We should practice humility in our ignorance

I have always been confident of my intelligence. Given enough time, I know that I can figure most problems out, and if I have the resources I can learn most anything. On a subject where my education has been lacking, I can still rely on a genius-level IQ to help me understand what other people are saying, and I can pick up subjects quickly.

There are a lot of people for whom the last paragraph would be applicable, and a multitude more who think it is applicable to them when it is not. To both groups, I offer the following advice: don’t be an arrogant dick, whether you are familiar with a subject or just pretending to be familiar. Instead, always practice humility to better ingratiate yourselves to others and to not make yourself look more ignorant than you might already be.

I have been in both groups, and I suspect that most people are the same way. There are subjects on which we know a lot, and so we love to wax eloquent on these subjects and show off our immense knowledge. I don’t know if it’s a holdover from bullying on the school playground or whether it is innate to humanity, but we seem to derive a certain amount of pleasure from making other people feel worse than us. We should work to overcome this emotion and inclination, because we will often find ourselves on the other side of the discussion.

While my high IQ has been a factor in helping me learn and understand a lot, I feel its utility is greater in making people think I know what I’m talking about even when I don’t. I was faced with this most directly my freshman year in college when I tried to discuss classical periods of music with a music performance major. I knew only a tiny amount on the subject (the same amount I know on most subjects), but tried to discuss it as if I was a studied scholar. She tore me apart and made me feel a right fool, but my pride wouldn’t let me back down and so I argued more. Smoke and mirrors will be exposed to a bright light and a knowing eye.

Now I revel in admitting I am unfamiliar with a subject. I find a great deal of freedom in admitting ignorance, and a certain measure of power as well. It seems odd that it would be so, but admitting that I don’t know something and asking someone to explain it to me (say, in the context of a conversation) frees me from the onus of intellectualism and puts that burden on the other person. There is freedom in the truth as well, in not trying to be something I’m not, and that freedom makes me feel more powerful and confident. When I am trying to stand on a lie, I feel shaky and weak; when I am honest about my ignorance, I feel secure and strong.

So if you’re not familiar with a subject, don’t pretend that you are. No one can be expected to know everything about everything. I’ve been studying religion for almost seven years now and could discuss Buddhism or the Judeo-Christian Bible in great depth, but I don’t know jack about physics or plumbing or geology. My earth science class in high school doesn’t make me an expert on the earth, so I shouldn’t pretend it does, just like having played in the orchestra in junior and senior high school didn’t teach me all that much about music.

Be humble in both your knowledge and in your ignorance. Even if others don’t follow suit and still act arrogantly, at least you can feel more secure in your integrity.

“It Takes All Kinds” or “Maybe You Can’t Design”

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

Recognizing that “design” can refer to a great many things, this article will focus on web design specifically. I encourage you to mentally translate “web design” as any sort of design, because the same ideas apply, but I think it is significantly simpler and probably more helpful to write specifically rather than ambiguously.

Design takes a whole different sort of thinking. As I struggled to move a sidebar over about two hundred pixels to create a wider content area for my blog posts, I sweated and struggled to make everything line up right without breaking the entire page. After three hours of screwing with it, I gave up. Even if I did finally get everything where and how I kind of wanted it, the site as a whole simply wasn’t right. I could look at my theme and organization and know that it was lacking. The truth of the matter is that I am not only not a designer, but I just can’t do it.

My brain doesn’t work that way, so while I can write at great length on a subject, troubleshoot software incompatibilities with relative ease, and brew a great pot of coffee, I cannot push my way forward with visually artistic endeavours. I enjoy looking at art and architecture and can spend hours upon hours doing so, but I cannot draw, paint, or design my own. I look at a spartan, bland design and think it looks OK–black and white appeals to me just fine, and all the text (the important part) is there, so it’s good–but I recognize at the same time that it is lacking and subsequently fails.

When I was in elementary school, my mother enrolled me in the Phelps School for the Gifted. I had to take an IQ test prior to enrollment to discover/prove that I was in the top 2% of the intelligence quotient (fun fact: Mensa has lower standards for acceptance), after which I began taking classes at Phelps one day a week. Though the classes were altogether interesting, one of the greatest lessons regarded the myriad types of intelligence.

There was a boy in my morning class who, in a regular school, would probably have been referred to as “retarded.” He had a speech impediment, seemed sort of slow, and his social skills were rather lacking. He was a nice enough guy and I sat at his table generally, interacting with him on a regular basis, but he was also difficult to be around or talk with. Yet I knew that he, like me, was a genius. You couldn’t be at this school if you weren’t.

This was my first introduction to the concept that intelligence is not measured in a straight line denoting the retention of facts and figures. Though one person may be a genius with words, another might be a genius with colours and shapes, and another with mathematics. One is no “smarter” than the other–we are all simply different.

It is easy for me to belittle myself for being incapable of producing good visual designs, but it is silly as well. Visual design, or in this case, “web design,” is something at which I am simply no good. That doesn’t make me any less smart, I am simply intelligent in a different way.

And that being the case, the most intelligent thing I can do is to recognize this fact, move on, and find a way around it. A more spurious author might drive their way forward, ignoring their shortcomings and either 1) choose to create for themselves a poor design or 2) choose to pretend that design is irrelevant. In this sort of situation, I think it is better to refer to a master.

If you aren’t good at something, don’t let it get you down. Instead, refer to someone who is good at that task. I don’t try to repair my roof or my car myself, and I go to doctors when I’m really sick, so why should I try and design my website? I’m no good at it, and I recognize that forcing a poor design has negative consequences, so it is best to let someone whose intelligence lends itself to that pursuit take the reins.

It takes all kinds to make a world.

Chris Orcutt posted the following joke on his blog a while back, and I think it is fitting, so I’ll conclude with this:

A published novelist goes to a heart surgeon for some tests. During the exam, the doctor says, “Hey, could you give me the name of your publisher?”

“Sure, why?” says the novelist.

“Well, I have a six-month sabbatical coming up, and I’d like to write a novel and see it published.”

The novelist thinks about this for a moment before replying.

“Sure, sure,” the novelist says, “I can do that. But do me a favor, will you?”

“Name it,” the doctor says.

“Well, I have six months free myself, and I’ve always wanted to perform open-heart surgery. Could you talk to your hospital and set something up for me?”