For my weekly posts I developed a habit. I start by reading a book or article, get some inspiration and start writing. After I finish my post, I take a break and distract myself by doing something else. The break allows distance from the text and clears my mind. A bit later or the next day I get back and fully revise my lines. There is always something to change. The first version is never good enough. The last neither, but good enough to just let it be.
Writing today’s post on “I know that I know nothing” was different. When I got back to my post and read it, I thought it was crap. I just felt that the written didn’t correspond with what was inside my head and heart. I guess you know what I mean – it’s those moments where an idea you have in your mind makes you feel like a genius, and when you put it into words and tell someone it doesn’t sound that great anymore.
Then I realised it didn’t matter. I can’t do more than I can do. I can never know enough about a topic. My style will always have potential to improve. As I know that I know nothing.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing,” said Socrates. In short: be humble about your opinions. Stay open-minded to new knowledge and to the possibility of you being wrong.
What does it mean to know that you know nothing?
Socrates teaches us to be open to concepts and not to get trapped by black and white opinions. For if we think we have all the knowledge, we become resistant to learn more or to change our opinion. We may feel it’s a weakness no to know, but the real weakness is pretending we do when we don’t. I believe that the more you learn about a subject or about life in general, the more you get open-minded. At the beginning you have firm opinions and you think you know quite a lot about a topic. The more you emerge yourself into learning, the more your black and white world gets a shade of grey (perhaps even 50 shades of grey). That’s curious because it seems counterintuitive. You start to question even fundamental things. You become humble about your opinions.
Let’s have a look at an example. You learn the basics of nonverbal language. Perhaps you had an introduction course and you think you got the basics. You start observing people and judging – oh, this was a lie, for sure. And this person is false, look what she does here. But the more people you observe, the more you see that the rules you learnt don’t apply to everyone. There are so many exceptions and cultural differences. The psychologist Paul Ekman has been studying nonverbal language for decades and might be the one who knows the most about this subject. It may surprise you to see how careful he is when judging a person’s nonverbal language, he knows that it all depends on many factors.
The Dalai Lama
Eastern philosophy is often in contrast with our Western society based on rationalism. Just listen to the Dalai Lama. You’ll hear the spiritual and former political leader of Tibet often reply to a question with a long silence and a “I don’t know”. He is honest about not knowing the answer and doesn’t seem bothered or humiliated by not being able to reply. When you look at his peaceful expression and smile on his face you realise that he knows he cannot have a correct answer to the question. And that there is no need for it.
It seems that our political leaders are experts in practicing the opposite. If you follow political debates, try to count how many times a politician says he doesn’t know. My guess is you’ll be waiting in vain. Where does this ego-driven urge for being right and pretending to know everything come from? Not knowing is being honest, transparent and human – traits we’d love to see in the world’s leaders. Instead, they keep practicing the art of answering just anything that sounds good, no matter if they have the information or not. They are masters in talking a lot and saying nothing. They think that not knowing is a sign of weakness, that it undermines authority and we wouldn’t vote for them. Wouldn’t we?
I am sure the day comes when a political leader listens more than she speaks, replies with an honest “I don’t have a clue” and has the right and the obligation to say that he doesn’t know. This will be the moment we finally pay attention and say “I trust this person”.
So what’s the lesson?
I invite you to question your own beliefs and opinions about things. Perhaps you’ll find out that the only thing you know is that you know nothing.
Pay attention to those who listen more than they speak.
Pay attention to those who say they don’t know.
Pay attention to those who are silent.
They may be the wisest of all.