What “know what you don’t know” really means…
There’s wisdom is in knowing what you don’t know.
This idea comes up in a few cultures, and in the west was made famous by Socrates.
I don’t think people realise what a specific idea this is. Most people just take it as, “have some awareness that there’s stuff you don’t know, and you’ll be right.”
This isn’t what it means.
I mean, in the modern age, we’re all aware that there’s stuff we don’t know. Every time I pick up my phone I’m aware that some developer somewhere coded all the apps for it, and I haven’t got the foggiest idea how they did it.
(I’m imagining some Charlie and the Chocolate Factory song and dance factory in China somewhere…)
Anyway, I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who thinks they literally know everything.
So we all know there’s stuff we don’t know.
But where is the frontier?
Where does “I know” end and “I don’t know” begin?
That’s the interesting question and it can be much harder to pin down. For most people there’s this massive grey area where they’re dancing between things they know and things they don’t know.
And as an economist and as someone who’s spent a lifetime studying the property market, this jumps out at me like dog’s balls sometimes.
Like, I might be listening to some one talk about their investments. And they might start with supply and demand, and they’re on solid ground there. But then they go over to the RBA’s monetary framework, and things start to get a bit shaky, but then they’ll come back to some recent zoning changes and be on solid ground again, but then nip back over into Brexit’s impact on the global economic order, and they’ve got no idea what they’re talking about.
They’re running back and forth across the boundaries of their knowledge, but they’re blissfully aware that they’re doing it.
They’re not aware of when they’re talking about a subject comfortably within the confines of their knowledge, and when they’re not.
(Pro tip: don’t get into an argument with these people. Ever.)
Knowing where the limits of your knowledge are, with precision, is huge. It takes a massive amount of self-inquiry.
It requires a framework that holds all of your knowledge together, so you can see where it ends, and where there are holes.
Without that framework, all you’ve got are bits of data.
Knowledge is just information. Wisdom is the framework that holds it all together.
The first is all but useless. The second is the most powerful tool a human has.
And so wisdom becomes deep as your framework becomes more complete – and that necessarily means having a clearer idea of what you don’t know.
So growing wise is not about gathering knowledge. It’s about seeing how things connect.
And that’s an act of watching, with mindfulness and presence, with as much interest in the things you know as the things you don’t.