As a professional educator and lifelong learner, dealing with the specter of intellectual insecurity in my students and myself is one of the things I spend a lot of time doing. Here are key changes in beliefs, attitudes, and habits that I recommend concentrating on in overcoming this wholly unnecessary, self-defeating roadblock to self-empowerment and feeling good about yourself. Internalizing these ways of thinking and acting has been vital to my own success at every academic turn and failing with respect to these ways of thinking and acting has contributed decisively to my every academic failure.
1. Become comfortable saying “I don’t know”.
I teach for a living. That means that I have to know a great deal about the subject matters I talk about in order to field questions from students that can take me far afield from my prepared materials in any given class discussion. And sometimes we will find the limits of my own knowledge base on a particular topic. Often this is because our questions have led us beyond my field of expertise (philosophy) altogether and started to get too deep into questions in other fields about which I have only an educated layman’s understanding. Sometimes we’ve even just gone far enough into a different philosophical specialization that we’ve exceeded my offhand knowledge of what the relevant philosophical scholarship says or what I can figure out on my own.
And in such circumstances, I freely confess that I don’t know.
And it’s okay. The sky doesn’t fall. My students don’t lose all respect for me. And I don’t suffer any crisis of confidence. I know what I know and I know what I don’t know and I know how to honestly admit what I don’t know.
It matters more to me that my students can rely on what I tell them to be accurate than that I create some impossible illusion that I know everything they could possibly ask me. I have never felt ashamed to admit to my students when I don’t know something because I know that I’m not just confessing ignorance but I’m also, ironically, establishing my credibility and trust by being honest about my limitations. This bolsters my students’ confidence in my reliability in the cases where I’m confident because they know I’ll tell them when I don’t know. Sometimes it even makes them proud because it means they’re thinking at a deeper level than I can give them answers on. And it’s good to encourage students that way. And as long as I know enough about what I talk about, which I do, it doesn’t discourage them from trusting me.
In fact, I often tell my students the first day of class that the beauty of philosophy is it’s a subject of study where even the novices can play. In my science classes growing up, we weren’t doing science. We were learning what scientists had figured out. In labs we were just recreating prior experiments, not doing open-ended experiments with truly uncertain results. But in philosophy class, from day one, I was allowed to play. The questions were open. I could think for myself and even stump my professors. This was what made philosophy hook me where subjects taught like they were matters of settled dogmas to be merely memorized failed to engage me.
So, I look at philosophy as a subject where the basics of any meaningful question can be explained to a novice in 15 minutes and yet it will take a lifetime to exhaust all that can be worked out in answering it. And that means any given class discussion I can still be surprised by a student after they’ve been given the right 15 minute spiel to catch them up to speed.
And just as I can tolerate sometimes not knowing even where my job hinges on knowing, it goes even more for the rest of life, where I’m quite often not even expected to be an expert. Because I feel confident that there are some things I know very well, I don’t feel much pressure to pretend to know what I don’t know. I know that I’m smart. I know that I’m knowledgeable in my own ways. So I don’t feel so insecure that people won’t think me smart if I don’t know a particular thing–especially one outside my specialization.
So, all the time I’m freely confessing to not knowing things. And no one gives any indications that they think me any less smart for that. Because being intelligent doesn’t mean you’re omniscient. Knowing things requires more than raw intelligence. It takes a lot of time spent studying and, in many cases, being trained in entire specialized disciplines and techniques. So even the smartest people wind up not knowing tons of things. And with the specialization of knowledge being what it is, even experts in general fields do not know all that there is to know about every sub-specialization within their own fields (let alone in other fields!).
There’s simply too much to know in the modern age. So, you don’t know something? Don’t worry! You’re not alone. It doesn’t make you “stupid”. If experts can, without shame, admit to not knowing things outside their fields or outside their narrow specializations, then so can you.
The people who come off as smart are not those who try to pass themselves off as knowing everything or bluff their way through conversations trying to hide their ignorance, but those who are reliable when they choose to say something. You look like a fool when you try to speak authoritatively where you lack understanding. You sound smart if you talk about what you actually know and defer to others when you don’t know. People care about what percentage of the time you’re reliable when you speak more than they care about how often you speak. They even care more that you can be counted on to correct yourself when you’re wrong than that you always appear correct. (Or at least they should.)
That doesn’t mean you can’t speculate beyond your specialized knowledge. But in such cases, the smart thing to do is to tell people just how qualified your remarks are. Let them know what facts you’re working from, what you have or have not studied that lends them credibility or limits their credibility, and give a realistic assessment to yourself and others about how confident you should personally be about how right you are. In these ways people can take you to be a constructive contributor to their thinking instead of a bluffer or a blowhard “know-it-all”. They can know reliably whether you’re giving them your own two cents, relaying to them an expert opinion, or doing a little of both.
Speaking with adequate tentativeness like this signals that you are self-aware, judicious, and reliable, even when being speculative. This won’t embarrass you, smart people will appreciate such intellectual and social virtues. People who don’t appreciate these virtues are not the people you should be trying to impress.
2. Be shameless about asking questions.
You won’t learn if you’re too proud to ask questions of people who know more about something than you do. Don’t succumb to your embarrassment. Create habits of reflexively just asking rather than floundering. Asking now means knowing ever after. So bite the bullet. If you refrain from asking, out of embarrassment, you only prolong your ignorance and whatever shame you’re in danger of feeling over it.
Most people won’t think negatively of you for asking a question. If they do, ignore their obnoxiousness. That’s their problem, not yours. They’re poor educators. You need education. So go find better educators rather than let bad ones discourage you. Good and willing educators are out there. All over the place. Just find them. Don’t let one person’s superiority complex discourage you from your pursuit of self-empowerment through knowledge.
When sought out for education, most people will feel good about how much they know and about the experience of helping someone. This is more likely to be forefront on their mind than any snootiness about the seeker’s ignorance. Because, as in most situations, the people you talk to will worry more about how they themselves feel than about anything to do with you. Do they feel good after their exchange with you? Yes? Great, they’ll probably think affectionately about you. In fact, psychological research shows that we’re more inclined to help people after we’ve already helped them. So, when someone helps you, they are more likely to feel more invested in your later success rather than have contempt or dislike for you.
Don’t worry about feeling inferior to the person who helps you. We all need to be empowered by others in numerous ways if we are to become as powerful as we can be and be the ones who turn around and do the empowering for ourselves. If you want to grow, you have to embrace this reality.
3. The best time to learn something is the moment you realize you don’t know it.
Every time you come across something you feel anxiety for not knowing, research it immediately. Did someone use a technical word you feel like you should have known but don’t? Quick—go study it now! Stop what you’re doing and make this your new priority. Ask the person who says it to you in conversation. Or if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, make a mental bookmark and look it up the next time you’re at your computer or the library. If you’re reading an article or a book when it happens, go straight to a reliable resource and get the basics of the concept down.
Don’t sit there thinking, “this looks important? why don’t I know about this? what’s wrong with me?” Don’t sit there wrongly convincing yourself that this ignorance reveals something is deeply, importantly, and immutably wrong with yourself.
Instead, go look it up and grow. Learn the new word, the new concept, the new whatever. Right now. You don’t have to have the same topic keep popping up and making you feel terrible each time because you don’t know it. The first time it bothers you is the time to go study it. Turn your experience from one of self-doubt to one of growth each time and you’ll get used to having positive experiences of growing rather than feelings of crippling fear.
There could be fifty concepts you keep seeing referenced and you walk around kicking yourself because you don’t know what they’re all about but think you should. Or, over the next fifty days you can take a little time each day and familiarize yourself with them, one by one, and two months from now you will feel confident you have a handle on them and will feel more confident in your learning abilities when the next gap in your knowledge is revealed. Which plan sounds smarter?
Now, of course, some concepts might require some background you don’t have. So, what’s the most rational thing to do then? Use the terms and concepts puzzling you as your entry point into a whole new corner of knowledge. You now have an interest and motivation in the form of a question to use to approach a topic you’ve not gotten around to yet. It’s very hard to learn for many people when they don’t see the point of what they’re learning. But once you have a frustration, you have a motivation. That concept is bothering you. Great. You now have incentive to dig in and start figuring out puzzles that otherwise would have bored you. And the more you learn, likely the more your curiosity will increase. The learning curve is steep when you dive into a new subject. Once you get going you learn quickly for a while until you get deep enough in that most of the work is hardcore specialization from then on.
I had a very bright and inquisitive student who wanted to go into a medical field. But she came to me stressed out because she wasn’t doing well in a prerequisite science class. She insisted to me that if she could see how what she was learning connected to her eventual daily tasks in medicine she would be passionate about it but as abstractions she couldn’t get into it. So, my advice for her was obvious—for each area of study find out what it has to do with medicine.
And this works for a lot of areas of knowledge. They overlap a great deal. This is especially true of philosophy. If you struggle with it, explore the work that overlaps with something you’re interested in. If you’re a scientist, explore philosophy of science. If you’re a doctor, explore biomedical ethics. If you’re a mathematician, explore logic and philosophy of math. If you’re into psychology, there’s a correlate area of philosophical inquiry to go with just about any area of psychology that interests you. And on the flip side, I study all sorts of areas of inquiry using their intersections with philosophical questions I care about as my guide.
When what interests you leads you to concepts you’re ignorant about, it’s not cause to give up. It’s an opportunity to use your interests as an entry point into new learning you would have neglected otherwise.
4. Find the wisdom in your ignorance.
Socrates is famous for claiming that what made him the wisest person was that he was the only one who knew that he knew nothing. I keep this cryptic, ironic claim by Socrates in mind to remind me of several things.
It is easy when you are ignorant of a subject to feel like you understand it perfectly well based on your common sense understanding. It is in delving deeper into any area of inquiry and trying to understand it with theoretical rigor that you will realize just how complex and difficult it is to understand. Knowing the most about a subject often means understanding so much about it, and about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different accounts of it, that you realize just how much you don’t know about it. In these cases there’s nothing to be ashamed of, so long as you are being honest about what all the complexities are, rather than trying to sweep them under the rug and delude yourself and others that things are simpler than they are.
It’s smarter to explain the intricacies of issues and even the limits of your own best proposed solutions than to try to present everything as simpler and tidier than it really is.
And one thing that I have always been at pains to explain to my students is that sometimes their not understanding a reading or something I say in class is a sign of their intelligence and their philosophical sensitivity rather than an inability. What I exhort them to practice is articulating what bothers them about the text or what they find incomprehensible. Saying “I don’t understand” is not conceding failure. It’s coming to a point at which to concentrate more carefully and break things down more precisely. “Why doesn’t this make sense?” is the question you have to ask yourself or which I would I ask my students.
The thing that many insecure novices miss is that sometimes the problem might be with the thinker being studied. Maybe they’re wrong! You might not be the confused one, it could be them (at least in part). Quite often when I coax a hesitant student to express their “confusion” they reveal that they’re not confused at all, they’re sensitive to a major objection that other philosophers have. Whether or not the philosophy under consideration can answer that objection is the next question at that point.
Sometimes your confusion simply reveals that you’re interested in a different question than the one that’s being answered and what you’re reading is so strange you’re not even really grasping what its point is. Or you just don’t care about that point. So, it’s not that you can’t understand the idea but that you need more context or motivation. You think x is being spoken about when it’s really y and you just need that clarified. Or you need to get up to speed on what’s really at stake that would make people care about y as an issue worth agonizing over. You need to double check what motivates the discussion such that it goes in this strange place.
Finally, you may simply need more background in general. You can’t understand because too much is being assumed to already have been established. That’s not your fault. Or even if it is, that doesn’t matter. It’s not proactive to sit around fretting about blame and fault. The proactive, constructive thing to do is start asking about, or independently investigating, all the key terms being assumed, all the questions that are raised in your mind that the author seems to assume are settled.
In each of these scenarios your confusion is the first step to learning. It provides clues. You’re not wholly ignorant about most things. When you read an expert saying strange things, there’s clearly a background you have to catch up on. Start asking the questions that would get from your current grasp of the issue to theirs. They seem to have settled a whole bunch of questions in strange ways. So investigate what the objections to your way of looking at those questions are and see what leads at least some experts to disagree with you. Start right there where you are.
The first step to knowing is figuring out what you don’t know. That means comparing what you think to how experts talk differently from you and starting to figure out how to retrace their steps to see how they got there. It means figuring out what nobody knows by catching up on specialized controversies and trying to figure out what avenues have been inadequately explored and trying to work them out.
All in all, it means seeing your confusion as a kind of sensitivity, rather than a weakness and not just nodding in agreement when you’re asked whether you understand, even if other people around you can’t grasp why you’re being so apparently obtuse. I remember one class period in graduate school asking question after question in complete puzzlement to my professor. I was resisting the concept he was covering very strongly. It was so strange to me and ran against so many assumptions and ingrained habits of thinking that I had to ask him numerous specific questions, run numerous examples by him to see how the idea he was explaining would account for them. Other students thought I was just trolling him or playing dumb, it all made so much sense to them. But they were accustomed to this paradigm. It was brand new to me. And fundamentally important. So I was shameless in persisting until the lightbulb went off. Then I went and wrote a research paper about it. Then it became a cornerstone of my own creative philosophical work. In years since I’ve taught that concept to thousands of people and argued for it countless times to other philosophers. There are a number of similar, major concepts in my thinking that I had to learn through a similarly shameless and relentless process of interrogating another philosopher. I would have failed to grow had I thrown up my hands or been embarrassed or frustrated and quit.
The difference between what I know and what I don’t know, more often than not comes down to how much persistence and shamelessness I exhibited in the face of not knowing.
When you’re confident in the face of confusion, you’re not just passively assenting to what you don’t understand. You’re comparing what you’re being told to the world and struggling because for some reason it’s not fitting right. Intelligence doesn’t entail having none of these experiences of confusion. It means learning to describe your confusion to yourself and to others. It means being humble enough to ask questions and listen when someone knowledgeable says something you think sounds patently absurd. It means running with your confusion over why they could think that way and using it as an entry point to discovering a new perspective so you can analyze its merits from the inside. Working with your confusion means breaking it down into manageable pieces and working to find the answers to them. And when you’re an advanced enough learner, your confusions can become cutting edge. Just explaining them can mean teaching other people to see previously invisible problems and/or previously invisible possible solutions.
This is a rational and proactive approach to confusion. Taking confusion as evidence of incapacity and judging yourself “stupid” is not only self-defeating but in many cases false. While you will never have the time or ability to solve every problem. You can at least figure out more and more about why things are confusing and why smart people disagree. And that will put you way ahead of many stubborn, blustering, intellectually insecure people who would rather feel certain, or even just appear certain, all because they can’t admit, either to themselves or to others, the confusions that are the first steps towards wisdom. And it will put you miles ahead of those who let their confusions discourage them, rather than teach them.
If you’re someone who’s up for proactively taking on your confusions related to philosophy–whether these are at beginner or advanced stages–you can do so with me through once weekly interactive face to face, classes held over videoconference (using Google Hangout). No homework, no assumed background knowledge. Just a 2.5 hour weekly commitment to bring your honest confusions.
We’re relaunching this September. Course topics will include A Topical Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, Nietzsche, Philosophy for Atheists, Philosophy of Mind and Language, Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, and The History of Philosophy (Ancient Philosophy to the Present). Click on the links to any course title for a full class description and the tentative times for the classes. All you need to do to sign up is write me at firstname.lastname@example.org telling me you want to and which pass you would like to purchase to do so. If there’s a class you want to take but the times don’t fit your schedule, write me and if possible I will move it to accommodate you. General information on how the courses run and what all the topics are is here. Price information, including ways to save money or pay at easier installments is all here.
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This post was an example of the kind of philosophical reasoning processes I bring to everyday problems. As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, and struggles in any other areas of life in which some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful. I do not treat mental illness. I simply help people reason more clearly, consistently, ethically, and proactively about their lives.
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