The accepted notion is that knowledge is power. This is true but ignorance is powerful too. Before you employ your next star performer or business consultant stop and think - ask yourself a question, is it the knowledgeable candidate or the naïve and ignorant one that best serves your interests?
Sometimes we confuse intelligence and intellectual capability with knowledge. Just because someone is knowledgeable doesn't make them smart and just because someone is ignorant, doesn't mean that they are stupid. Knowledge can obfuscate the truth. The mind that is untrammelled by the limitations and burden of knowledge can explore the creativity of naivety – the naïve will dare to ask the questions that the knowledgeable assume as immutable – we know that children have an innate wisdom born of ignorance, witnessed by the proverb ‘Out of the mouths of babes* and the Danish Fairy Tale The Emperor's New Clothes written by Hans Christian Andersen** The moral of the story is that :- Just because the whole world believes that something is true, doesn’t mean that it is, and perhaps also that one should not refrain from asking a question that may, at the time, be considered to be stupid by the majority.
Einstein was famous for his contribution to the ‘creation of knowledge’ not always for being knowledgeable. When in the US he was asked to fill in a basic academic test “to one question as to the speed of sound, Einstein replied: ‘I don’t know. I don’t crowd my memory with facts that I can easily find in an encyclopaedia.’ Einstein said he couldn’t understand how anybody could know so much and understand so little” ***
In the right hands, ignorance is a truly powerful force. Ignorance is not limited by the boundaries of knowledge. Ignorance doesn't have to play by the rules. Ignorance is the crucible of creativity. And yet ignorance is too often limited by anxiety, for the majority our experimentation is blocked “if we don't know, then we don't have a go...” when we should just do it anyway. In the hands of the brave and unhindered, prepared to march into territories of the unknown, for them ignorance is strangely liberating. The story of George Dantzig illustrates the point. "An event in Dantzig's life became the origin of a famous urban legend in 1939 while he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Near the beginning of a class for which Dantzig was late, Professor Jerzy Neyman wrote four examples of famously unsolved statistics problems on the blackboard. When Dantzig arrived, he assumed that the four problems were a homework assignment and wrote two of them down. According to Dantzig, the problems "seemed to be a little harder than usual", but a few days later he handed in completed solutions for two, still believing that they were an assignment that was overdue. Six weeks later, Dantzig received a visit from an excited professor Neyman, who had prepared one of Dantzig's solutions for publication in a mathematical journal. Years later another researcher, Abraham Wald, was preparing to publish a paper which arrived at a conclusion for the second problem, and included Dantzig as its co-author when he learned of the earlier solution.
This story began to spread, and was used as a motivational lesson demonstrating the power of positive thinking. Over time Dantzig's name was removed and facts were altered, but the basic story persisted in the form of an urban legend.****
We need to challenge the accepted wisdom that the more we know the better off we are. We educate our children so that they can get on in the world. We value the A grades and degrees from Harvard and Oxford. But sometimes it's what we don't know, that gives us a powerful competitive advantage. No consultant is worth their salt unless they are prepared to question the accepted, reveal what they don’t know to test the accepted wisdom and promote their naivety.
In business ignorance is a precedent for success. Many of the world's greatest entrepreneurs have few academic notations – they did’nt know much so they just made it up! (Steve Jobs –‘He re-calls dropping out of college one of the best decisions he ever made*****’ Richard Branson - challenged academically by dyslexia; Alan Sugar – left school at 16…), and the unacceptable notion is that - it wasn't what they knew that was the key to their success, it was what they didn't know that was the stimulus for their creativity. Their ignorance was the precursor that mobilized their success.
Knowledge can inhibit vision, if your knowledge tells you that the impossible is just that and you believe it then you are unlikely to try “If I knew then what I know today then I would have never got started…” is a much quoted line – much better not to know in the first place. Ignorance is not only bliss it can be an advantage. Put yours to good use.
*PSALMS viii. 2 Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hath thou ordained strength
**THE EMPORER’S NEW CLOTHES first published in 1837, as part of Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales, Told for Children).
*** IN THE MIND’S EYE Thomas West p. 124