“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.” —Epictetus
“One of the most powerful things you can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” — The Daily Stoic
I’ve been practicing keeping my mouth shut. This may seem counter-intuitive if all you know of my existence comes through the lens of my writing. It’s still true. If you invite me out for coffee, or over to dinner, I will spend more time listening to you than I will talking about myself or anything else. If you are discussing a topic that I know nothing about, I will probably ask you carefully considered questions.
Admitting my own ignorance isn’t something I hesitate about. I’m prepared to engage from a position of knowing little to nothing. The goal is to grow and learn. No one expects you to have expertise in every area of human knowledge, or even in a single area. That’s why good leaders surround themselves with those who hold specialized knowledge in various areas. The leader’s job is to take all of the wisdom available and to make informed decisions that benefit society.
Epictetus gets it when he warns us not to worry about how great we are. You cannot trust a person who is fixated on their own importance. Such a person is unable to admit how little they know, and that can be very dangerous. Being able to admit that we aren’t experts in any given area is a critical skill for living a meaningful life.
Even more important is developing the ability to discern the areas of knowledge that are important to you and going after them. If your are surrounded by people who want you to enter the Catholic priesthood, for instance, but your passion is developing virtual worlds, you’ll be well served by developing the ability to tell friends and family, your peer group, or whatever tribe is exerting the pressure to spend your limited time and energy on something you don’t believe in: “I don’t care about that.” You can deliver this information gracefully, and then stick to your guns and pursue opportunities in the life goals that matter to you.
We live in a frenetic world. It is always OK to use filters to keep it from driving you mad. Decide to listen only to what matters, and your existence will grow calmer and more meaningful.