Jim McClellan used to be troubled by the gap between what he’s learned and what he doesn’t know, but now he knows better.
When I was a boy, I thought of knowledge as a bucket. Every year I’d learn a bit more, and the bucket would become bigger, and have more stuff in it. But I remember a friend’s father who used to say, “the more I learn, the less I know.” I thought that must be some kind of joke that I might finally get when I became an adult.
Years later, long after I’d learned that Socrates said the same thing eons before my friend’s Dad did, I finally began to see the truth behind those words. But that truth is not at all what I’d expected. I don’t actually know less now; what’s changed, though, is that I have a much better understanding about how little I actually know.
I now see that knowledge isn’t a bucket, but more like an area of light surrounded by deep, dark space. As that area of illumination grows, the larger the periphery of darkness around it becomes. In other words, the more we know, the better we are able to see all that we still do not know. This is true whether that brightness is a pinprick of light, or a galaxy of 10 billion stars. It’s a neat little trick of nature that the main path to fully grasping my own ignorance is through the acquisition of knowledge. New knowledge can fill up a void where there was nothing but a vacuum before. But filling up that little vacuum just reminds me that the larger one is infinite, and will never be filled.
What knowledge I do acquire does help provide a deeper understanding and a broader vantage point. But maybe all I really know is that as long as I live, I’ll never stop learning. And maybe that’s nature’s other little trick; now that I am well aware that my knowledge will never outpace my ignorance, I am more eager to keep learning, not less. I know the knowledge I seek will always be waiting for me, just beyond my grasp, gently shining on the horizon of an ever-expanding universe.
With a Perspective, I’m Jim McClellan.
Jim McClellan is co-founder of a logistics software company focused on the wine industry. He lives in Marin.