home to my post, the expert beginner does not routinely expose their own ignorance, either because they are simply unaware of it or are too afraid of the consequences. Another possibility is they are under the Dunning–Kruger5 cognitive bias, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

This was the concept in Erik’s article which I recalled when revisiting Socratic Ignorance. In order to progress in learning, you must routinely step back to recognize you are ignorant on most things; in fact what you know is minuscule compared to the big picture. Once this humbling fact is accepted, one’s mind is able to continue to seek out the fuel necessary to burn brighter.

On the side of the mentor, once the student through sufficient willpower, courage, and trust has exposed their ignorance on a subject, then effective teaching and learning cycles can occur.

Remember to be brave and expose your ignorance. Your path to learning depends on it.

Thanks for reading.