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The Power of Ignorance

I have something to confess, I am surprisingly ignorant in many topics of general knowledge. I don't know much about economics, literature, sports or world news. And I'm not ashamed nor do I regret it. But before I explain why, let me tell you who's also ignorant this way: Sherlock Holmes.

Dr. Watson: His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. […]

Sherlock Holmes: You see, I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet


I have to say I didn't start this on purpose, but rather I'm naturally not interested in some things. I'm sure the brain has a mechanism to forget things we don't find interesting, and that's why it's so difficult to study or learn something you dislike. You don't enjoy it and your brain is doing you a favor.

But it goes beyond the natural absorption of the brain. There is a cultural tendency to see ignorance as something bad, I know many people will see the title of this post and think I'm stupid. But it's important to see what I mean with this. I am talking about ignorance in something which is not relevant to oneself. If I couldn't locate Taiwan in a map three years ago, maybe it was because It didn't affect my life in the least. You can know about everything and you'll end up being a jack of all trades, but master of none. The point is that in this era, we have access to so much information that we get overwhelmed, and it's completely fine to be ignorant of a ton of stuff, and we should focus on whatever we're interested in.

There is also another side to this. Besides the polluting gaining of information, there are some times when even good information should be stopped. There is this concept of someone working in their “flow”. You work best when you're in your flow. I would say most people's flow is obtained when not being bothered with distractions. And that's not only external distractions, internal distractions as well. If you want to be productive working, focus on one thing at a time, and batch all your information gaining activities (twitter, reading news, etc.).

The power of ignorance is the power to have room left in your brain-attic.

Some similar concepts

The fragment from A Study in Scarlet I quoted at the beginning is not the only reference which brought me to this realization, there are also some similar concepts which bring insight to this topic:

  • Never memorize what you can look up in books: Albert Einstein, turns out he didn't know the speed of sound. When asked how was that possible he replied: “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. ...The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”
  • Pulling your focus away: David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, talks about the importance of writing things down and forgetting about them, so that they stop bothering you and pulling your focus away of the task at hand. Your brain is not a good place to store all your TODOs.

  • Education is Broken: Ken Robinson, in the most popular TED talk of all time, explains why evaluating intelligence based on the knowledge of some pre-established topics is wrong.

  • Low Information Diet: Tim Ferris, author of the 4 hour work week, defends that selective ignorance and a low information diet is the way to stop the default mode of working for most people, which is an infinite interruption.

Do you know other related concepts? Leave them in the comments.

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