“The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant” – Richard Cecil
Alia Bhatt, an actor who received critical acclaim for some of her works in Bollywood, including a Filmfare award for her stellar role in Udta Punjab, was trolled for months after she answered ‘Prithviraj Chauhan’ to a rapid fire question ‘who is the President of India?’
She would have been way better off answering ‘I don’t know’ but she felt compelled to venture an answer on that popular TV show when she needn’t have.
Most of us make similar mistakes but with much lesser consequences because we are not celebrities. Ask any person on Delhi’s roads for driving directions. Nine out of ten people will venture with directions that may set you off course for miles. But they will seldom say I don’t know. I was once halfway down to Agra before realising I was fooled into following the wrong directions given by an eager beaver. Actually I just wanted to get from Greater Kailash, where my fiancée Madhuri lived in 1996, to Kota House on Shahjahan Road, New Delhi.
Recently, I had the opportunity to fly as co-pilot with an expat pilot of considerable experience on a machine on which I am still cutting my teeth. Before he went to work on me with technical and operational details of the AW 139, he cautioned me to freely use the phrase ‘I don’t know’. A rich exchange with many lessons followed in that two-hour flight.
Why are we always so keen to offer answers when we actually don’t know them? Why the compulsion to look more intelligent & knowledgeable than we truly are? Why do we blurt out ‘I know’ within seconds of any discussion?
I don’t know. But I feel it may have something to do with intellectual arrogance. Or self-esteem. Right from our school days, we were rewarded for venturing half-answers or tentative answers, and punished for saying ‘I don’t know’. We grew up fearing being chastised for not knowing answers, often to questions which were well outside our domain. So we felt compelled to generalise or give roundabout answers when a simple ‘I don’t know’ would have been safer. And infinitely wiser.
An offshoot of this condition is the tendency to ‘listen to question’ rather than ‘listen to understand’. I remember the unwritten dictum of Staff College (a mid-level-course for grooming upcoming defence officers) where there were marks for ‘participation’ in classroom discussions and ‘questions asked’ of the guest speaker during central lectures. That set off a race where we listened to some of the best lectures by acclaimed speakers with the misplaced agenda of framing questions that ‘looked intelligent’ or threw the speaker off balance. And maybe all that applause for ‘great question, KPS!’ after the lecture must have inspired few others to follow the example next time. Intellectually arrogant people often claim to know more than they really know. No wonder ‘subject matter experts’ abound today in every field, waxing eloquent on topics where they have, at best, the mundane experience of being around for years doing the same thing over and over again.
I recall an incident from years ago where as part of a high-level, product evaluation team we subjected the hosts to a ‘trial by fire’ of unending queries resulting in numerous ‘I don’t know’ responses from the other side. Unbelievable as it may sound, some organisations and cultures don’t encourage tentative answers and guesses, especially where the stakes are high and reputation is built on diligence and discipline. We failed to comprehend why they couldn’t provide satisfactory answers instantly. But they did eventually, providing detailed responses backed by scientific data to every single query. It must have taken them considerable time, effort and money. I am not sure if the powers-that-be even read the detailed responses but that’s just how we are. Always asking the tough questions without completing our own homework. Or being really interested in the answers. We are only interested in framing good-looking questions. Ask any company how many RFIs (Requests for Information) they get as a matter of routine from the Indian MoD. Every few years, the questions get rephrased and repeated as a new set of planners take the reigns, little realising budgetary implications of providing commercial information to repeated, infructuous queries. And when a pre-bid meeting is convened to clear the air, the first words from hosts (MoD personnel) in any discussion would predictably be ‘I know’.
In his autobiography, A Call to Honour: In Service of an Emerging India, former Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh makes a weighty statement that “in diplomatic discourse and conduct, India has tended to carry many chips on its shoulder, almost always moralistic, needlessly arrogant, argumentative, mistaking such attitude as being an assertion of national pride.” Singh further goes on to state that the “weight of so many centuries of servitude” has created in Indians “such an acute sense of hearing that quite often it hears insults where none exist or are even implied.”
We are tone deaf, especially when it comes to people who may know more about the subject than we do.
Intellectual humility entails being aware of the bounds of one’s knowledge (as opposed to information that can be ‘Googled’ or found in books, manuals, etc). It means saying ‘I don’t know’ when you do not have complete ‘justified true belief’ about the subject under discussion. Intellectual arrogance on the other hand presumes that we know more about the subject than anybody else of the same or different denomination. It is an exercise in self-deception. You may get successful with being outwardly humble while harbouring this ‘intellectually arrogant’ gene. But it won’t get you far. There is too much information out there, much more than can be stored between your ears. And then there is knowledge.
While a questioning mind is good, make sure your questions spring from curiosity rather than an effort to put the other guy on the mat.
So the next time you are asked something for which you do not have a ready answer, be sure you say ‘I don’t know’.
Will that get you far? I don’t know.
But I have a strong feeling it will.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.