The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” If we go into things with a sense of certainty or that we know all there is to know, we’re limiting what we can learn. Limiting our growth and our ability to see new things, new perspectives and new points of view. A quote attributed to Socrates is “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” The story behind this being that Socrates was trying to prove he wasn’t the wisest man alive, as declared by the oracle at Delphi. But when he tried to disprove this what we found was that so many people were so certain that they were right about things. Certain that their point of view was the correct one. Socrates did not approach things that way. He took to subjects with a curiosity instead of a certainty. In fact his method of sorts was to ask questions rather than give answers. His philosophy wasn’t necessarily a “do this/don’t do this” approach. By asking questions he often overcame the rhetoric and logic of others trying to disprove or disagree with him because they came in with a closed mindset – “I am right, he is wrong.” These two quotes, although coming from completely different schools of thought hit on the same point. Knowledge isn’t about gathering facts or who knows the most – often it’s about who comes into something with an open mind or a beginner’s mind. What does a teacher like to see the most in a student? It’s not necessarily the smartest child – but the student that comes in with the best attitude – curious, open to new things, willing to listen, wanting to understand more. Attitude is something that is always in our control. Sports coaches talk a lot about “coachability” and that really comes down to someone that pays attention, listens, can follow instructions, wants to improve and asks questions. It’s effectively the attitude they bring to a coaching environment because all of the above they can control. This seems obvious but it’s not actually that common. Many people, particularly those with a certain amount of experience under their belt can start to feel comfortable with “I know what I’m doing” or “who’s this person to come here and try to tell me to do things a different way or patronise me?” It’s easy to fall into that mindset because we can often see new knowledge or skills as a silent attack on what we already know or have been doing and by in turn our performance or us as a person. “There’s a better way to do things” can translate in our internal monologue to “you’re not good enough.”It bruises our ego and because we tie so much of our self-esteem into our professional circumstances, as well as our intelligence – anything that threatens that can feel like a kick in the teeth.
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was rumoured to have an inscription of “know thyself.” The thing we have to remember is that real knowledge often starts with self-knowledge. Being able to assess yourself warts and all, as well as your strengths. You need to have the courage to look at yourself objectively and realise that you’re not perfect, nor will you ever be. But you can always be someone that is humble, that has an appetite for knowledge and skills, for growth. I read something recently about how in leadership we often look at skills and attributes of leaders before we look at the most important part of the equation – the task to be done. In a similar way – growth shouldn’t be about what you already have, the experience, the skills or knowledge – it should be about seeing the bigger picture that you’re in it to continue to grow. There is no end point or “I know enough” moment. If you do that you shut yourself off to new opportunities. It’s hard to cultivate our professional and personal reputations sometimes. But we can ensure we’re not the ego filled “know it all” and we can always be “the person that is constantly learning” or “boundlessly curious.” I don’t know about you but the person I want on my side isn’t the know it all – it’s the person who everyday gets a little bit better. As the Happy Warrior poem by Wordsworth says – “from well to better, daily self-surpast” – ….
“This is the happy Warrior; this is he
That every man in arms should wish to be”
Stay humble. Stay a beginner.