Stephen Hawking on the Enemy of Knowledge
As humans, we’re always seeking status. And not only in the outward, obvious ways, but anywhere we can find it. We feel elevated in status when we’re the most __ (accomplished, victimized, attractive, zealous, whatever). And we feel especially smug and superior when we already know something.
The more we know about something, the more confident we feel. And confidence is wonderful. Dan Sullivan, a top business coach, believes that confidence is the number one skill we can develop. This is because with enough confidence, we can continue to learn and grow and take new risks.
But as valuable as confidence is, over-confidence is counter-productive. Over-confidence is when we put more faith in our abilities or knowledge than they merit. One term for this is “the illusion of explanatory depth”. And this is akin to what physicist Stephen Hawking refers to as “the illusion of knowledge”: believing we know more than we actually do.
When we already know everything, we close ourselves to new observations and understandings. We fail to look for new and novel situations. And we become blind to the myriad lessons and discoveries in front of us.
This is one reason young children can be such a gift – our status doesn’t feel threatened, so we can suspend what we know and see the world through their eyes. We can enjoy fresh wonder and amazement. We can notice new things about ourselves and our environment because we’re open and receptive.
As musicians, we strive to get “to the next level”. We want to go from beginner to intermediate, intermediate to advanced, and advanced to more advanced. And the further we go along this path, the more knowledge we gain.
This advancing knowledge can be like lactic acid in our muscles – it creates its own resistance and makes the work feel harder than it actually is. When we “shake it out” and start afresh, we get better results with less effort and struggle.
When we “pretend” we’re beginners, we may become aware of small details we would otherwise gloss over. We notice things we missed before. We drop our assumptions and expectations of time frames, difficulty levels, and the “right” solutions.
When we choose to be perpetual beginners, we release the need for status. (Though we may seek the more “productive” status as the most open-minded, creative, and humble!) We can experiment with new things without fear of failure. We can make silly choices and experiment with nonsensical solutions, without feeling silly or nonsensical. We can be child-like, without being childish.
And through all this experimentation and tinkering comes faster progress. We solve problems in new and novel ways, and we move from one level to the next with more speed and comfort.
When we train ourselves to notice and “red flag” over-confidence and the “been-there-done-that” attitude, we see more clearly and connect more dots. We can suspend our illusions of knowledge long enough to build multi-faceted, flexible skills and habits. And these lead to the results that would otherwise evade our grasp.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”