…the greater we find our ignorance.” Gardiner G. Hubbard, the first President of the National Geographic Society
This is a popular sentiment. As I looked for similar quotes I stumbled upon this one from JFK: “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
Regardless of the truth of the sentiment, this rhetorical form–I’ll call it “The More…The More” statement–is seductive. It sounds so strong, kind of like Leia saying to Grand Moff Tarkin “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” On the face of these statements, I don’t accept that ignorance increases as knowledge does.
But I can accept the statement that more knowledge makes understanding meaning more complex, maybe harder. This is what I think Kennedy and Hubbard were saying, in fairly elegant terms meant for rhetorical impact, not logical soundness.
The utter disappearance of the Air Malaysia jet is tragic. The failed search for it is a big fat metaphor for human limitations in the era of Big Data. It reminds me of The Onion’s “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-berg: Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic.”
This symbolism of human limitations is explored in today’s New York Times article by Pico Iyer, “The Folly of Thinking We Know.” Ayer’s piece is a good meditation on our weaknesses and blind spots. And I always love hearing mention of the Overconfidence Effect, our persistent belief that we think we know more than we really do (and with great confidence, no less).
I’m most interested I hearing your thoughts on this. Does all this information make us smarter yet dumber? Are we more informed but less wise?
If there’s one scientific finding that gives me the most hope it is neuroplasticity. The mind is a muscle. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” We once thought that you’re stuck with the brain you’re born with. Now we know that mental exercise, especially vigorous and challenging exercise, makes the mind stronger and smarter. You can improve your brain and your performance.
I found this article from New York Magazine as I searched for cogent, well-written articles that explain Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” theory. From the findings of her research, Dweck believes that there are two different ways a person can look at her abilities: a “Fixed Mindset” or a “Growth Mindset.” Someone with a Fixed Mindset might believe a statement like “I am smart” or “I’m a terrible tennis player.” A person with a fixed mindset doesn’t believe in much progress: you’re either good at something or you’re bad.
People who have a Growth Mindset believe that if they give a task enough focused, quality effort, they’ll be able to achieve a goal. Someone with a Growth Mindset might say, “I didn’t do well because I didn’t study enough,” or “My free throws have improved because I practiced long and hard.” Success or failure depends on effort, not innate talent.
Dweck and others in her field have studied these mindsets and the findings are clear: People with a Growth Mindset are more successful than people with a Fixed Mindset. The Fixed Mindset can be especially pernicious to the very intelligent, who often balk at potential failure because they want to protect their self-image: I’m smart. Smart people don’t fail.
The upshot is that talent is developed, not created. Yes, some people seem to find some things easier, but behind every great performer is hours and hours and hours of high quality practice. The hurdles in front of us may be daunting, but we can leap over most of them if we are committed to success and the effort required to get there.