One of the most valuable things in the world is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. One of the most inadvertently self-destructive is making a mistake about what you know: Not knowing what you don’t know, and not realizing what you do know.
It is easy to think you know something. Sometimes it’s a big thing and sometimes a little thing. I remember, as a grad student, visiting Manhattan, with another grad student. We did it cheap – a bus ride crashing with a friend who was a postdoc at Columbia, a splurge for theater tix but walking and walking and taking the subway. On the last day, walking through Central Park, I had a feeling: I know New York. It felt good, and comfortable and exciting all at once. And my immediate next thought: idiot, of course not.
Sometimes when you are in a place, as a student, or a postdoc, or even a junior faculty you think you know it. Remember your undergrad institution? You thought you Really Knew It. Actually, US Universities try and promote that feeling, it encourages a sense of belonging and ultimately, donations. Of course, you did know things, about the major, about the classes, which bars were good for conversation, and which coffee houses were the most generous with real cream. Or quiet. Or glamorous.
You knew the profs. Who taught a good class, and who was an ass, at least the undergrads in their lab. You knew who had money, and who had power. Or at least you thought you did. Years later, you sometimes learned how superficial that knowledge was.
That’s the trouble with figuring out what you don’t know. You know a little bit and it’s easy to mistake that for knowing more. Sometimes you don’t have a clue about the neighborhood a block away from the subway stop. Or, you may have a sense that there was some place you only looked at, standing on the corner, glancing or studying, or even trying to memorize, down the block. But if you don’t get off the subway at the five stops between Here and There, you wouldn’t have a clue whether it’s one or 10 neighborhoods that you missed. You didn’t know if there were even stores, or restaurants, or dance studios in the neighborhoods you didn’t know existed.
In doing research, there are lots of places and things we’ve not seen. There are the content parts. In the olden days, one could major in biology, and taken a series of first or second year classes and get a sense of th breadth of biology. Now, I gather that half of the majors never had a botany class, or even evolution or ecology. Clinicians may have seen down the block to see the neighborhood called “research”. Smart ones say, ah, lots of buildings there. Irritating ones say, yup, big buildings of brick and I know what’s in them, because they’re just down the block from the place where I’ve been hanging. Good ones actually walk down the block.
[aside: yeah, yeah, Not All Clinicians, not all scientists, everyone knows an example or counter example. Folks, we are talking trends here].
My twenties-ish step-ish children think there is nowhere to live but New York. I admire them because they have built lives that they want to live. They work hard, and play hard and love life. And they think there is nowhere to live but New York City. When I pointed out that they had never lived, as adults, anywhere BUT New York, they said “yes, but I know”.
So take a moment and question what you know. It’s hard, but. I’ve written the concluding “but” here and erased about 16 things. But, you will have a richer life. But it will save your from being embarrassed. But you will make better decisions about the things you do know. What the heck. Yes those "buts" are important, and justifications for trying to figure out what you don't know.
Me, I’d always rather know. Period. Even if it’s ugly and embarrassing and points out my mistakes. Long held and long repeated mistakes. I’d always rather know.