William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

It's OK Not to Know

In high school, I had a teacher/mentor named Tom Collins (no, not the drink) who taught me history and comparative religion but also a bit about human perception and life in general. His influence on my thinking was immense. One of his most oft-repeated mantras, spoken reverently like a Zen koan and always enunciated for emphasis in his slight Southern drawl, was this gem: "It's OK not to know."

Now, I went to a top-shelf private school, and one of the things on which you pride yourself in such places is having the intellectual tools necessary to find the right answer -- to anything. If you don't know something, you research, research some more, and keep researching until you figure it out. Getting this message drilled into me for four years was probably a key component in my future career as a journalist.

Being told "it's OK not to know" made no sense. What the hell do you mean it's OK? It's not OK! Not knowing is no better than being wrong! In fact, it's worse because at least if you're wrong it shows that you probably tried to get the right answer. I'd like to think that after two years of intensive study with Tom I finally understood what he was getting at. In reality, though, I probably didn't. Not entirely. Because here I am, over 20 years later, still trying to put the wisdom of those five words into practice every day.

As a culture, we hate not knowing. "Is is better to spank your kids or not? You don't know? Seriously? Don't you want to be a good parent?" "How are you going to vote in 2012? You don't know? Well, clearly you're an uncaring and ignorant sop who's content to leech off of society." "What are you gonna do with your life? You don't know? Well, that sounds like a recipe for failure. You're screwed."

It feels better to have an answer, any answer, than this terrifying chasm of ambiguity in front of us. The trouble is that when we jump to conclusions and reach for answers prematurely, we burn precious resources. Consider all of the people in college who don't really know what to pursue, but their parents are spending tens of thousands of dollars for them to be there, and everybody expects them to have a major, so they pick Psychology. Two years later, some epiphany hits, and they change to Materials Engineering. Now they know (or at least think they do) and are on a positive, motivated path. In the meantime, though, they've burned all that time and money going in the wrong direction because they felt an answer was necessary immediately. Not knowing was simply unendurable.

Knowing takes time, and unfortunately it usually takes more time than we're willing to wait. I'm reminded of my ridiculous dating career, in which I went through a succession of girls/women who were clearly wrong for me. I was flailing about, making terrible choices because I just didn't know what I wanted. After all, having made some decision was surely better than the loneliness and embarrassment of no decision at all...right? Then I met the woman who would become my wife, and I knew. How could I be so certain? I can't articulate it for you. It's like the difference between building a log cabin with tree stumps compared to accurately measured and cut timbers. You can see when it's right. You can feel it. You just know.

Knowing takes patience and fortitude. You have to understand that not knowing now is an essential part of the process of knowing later.

Which brings me to this blog. I follow several blogs, and they all seem to know what they're about. They keep tightly focused on their given topics, and each post clearly furthers that author's agenda. I think that's what a blog is supposed to do. Otherwise, why spend the time on it? I have mouths to feed, and if I wanted to wallow in my own thoughts, I'd talk to myself in the shower.

I originally envisioned this blog as a sort of "DVD extras" repository, a showcase of leftovers from my day job, thinking that this might benefit my journalism career somehow. For some people, I'm sure this approach works. It doesn't for me. I can feel the drafts and crazy tilting of that log cabin made from tree stumps. Flailing about, I've wandered through topics on education, low-carb dieting, and who knows what else. Clearly, I don't know what I'm doing here.

But that's OK. I believe it's OK not to know...yet.

There's the rub. The difference is the "yet." If you don't know what you want to do with your life, that's fine as long as you're working on it. We've got to make effort toward understanding. We can't just throw up our hands, say "well, I tried!" and watch more TV. That's just asking to fall into the pit of ambiguity and never be heard from again. When you don't know and you stop trying to reach answers, you're effectively dead weight.

I'm going to flatter myself and say that I think I've been experimenting with this blog rather than simply casting about aimlessly. With each post, I'm trying out new things in my mind, waiting for different ingredients to gel. I am "actively waiting" to know, if that makes any sense.

Over the last few months, I've seen glimpses of the direction I want to travel, and I'm very excited to see a path emerging under my feet. How will this blog fit into that path? I don't know...yet. I do know that I don't want to be a mouthpiece and repeat the works of others, nor do I want to offer yet another voice of commentary on current events. I just don't think I'm that unique or clever. But I'm not afraid to wait and keep experimenting, because when the answer arrives, I'll feel it, and hopefully you will, too. The timbers will stack neatly, the drafts will be plugged, and that cabin is going to be awesome.

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