We throw the phrase “subject mastery” around at work a lot. It is always with a positive connotation: we want people to have subject mastery, or we wish someone had greater commitment to subject mastery, or we’re glad someone does have subject mastery. It feels like the modern dichotomy between extrovert and introvert, where introvert has all kinds of negative connotations (shy, reclusive, weird, loner, anti-social) and the assumption is that people need to be moved from introverted to extroverted. In this case, you have people who are subject masters, and then everyone else who either isn’t smart enough or isn’t disciplined, determined, or focused enough.
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.