On Knowing Something

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing”–a profoundly humbling statement, courtesy of Socrates. As a corollary, he declares himself wiser than other men, but only because he has come to terms with his utter ignorance. In many ways, Socrates has hit the nail on the head. Only through humility can we hope to learn, to grow, to be open to new information and experiences.

What, though, of one who has invested a lot in learning something? After devoting innumerable hours to earnestly studying, practicing, refining, and the like, it must be said that this person knows something about the subject, even if this something is a hundredth of a thousandth of a millionth of all that could be known on the topic. What happens when you no longer know nothing?

When you know nothing, you can allow yourself to be led by the hand, to let experiences wash over you. You don’t have any bad habits to break, and you don’t have to worry about having lost your touch or having forgotten something, for you have never known anything. Learning is, for a bit, liberating and painless.

Knowing something, you are responsible for maintaining that knowledge, and for using it well, and for helping yourself learn and advance. Admitting even basic knowledge of something means that you cannot be completely dependent on a teacher or mentor; it means that you must be at least partly responsible for yourself. Should you still humble yourself? Absolutely. But now you have a foundation laid down, and when you build on it, you must build well.

This base case, this minimum of knowledge, can be frightening, but it’s a necessary checkpoint as you learn. And, past that checkpoint, it can become something of a comfort. Whenever you get overwhelmed, you can fall back to the base case, to remember that you don’t know absolutely nothing. You have the basics. And, bit by bit, you can build back up from there.

FLCL, Volume 2.

It’s much harder for me to accurately assess how much I know about something than it is to deny any and all knowledge of it. This goes beyond a healthy dose of humility; I repeatedly sell myself short and play down my skills past what is prudent. Maybe it’s impostor syndrome; maybe it’s Maybelline. I’m trying to get myself out of that rut, one base case at a time. When I feel that I’m in over my head, I focus on the fact that even if I don’t know too much, I do know the basics, and I try to be proud of that.

My revision of Socrates is “The only thing I know is that I know something”. That knowledge may not be flashy and it may not be much, but I’m going to use it to get me where I need to go. Once I recall that I do indeed have ground beneath my feet, I can finally begin to run.

When in doubt, you can always turn to “cogito, ergo sum” as the ultimate base case. Even if you know nothing else, you can be certain of your own existence. This may or may not be a happy thought for you; for me, I enjoy having my own somethingness validated.


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