Getting comfortable with not knowing everything

Today morning I went to our staff canteen for breakfast and I joined a table where my colleagues were engaged in what appeared to be a very heated discussion on some topic. Since I had joined midway I asked what they were talking about and one of them duly updated me on what was being discussed. He spoke english but to me it made no sense. As I leant keenly towards him and asked, ‘sorry what is that again’, he just threw a couple of names at me, something like ‘oh we are talking about xyz and abc’. The problem was that none of those names struck a chord with me. I then admitted aloud that I didn’t know these people, and I was met with strange looks – looks that seemed to say, ‘how can you not know this?’. However one of my colleagues who knows me a bit well and knows that I don’t read or indulge in news and TV much, told me that they were discussing a case regarding a producer being accused of sexual harassment by an actress. Aha, I said, now this summary made more sense. Why could they not have said it like this earlier, in simple english without assuming that everyone knows everyone else’s story. My relief however, was short lived. Immediately another colleague sitting next to me said oh it’s just like the ‘efg’ case (efg again being some other person’s name). Again I looked at him wide eyed and asked ‘and who is that’ and I was met with a look that said something like, ‘what! You don’t know who efg is’. Turns out ‘efg’ was some corporate guy who had again gotten famous for being involved in a series of sexual harassment cases.

I am forty years old and by now I am used to people responding strangely when they realize that I do not ‘know’ the things they expect everyone else to ‘know’. I am used to people either turning scornful or mocking me for my lack of so called ‘general knowledge’. What amuses me however is that each time they mock me – for me it is yet another instance of marvelling at the widespread assumption many people hold that everyone needs to have the same ‘knowledge structures’ in their heads. I am amazed that anyone might believe that it is important for me to fill my ‘headspace’ with names of hollywood actors and their personal lives, or politicians and their scandals, or corporate leaders and their dramas. What if I want to fill my headspace with some other form of knowledge instead?

I gave a Ted talk three years back about attention (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJDXqzaWcU), where I diligently made the case that our attention is our own personal resource, one that is extremely valuable and that each one of us has a birthright to direct our attention towards what we want. I also suggested that we might want to do this consciously because otherwise there are enough forces in our environment which can potentially hijack our attention to meet their own agendas. Today, I want to extend the same logic to our personal mindspace. My mindspace is my own personal space and I have a right to choose what kind of knowledge I want to fill it with. If I don’t exercise choice here then others will fill it up with knowledge that they think is important and interesting.

This morning, I was amused at the expectations of my colleagues that I should know the names of hollywood actors and the related gossip. However, I have not always been so comfortable with my own ‘lack of knowledge’ on some topics. Age, a strong determination to be loyal towards my natural curiosity, and realizing that the human brain has not been designed to ‘know it all’, has helped me in reaching my current level of comfort. When I was in seventh grade I failed in a ‘general knowledge’ test. Yes we had a subject called general knowledge and this particular test had been mainly about famous ‘current personalities’. If the ‘general knowledge’ test had instead been about the movement of clouds, rhythms of rain, designs on the wings of butterflies, movements of squirrels, crows and sparrows, or shapes of flowers and trees I might have got an ‘A’ instead. That is ‘general knowledge too – is it not? ’. How can just one category of ‘general knowledge’ be a ‘required curriculum’ for everyone.

I consider myself an obsessive ‘seeker’ of knowledge and my head is filled with all kinds of ‘stuff’ just like anyone else. It is just that the topics I choose to seek out information on and give my attention and mindspace to are different from what some others do. Not knowing about hollywood gossip, political developments or corporate scandals does not make me ignorant of the world around me. It just means that I am choosing to stay informed of some other information in the world around me which is equally ‘real’, present and potentially meaningful to me. I spend loads of time observing the natural environment around me. I like to gaze at the sky and watch the clouds drift by. To me that is real and I challenge anyone to prove that clouds in the sky are less ‘real’ than a hollywood stars breakup. I choose to devote my attention to observing sunlight dance through the leaves and play in shadows on the floor. I challenge anyone to prove to me that this is less enriching than the information conveyed through the black and white ink patterns on a newspaper.

At the end of the day we are all giving our attention and mindspace to what interests and engages us. What if we didn’t have to judge one another on the basis of what we know or don’t know. We all know something that another person might not know, and who is to judge that one form of knowledge is superior to another. What if knowledge too, like other things is just a matter of personal preference?

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