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Be happy: admit ignorance

By August 2, 2005Uncategorized

Richard Saul Wurman is the guy who coined the term ‘information architect.’  He’s also the the creator of the popular Access Travel Guides, and the founder of the wonderful TED conferences.  I’ve been re-reading his book Information Anxiety 2, which describes our frenetic struggle to deal with information overload.  The book is very well-organized (it was written by the premier ‘information architect’ after all) and highly provocative.  I love this passage:

When I was an architecture student and in my early 20s, I had an epiphany.  My epiphany was not that I was an information architect, but that I wasn’t very smart…I was unpopular at meetings for admitting that I didn’t understand what people were saying, because an admission of ignorance wasn’t the behavior that was rewarded in our society…But the most essential prerequisite to understanding is to be able to admit when you don’t understand something.  Being able to admit that you don’t know everything is liberating.  Giving yourself permisssion not to know everything will make you relax, which is the ideal frame of mind to receive new information.  You must be comfortable to really listen, to really hear new information.

How true.  Only when you are willing to admit your ignorance can you avoid anxiety. 

This reminds me of a friend who refers to certain people as EOE’s, by which she means they are ‘experts on everything’ –which, of course, they are not.  Essentially, these are people who are driven by insecurity to pretend to have wider knowledge than they really have.  Sadly, by pretending to know more than they do they only add to their insecurity.

Perhaps the famous quote should have been: "Willingness to admit ignorance is bliss."

Update: Hey, thanks Nellie for the nice comments about this post.  It’s nice to know that some observations resonate out beyond the confined limits of my own mind.  Obviously, not critical to the smooth functioning of the Universe, but still it’s somehow satisfying for me. 

Anyone else care to offer a confession of ignorance?  Remember: the truth will set you free.

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  • tod says:

    It’s not just lawyers who do this, trust me. 😉 There are EOE’s everywhere!

    I think we’re pretty lucky here at Microsoft…even though we’re pressured with deadlines, code quality, uptimes and all sorts of things we have a pretty open environment when it comes to discussions. I normally don’t feel the pressure to come up with instant answers. If I don’t know then I just say that, but that will only work if you’re willing to go find the answer. The people who constantly defer and never own up will be ferretted out.

    Wurman’s book sounds interesting, I’ll have to put it on my “to read” list. Thanks!

  • Hydeparker says:

    Agree 100 %.

    What drives me most crazy about this profession is all of the posturing. Posturing and finger-pointing and blaming.

    On the up side, I do find relief in the fact a lawyer who does not engage in this stands out like a diamond in a field of s—.

    Have you read “Status Anxiety” by Alain de Botton ? I think it would be up your alley. He also maintains an entertaining website.

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