“He only errs who thinks he knows what he does not know.”
We're all familiar with the catchphrase “Fake it 'til you make it,” but we likely overlooked its genesis as a ready method to stave off pessimism and fight depression. Things having both intended and unintended consequences when separated from their roots they tend to either wilt or take a new life of their own.
What happened is that in our haste to distance ourselves from negativity, we have swung the pendulum all the way to the other side —positivism at all costs— without tallying its costs. In Italy we'd say we've count our chickens before they're hatched or reckoned without the host (for the curious: fatto i conti senza l'oste.)
Having a realistic outlook about life helps us work through setbacks. Using curiosity to investigate potential problems with a learning mindset helps us prepare for the day when things don't go according to plan, and may help us remain calm instead of panicking under pressure. Like every muscle and ability, it is exercise that creates the muscle and our endurance, not avoidance.
The truth sits somewhere in between “acting as if,” and learning to ask better questions of ourselves and others.
We coined the catchphrase to help people deal with self-confidence. What are some examples of self-confidence? Knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore to respond to a situation appropriately. How do we upgrade our ability to become more confident? By improving our skill on focusing on the right things.
In Apology, a book about the defense of Socrates by himself in the court of law, his student Plato asked “Is anyone wiser than Socrates?” at which everyone agreed nobody was. According to Plato, Socrates knew:
“That I do not think I know what I do not know.”
“He among you is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is really worth nothing at all.”
Socrates asked himself, “whether I would rather be as I was —neither wise with their wisdom nor foolish with their foolishness[i.e. their presumption that they know what they don't know]— or to possess both qualities [i.e. both wisdom and foolishness] as they did,” and he answered that“it was best for me to be as I was.”
That someone would presume that because they know one thing they also know another, that was the foolishness of the main accusers in Socrates' view. Self-knowledge invites humility, and that is a good starting combination for learning.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge,” says Stephen Hawking. “The universe doesn't allow perfection,” he says in A Brief History of Time where he also talks about how our approach to knowledge has changed:
In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: Did the universe have a beginning?
However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists.
Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!
Language and communication create an opportunity to improve our questioning and our conversations. When we look to figure out something ourselves, we become more intimate with how it works and add multiples of value to our own capacity to think about problems.
To work something out, we separate what we think we know from experience —things we have done in the past with varying degrees of success— from what we think we don't know quite yet. For example, researching a topic after having a hypothesis to test.
This approach creates accountability and delivers action, which is very different from activity. The more we engage in questioning the better we may become at developing self explanatory answers for ourselves of what we need to learn next. We develop confidence by figuring out how to operate in the space between knowing and learning.
That space is where we know we don't know.
To know something for ourselves, we need to do the work necessary to figure it out. In the meantime, what we can do is learn to ask better questions, demonstrate our curiosity and desire to do the work.
We do get what we pay for, but we also don't get what we don't pay for —for example, attention. We should try to love our questions enough so that perhaps, one day, we can say we have lived our way into the answers.