The Wisdom of Ignorance

07/06/2012 12:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2012
  • Jennifer Hamady Voice coach and counselor specializing in self-expression

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
-- Shunryu Suzuki

A year or so ago, I succumbed to my husband's passion for (and pestering about) science fiction and fantasy. I was hooked a few chapters into George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones. Orson Scott Card's Ender series cemented my love of the genres.

In trying to decide which world to delve into next, I came across a science fiction writing workshop Card himself would be giving in North Carolina. Intrigued as I was, I still knew very little about sci-fi and had even less experience writing it (or any fiction for that matter). So I did what any sensible person would do.

I signed up.

And I'm so glad I did. For during those two intensive days, I not only learned about the intricacies of character, story, and world creation. I was reminded of the ideal conditions for learning:

A sense of play.

Indeed, something magical happens when you know that you don't know something. Not burdened by opinions, pride or beliefs, I was fully present in the workshop. And I was able to listen -- and hear -- in a way that I wouldn't have been in a voice or nonfiction writing class (two of the fields I work in).

Why is it often such a challenge to bring this learning experience to bear in areas we are already knowledgeable about?

For starters, we live in a culture that deems the acquisition of information to be of greater importance than the process by which we acquire it. Both the language and experience of mastery, achievement and expertise suggest the sought-after arrival at an end point, rather than an ongoing process of learning.

Unfortunately, this view tends to breed competition, arrogance and closed-mindedness, rather than the humility required to set aside what we already know in the hopes of embracing what we have yet to discover. To say nothing of the stress, anxiety and lack of productivity that come from trying to do things perfectly, lest we fall from our supposed pinnacle of distinction. (For a fun video of how this process works, or rather, doesn't, click here to enjoy Matt Stone and Trey Parker's take on an Alan Watts lecture).

Just as a sponge can only take on water after being wrung out, so too must we be able -- regardless of our experience or education -- to continually renounce our own fullness, lest we become bloated and stale.

The Buddhist "Beginner's Mind" is available to us each of us. And when we take on its attitude of openness, eagerness, and the setting aside of preconceptions, both learning -- and the learner -- become more fully alive.