On Not Knowing That We Do Not Know

Some thirty years ago, one of my roommates brought a guy she was dating to dinner at our apartment. While we were sitting around talking, one of our cats misbehaved and I popped it lightly on the nose to discourage whatever behavior it had displayed.

My roommate’s date proceeded to lecture me on how what I had done was incorrect, according to something he’d read somewhere. I elected to let him go on with his dissertation with respect to animal behavior without challenge, intentionally not revealing that for a year, I had been the graduate assistant in charge of the animal conditioning and learning lab back in college, and had taught the students under my charge about negative and positive reinforcement and punishment and supervised their training of the rats in my lab.

It was sometime later, after we’d dabbled in conversations about the weather and restaurants in Atlanta and who knows what else, that he asked me what I did for a living.

“I’m a psychotherapist,” I said. “And, in my last year of college, I was the graduate assistant in charge of the rat lab.”

“Oh,” he said, turning a slight hint of green as it dawned on him that I probably knew a lot more about training cats than he did.

At the time, I was mildly offended, but I didn’t care about his opinion of my pet management skills, and I had long since blown him off as someone to whom I would not turn for advice. I’m not inherently a mean person, so although I could have taken him down a notch or two in his self-estimated expertise in animal behavior, I didn’t.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t influenced by the exchange, however. Social scientist to the end, although I quit the explicit practice of psychology over 20 years ago, it reminds me even today of the blindness of human narcissism—the tragedy of missed opportunities for connection and the failure to show respect to others for what they’ve learned and experienced that we have not and perhaps never will. I pledged to myself that very day to do whatever it took not to discount what another had been through or what he or she knew by virtue of occupation, vocation or personal experience that I could not possibly know.

That whole line of thinking, for me, was further expanded a few years later when I left private practice and entered the corporate world. One of my specialties in private practice had been stress management counseling, which involved teaching my clients about their bodies and how to eliminate or manage physical symptoms like headache or panic attack or non-systemic high blood pressure, followed by insight psychotherapy as it related to the perceptions and thought processes that had precipitated their stress-related disorders.

As you might imagine, many of my clients described their stress-related problems as originating in the workplace. Some were entry-level people, others were middle managers, still others were executives in charge of major departments in Fortune 500 corporations. I remember having a conversation with one of the latter about conflict resolution. I “prescribed” a course of action that involved addressing a conflict he had with his superior that made perfect sense to me in the context of everyday one-on-one relationships.

He took it all in and smiled. “I can tell you’ve never worked in corporate America,” he said. I was a little taken aback.

Within only a few short months following my entry into the corporate world, I understood exactly what my client had meant. I was humbled by the fact that he had not knocked me down a notch for daring to think I knew anything about the practical application of my limited knowledge in the context of a situation I had no experience with.

The issue was that, at the time of our conversation, I had never worked in an environment where the hierarchical organizational chart defined authority and responsibility and held sway over my livelihood. Having never had to negotiate the paradox of balancing the dual yet overlapping boundaries of interpersonal vs. workplace relationships, I had no expertise in the subject. No matter how hard I might have tried or how many business management books I might have read, I could not have learned from them what I did while being an employee and later a manager. As I look back now, the massive difference between what I knew looking in from the outside before and what I would come to know once I was inside was not unlike that between looking at a photograph of Ireland and standing at the Cliffs of Moher.

Those two incidents have remained a constant reminder to me of three interrelated things:

  1. The more I know, the more I am humbled by what I don’t know and either can’t know or never will.
  2. No matter what I do know, even if it is my area of credential, there is someone else who knows something more or something different or something more valuable about that subject area in question that would benefit me. And, perhaps most importantly, that person could just as easily be the cashier at the grocery store, the immigrant roofing a house or the roommate of a friend as it could be the CEO of Microsoft or the Prime Minister of Egypt.
  3. The day I become certain that I “know” everything about anything based on the snapshot I see and show blatant disrespect for the truth those who’ve stood where I can only dream of going can teach me…will be the day I become dangerous to myself and everyone around me, especially if given a little authority.

Far too many of those we have elected to power, giving a little authority by virtue of our votes, appear either to have never known or to have forgotten these things.

And I struggle not to be afraid.

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