There is always more to know

We often wrongly assume that small pockets of our knowledge are robust robust and complete. That we know all we can know about a people, an events, a phenomenon.

This is because we close ourselves off to new information once we know enough to interact with something reliably. We learn enough to not get our heads bitten off and leave it at that.

Our picture then calcifies around the information we have, making it difficult for us to update our views when new information becomes available.

If we’ve only known someone to be kind, and they suddenly do something cruel – we write it off or say it’s out of character. If we see that cruelty much closer to the first impression, it’s more likely to influence our view.

But we need to remember that we have never seen the full picture. There is always another perspective, always another view and there is so much information which will always remain hidden to us.

This is why we should always be willing to accept new information and update our views.

We need to remember that we’re only ever working with scraps of insight, that the picture is always bigger and richer than we could imagine. That no matter how confident we are in our knowledge, that there is always more to know.

The value of a non-binary outlook

We’re binary creatures who like to think in absolutes:
Yes / No.
Black / White.
In group / Out group.

It’s an easier way to think about the world. Once we categorise something, we tend to fix it in position. That way, we don’t have to spend time and brain resources re-classifing it each time we encounter it.

If that plant is safe to eat today, let’s assume it will be safe to eat tomorrow.

If our Alice is trustworthy today, let’s assume she will be trustworthy tomorrow.

Since there are only two options, there has to be a pretty fundamental shift in circumstances for something to switch. And we’d notice something that fundamental. Wouldn’t we?

A binary outlook helps us to reduce the ongoing burden of thinking, but that comes at a cost. It means we fail to account for the fact that most things exist on a spectrum. And they shift. Constantly.

That plant isn’t always safe to eat.

Jill isn’t always trustworthy.

Having a binary perspective also blinds us to lessons which we need to relearn.

We “know” that family is important.

We “know” that exercise is good for our health.

Our binary outlook would tell us that these are things we know, principles we value. But our actions might betray a deeper truth. We know something intellectually, but we haven’t yet realised that knowledge. We haven’t put it into practice. We haven’t made it real.

Or, more likely, we’ve been overtaken by circumstance and have forgotten what we “know”.

The pressure has mounted at work and the importance of family or excercise or eating well has receded into the background.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the moment and for our knowledge to become difficult to access. When pressured or stressed we can forget what we know and act out of character.

This is why it’s important we keep a non-binary view of our knowledge and beliefs. Because our knowledge (like most things) exists on a constantly-shifting spectrum. Because there are lessons which we need to re-learn over and over and over again. Because knowing something is a continual process, it’s training.

We need to remind ourselves of things we already know. We need to re-learn lessons and move our knowledge up the spectrum towards being realised.

The more we can adopt a non-binary outlook, the more successful we will be in navigating a world which refuses to conform to fixed binary notions of black and white.

The knowledge gap (or, how to deal with difficult people)


What we actually know is often a lot different from what we think we know.

If you want the limits of your actual knowledge tested, try to explain the mechanics of gravity pain, or fire to a curious 5 year old. You’ll quickly realise just how little you can take back to first principals because of large gaps in your knowledge.

Or maybe that’s just my weak spot.

(BTW – If you’re a physicist who just read that list and said “pfffff, those are easy to explain”, try doing the same with love, death and happiness :-))

Using this ignorance is the basis for the Feynman Technique for learning something.

Conversely, we have a lot of knowledge store up that we’re not aware of and don’t have ready access to – which seems a shame since it can often help us out.

A great example of this is in the best way to deal with difficult people.

Having unavoidable encounters with people who wind us up and get our goat is one of the more unpleasant realities of life.

It can feel like we don’t know how to work with these people in a productive and considered way, but that’s often not the case.

We’re often acutely aware of all the ways in which we find the other person painful to deal with. It’s just that we haven’t stored that information in a format which is useful to us or which we can action easily.

If you want to have a better relationship with a difficult person, then write a 10 bullet point guide for someone else on how to deal with them. The pithier and more “Buzzfeed” your list, the better.

“Have a productive encounter with X using these 10 simple tricks”

Like explaining gravity to a child, it will force you to go back to first principles with respect to the behaviour which you find difficult. Once you have isolated the behaviour, it’s easy to think creatively about the best ways to mitigate it.

For example:

If their own disorganisation means that they get stressed over time pressure, then one of your tips might be to always be early with delivery or appointments. Or, if you’re going to be late, give plenty of warning and suggest an alternate plan which they can easily agree to.

In both cases, it’s the externalisation of our knowledge which helps us to see the gap between what we think we know and what we actually know.

So if you’re going into a tricky situation, try to write down just what exactly what you know. It will give you a good idea of the gap between what you think you know and what you actually know. But more importantly, it will let you know if your knowledge is in credit or debit.