The Power of Not Knowing

by Gaetano Cessati, via Unsplash

We usually agree that education is the first big step to access bigger opportunities — especially at work —, improve our life, improve society, improve humanity.

Also, knowledge — as understanding and conscious capacity — is at the base of any effective step toward our goals. Lack of knowledge means randomness at work on our life. Or someone else, with different goals.

I’m an engineer, and I know how knowledge is empowering.

And how it can be an obstacle.

The growth

You cannot put one liter of water in a half-liter bottle. You need a one-liter bottle first.

Your mind can expand, sure. But you have limits now, in your current state. You cannot handle too much knowledge based on your current mind.

When I learned the addition, I was ready to learn the multiplication. But I wasn’t ready for derivatives and integrals.

If you try to handle the knowledge that you’re not prepared to handle, you’re going to get stuck, to get paralyzed from a knowledge you’re not able to manage. At worst, you’re going to make a great mess, or great damages, not just physical damages.

I’m not speaking of the access to knowledge. I’m speaking of the acceptance that knowledge needs a growth path. Too many confuse their right to know with their capacity to know and to handle that knowledge.

If you don’t live according to your current knowledge, you’re not going to digest it and be ready for the next steps, for your consistent growth, and further knowledge. Shortcuts, in growth, lead to false results. You can fake knowledge only up to a point and in certain fields. But, for what? For living as an impostor?

Of course, preparation is needed in most situations. Lack of knowledge can be a problem. Ignorance is a problem. For that reason, accepting not to know and going through an education path without rushing your apparent competence will give you action and growth at the same time.

The need to forget

While growing, you’ll certainly notice that your neurons are flexible, but limited.

Your time is limited.

When I was young, I wanted to learn everything, in every field of human knowledge. I noticed too late that it’s not possible. At some point, you have to choose where to put your energies.

Your possibilities of knowing are vast, but that doesn’t mean that all the possibilities are available together, in the same individual. You can’t be omniscient, of course, but you can’t even go anywhere near to that. You need to focus, and you need tradeoffs.

Also, when you know, you need to remember, to keep your knowledge alive by being part of your life. You can’t live all of your possible knowledge. There’s not enough room in your life for it.

Learning needs energies. Remembering needs energies. The focus of your energies has to shift over time.

The knowledge of today is for its most part going to fade, to transform into something else, to seed other knowledge.

You can’t remember everything you learned in college, because you’d have to review everything periodically, and it’s useless. You have to go forward and leave room to new concepts, which can be there thanks to your past knowledge.

We forget. Memories fade. Skills soften. We have to live with oblivion and to handle it. We have to make room and be open to new knowledge. Maybe on a different scale, a different perspective.

The key to getting more knowledge is deciding what not to know and what to forget.

Among a sea of ignorance, you have to pick — and keep alive — the knowledge that is relevant for you, in your current stage of life, for your next stage.


There’s a specific time for anything. You cannot carry your knowledge with you all the time.

You need to forget, not just the past knowledge, but most of your current knowledge too.

You can’t accomplish one of the thousand things you have to do if you don’t focus on a single one and temporarily forget the others.

You can’t do a surgery trying to remember the books you studied.

You can’t take action without stopping to analyze.

Focusing is about knowing and ignoring at the same time. Two faces of the same medal. You can’t know, decide, or act without picking a small portion of your current knowledge, without focusing your attention.

Awareness is about knowing your values, about caring of the consequences, for you and the others, about knowing your potential and limits, about feeling your position in time and life, not about carrying your life and knowledge with you all of the time.


Of course, when you ignore something, you expose yourself to risks or loss of opportunities.

You can also expose yourself to manipulations.

However, while you can do a lot for reducing those possibilities, you can’t zero them in most of the complex things of life. At some point, you have to deal with uncertainty.

Sometimes you have to deal with uncertainty much before being ready for it. You have to improvise. Because it’s needed, or because an opportunity is at your size and wasn’t planned. Or just because the reality is too complex for perfect plans.

Some risks have to be avoided in any case. You can’t afford some mistakes. For example, when life is at risk. You need knowledge and prudence. And who knows, knows that prudence is best.

But you can accept other risks.

For as long as you plan to prevent a risk, you are exposed to the risk. While you plan to seize an opportunity, the time-frame reduces, even if you don’t notice.

If you’re skeptic about everything, you’ll miss giving honest people and yourself a chance.

When to know all means do nothing, you need to remember that doing nothing usually means getting nothing, or letting something else happen.

The fear

Of course, knowing what could go wrong is useful to plan. It’s useful to be prepared, and to tune our action. Or to have a B plan. Or to stay away from something which is too dangerous for us.

But we are humans. Together with our goals, we have emotions.

When risk is there, and we’re aware that we could be badly damaged, fear is there, no matter how brave are we. And fear blocks us beyond reasonable prudence.

We fear the unknown and what could hurt us, in a broad sense. Both knowledge and ignorance can propel fear and put us in a corner.

What do the braves do?

They plan. They learn. They know. Up to a point. Then, they forget what could go wrong and focus on what they want or need to be done. And they go on, and they will handle the unexpected at their best. Because fear is there but if they let fear be on their way and get over them, their action would be faint, and wasted, or will turn bad. And nothing will happen, or unwanted things will happen.

You may not want to take blind risks. Blind risks can make you win big challenges. Or can make you die.

But there’s always something that could go wrong, and it will. It’s only the step of accepting it, that can change your situation. Sometimes it’s a big step. A big life change. But at some point, you have to expose yourself to risk, and challenge your capacity of handling the unexpected, the fear of failing. Small changes, small risks. Great changes, great risks.

The energy

While our reaction to the unknown may be of fear, it can also be the opposite. The unknown, for some persons, or even the same person in different contexts or conditions can stir up positive emotions.

Curiosity or the attractiveness of the challenge may be what you need to support your effort, to step out from your comfort zone. Risks that once scared you may, over time, become risks that excite you, maybe because you’ve learned to handle part of them, or because they’re not as dangerous as you thought they were.

We’re very complex creatures. Our engine is not powered by only one type of fuel. While some energies take us out of the way, others propel our progress.

Knowing yourself and allowing part of your emotions support you is an essential part of your motivation.

Like you usually avoid to read the last page of a book, you may intentionally postpone part of your getting to know.

Thinking to know

Anyway, the problem we have is not the awareness of the vastity of the unknown. Quite the contrary.

Knowledge comes with a drawback: we think of having enough of it. We’re that presumptuous.

So, we undervalue a risk. We believe that certainty is the truth. We ignore what we don’t want to see. We don’t ask questions. We refuse what shouldn’t be refused. We enforce our beliefs. We hide our limits and incoherence.

We have reasons for those biases and closure. Usually, alibis.

Is that “knowledge” useful? What’s the knowledge actually needed, related to what you want to do?

Getting back to the basics and taking a bath of humbleness, let you put things in perspective and give an opportunity to your growth. To see, you need to be open to see. Human knowledge is often defective. Too much of it can be dangerous as much as not enough of it.

True knowledge has nothing to do with supposition. The process which leads to knowledge is exactly the contrary. You can learn the moment you accept not to know, the moment you free your mind from all the unnecessary and wrong knowledge. To know, you need to expose yourself to the new, to observe, to experiment, to fail.

Knowledge stems from the awareness of not knowing. If you think to know, you’ll never know.


Freeing oneself of false knowledge has a more important meaning than just be open to learn and be objective.

The kind of knowledge we favor has a deep impact on our being, like everything we surround ourselves with.

With time we learn the ways of life, or of our culture. We learn the importance of money. We learn to be competitive. We learn things we’re supposed to know. We’re induced to perspectives.

All of what we learn will shape our lives. And it may happen, at some point, that it has nothing to do with the life we want, or with who we want to be.

Needs, people, desires may push yourself to a knowledge that is distant from the path you’d choose now. You can become the hostage of your own knowledge.

It’s not just about work, or about your creative side. It’s about your whole being, about your personalities, about your adaptation to the environment, in search of acceptance, fulfillment, distraction, pleasure.

If you don’t make an effort in knowing your values, your purpose, your dears, and defend them, back to the basics of your life, you’ll end up accumulating a lot of crap in your mind.

Living the vision

Most of us have goals. Maybe life goals. Or purposes. Sometimes, even a clear vision.

A vision is what keep extraordinary people working and reach excellent results, where others see no possibilities.

But a vision can also lead nowhere, because it brings great risks with it. You have a vision because you don’t have a detailed plan. You may — and should — have a strategy. But you don’t have the details. And a lot of unexpected things are in the way. You’re not prepared, now. You imagine a destination, and a path.

When you sign up for college, you’re not able to pass the final exams. You know nothing about them. You know you want to become a physician, and you imagine that it’s possible, but you’ll get knowledge and skills on the way.

You can’t decide to be a physician when you know all that it needs to be a physician. You have to decide before, when you’re not a physician, when you know your purpose – or you guess it – and ignore everything else.

You have to bet.

You know that others did it, and guess that it’s possible for you too, or that you want to make it happen. But other visions, afterward in life, give you no to low certainties, even about their possibility. Most of the knowledge follows the initial decision.

When you accept that uncertainty and ignorance are there, you make room for long-term decisions, based on purpose and not on contingency, you can focus on identifying and validating the core of your vision. Afterward, the path to it is a growth path, made of steps and decisions, changes and failures, humility and courage.

The instinct

Our dealing with the uncertain or inaccurate is largely based on instinct, not on explicit knowledge.

There’s a legacy part of instincts, built over millions of years in very different environments. The part which tells you to kill an asshole. Or eat a whole cake.

Most of that part is not that useful, nowadays. Too wild and greedy. You usually fight to control it. Anyway, part of those instincts has something to say on how to keep you balanced and alive.

Then, there’s a part of your instincts which has been built during your life, according to your experience. Sometimes you call it intuition, or sixth sense, when it’s about previsions instead of reactions. Reword as you like.

Again, that part is to be taken with a grain of salt, because it’s associative too. It’s not based on validated knowledge, or reasoning. Still, it’s based on experience, and keeps in storage a lot of what you learned at a higher level.

Instinct is what warns you of traps, tells you about the right moment, advice you to speak or not to speak, tells you where there is a possibility and where there is not.

You’re not as ignorant as you imagine, even if you feel like it.

The lack of explicit knowledge tells you that something is missing and that you should be careful. You cannot trust your instinct blindly. When possible, especially when the stake is high, you need analysis and validation.

But your instinct is a powerful engine, which makes a rough assessment and gives you heuristic advice based on your whole being and history. Ignoring it is never a good idea. It can be a good ally in staying out of troubles or focusing your research.


But the most important thing to know about knowledge is that what matters in life has nothing to do with knowledge.

Everything you could do — thanks to your knowledge or not — will be nothing in a million years. Absolutely nothing.

Sooner or later, you’ll be stone dead, along with of all of your knowledge.

You can’t be aware of eternity. It’s a mystery we can’t handle. You need to focus on your time, on the opportunities of your small time-frame, and the values and purpose you decide to put in it.

Love has little to do with knowledge. Yet, it may be a good reason for living, for you.

You may have Faith.

Happiness may be about deciding to go to the cinema, out of nothing, not about planning or knowing what’s best for you in ten years.

Life is going on 24 hours per day, whether you’re eating, or working, or sleeping, or studying, or, or, or. The moment you understand life, if ever, time has passed. Often, too much.


You live in ignorance, and always will. What matters is picking, validating, and assimilating the knowledge which is relevant for you, and tuning that skills, balancing them with openness to the new.

Being aware of not knowing is what will let you put the effort into learning, and be open to receive knowledge and feedback. Being aware of not knowing helps you not to be deceived by what you know.

Not knowing is what allows you to get unstuck.

Ignorance alone is not good. You need knowledge. A lot of knowledge. But if you don’t back your knowledge with a healthy dose of ignorance, all of your knowledge will get you nowhere.