There is a conceit that does more than any external adversity to block learning and growth. It’s the need to seem that we are in-the-know, to have the answers, and to not need the perspective, insights, or help of others. The opposite of this attitude and state of mind is a willingness to not know, to be curious and open to discovery.
This conceit works differently than the ordinary self-limiting effects of assumptions and habits that we discover in the course of life. Naturally, we approach situations and problem solving in everyday life with certain beliefs and assumptions. Without relying on them we would be left to reinvent a solution for every problem we encounter – a very inefficient way to function.
The conceit appears when we deny indications that our assumptions, beliefs, and current understandings are inadequate to the challenge at hand. We’re unable to acknowledge our limitations or to express a normal, adaptive curiosity about how to move beyond them. For some reason, admitting our need to know more and our lack of knowledge feels threatening.
What energizes this maladaptive response is fear and insecurity. It signals more than the realization that our current approach to a new role or challenge is inadequate; it implies (or so it seems to us) that we are inadequate. And when it’s the adequacy of our person that is at stake our fears are much more intense, our reactions much more defensive.
As a dispassionate observer, it’s easy to criticize these reactions: “Wow, why is he so defensive?” But what if we, immediately upon witnessing such a reaction, instead asked “I wonder what it is about this situation that causes him to feel threatened?” Soon, we might recognize the role that social comparison and the evaluation of others play in these reactions.
On the one hand, we prize competition as a stimulus to learning and innovation. On the other hand, it’s clear that competition and winning and losing can evoke acute anxiety, especially when what we it's our personal value or worth that's being appraised. When the stakes are high, and when levels of stress, strain, and fatigue are also rising, it can feel very personal.
For some of us who had a less affirming experience in early childhood, which left us with lingering feelings of self-doubt, we may be more vulnerable to exaggerating what’s at stake. And when such feelings have plagued us since childhood, they can seem even more real and warranted than they truly are. But that too can change with help if we are willing to face these fears.
There are few more fundamental truths about human existence than these. There is a lightness about not knowing and a burdensome weight of needing to be in-the-know. Stuck once, try again. Stuck again, try again more attentively. Still stuck, it’s probably time to welcome an attitude of not knowing and open the door to deeper, adaptive learning.