Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A habit of ignorance...

A habit of ignorance...  Way back in 1972, I had recently enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was attending a series of schools at the Mare Island Naval Base near Vallejo, California.  The first training I underwent was for basic computer repair, and that training started with a dose of digital logic.  One of the first things we were told was that if we flunked out of this school – as about a third of the attendees would – we would be reassigned to another school on the same base: the PBR (river patrol boat) school.  These were plywood boats, lightly armed, that patrolled Vietnamese rivers – and their crews had the highest casualty rates of all the armed forces fighting in Vietnam.  That concentrated my mind wonderfully, to steal a turn of phrase from Mark Twain.

One consequence is that I paid serious attention to the classroom work, even when it didn't appeal to me – something I had never done before.  I also started observing the students that did well and those who did not, the better to guide myself.  There was an “Aha!” moment for me one day that I can still remember vividly.  The instructor posed a problem on a blackboard (with chalk!) and asked who had an idea how to attack it.  The couple of high-performing students I was observing looked puzzled and kept their hands down.  Nearly everyone else raised their hand – and not a one of them had any clue how to tackle the problem posed.  The “Aha!” was that the best students were the ones most comfortable with being ignorant.  How interesting!

That started me on what became a lifelong (and by now, pretty much reflexive) habit: to frankly acknowledge my own ignorance, both to myself and to others.  I don't always succeed at this, as my friends will attest :)  I'm better at doing so on technical subjects than on others.  I've learned that recognizing my own ignorance is a prerequisite to motivating myself to address that ignorance.  In other words, a key step in acquiring new technical knowledge is to recognize that I need that knowledge.  That might seem like a little thing, but it's played a very large role in my career.  There are an infinite number of interesting technical subjects that I'm ignorant of, and therefore no end of things for me learn.  I've never been comfortable when not learning; in fact, any situation that doesn't require me to learn something new is one that I find boring.  I've also learned that admitting ignorance does not lower the degree of respect that others have for my technical ability – in fact, it may do the opposite.  Because people know that I will readily admit to not knowing something, they tend to believe (not necessarily with justification :) that if I am not claiming ignorance, I must have some idea what I'm talking about.

Because of this context, I found this article quite interesting...

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