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Generosity of Ignorance
October 4, 2023
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Note: I’m on the road today, delivering my girlfriend to her next artist residency, so this week’s newsletter features an essay borrowed from one of my other projects, Aspiring Generalist, which is all about curiosity, exploration, and lifelong learning. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to read more such things you can subscribe to AG for free.
Generosity of Ignorance
Years ago, I dated an Icelandic woman who—among many other accolades—was an enthusiastic linguist.
She spoke a handful of languages, and was always endeavoring to further her grasp of them. Which in the context of our relationship often meant her asking me about English words and meanings.
She already spoke English incredibly well, and when she asked about this subject she went beyond simple questions, tugging at the threads of a term or concept until she’d unspooled every last detail about it.
That meant this process was generally fairly effortful for me, but also interesting and growth-inducing, because rather than being able to hand her a simple, reflexive explanation, I’d have to take a beat and ask myself what the best definition for a given word was, what other meanings it had, how it was used, the implications of it, what it meant literally versus figuratively or poetically, and so on.
I tend to think of this approach to learning that she so skillfully displayed as “being generous with one’s ignorance,” as she intentionally, step-by-step, moved each and every conversation in a richer, more compelling direction, and she did so in a way that was humble, interested, and purposeful, rather than asking a pitter-patter of questions meant to fill conversational space or to seem polite.
I try to wield my own ignorance the same way whenever possible, as I find doing so is one of the better ways to learn from someone who knows a great deal about something, while also making these sorts of conversations more interesting and engaging for them.
In some cases (in a mirror image of my own experience explaining pro writer-grade facets of the English language to a curious and engaged non-native speaker) I’ve had people I’ve questioned about what they do or know or are passionate about thank me for my questions because those questions helped them remember why they love what they do, or allowed them to see fresh facets of something about which they know a great deal, but which they might not have thought to explore from that angle, otherwise.
As we become more masterful and expert, we can unintentionally erect barriers between ourselves and whatever it is we’re learning: our growing, complex understanding blurring our perception of simpler, more attainable ways of looking at the same.
Having the opportunity to explain an internally well-tread topic to an interested and engaged (if more subject matter-ignorant) outside party can catalyze the purposeful rethinking and reframing of things, because in order to understand what will make sense to that other person we have to empathize with their perspective, seeing a familiar subject through the eyes of someone who is viewing it afresh.
I learned a lot about the English language during those conversations, even though much of what I was learning was based on things I already knew—new connections and realizations were being pulled out of me in a new order, arranged in a new-to-me way that I hoped would be useful to her, but which was also valuable to me for different reasons.
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Interesting & Useful
“ANCHORS: AN archive of CHandra Observations of Regions of Star formation; DEBRIS: Disc Emission via a Bias-free Reconnaissance in the Infrared/Sub-millimetre; DONUT: Direct Observation of NU Tau.”
“Since 2009, Inomata has been designing tiny homes for hermit crabs topped with towering skyscrapers, windmills, and churches. Part of an ongoing series titled Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs?, the 3D-printed resin works resemble urban landscapes and draw similarities between human and animal environments. Inomata’s designs, although not released into the wild, evoke the species’ organic exchanges as a way to consider the evolving nature of home.”
“On the other hand, the developers say the local geology means that the Bering Strait Tunnel would be “easier to construct than English Channel Tunnel.” Another bit of luck: the ventilation shafts needed for a tunnel of this length could conveniently be placed on the Diomede Islands, almost exactly halfway in the Bering Strait. (Big Diomede is Russia’s easternmost territory; Little Diomede is a few miles away and part of the U.S.)”
It has been an incredibly trying week, and I’m more psychologically exhausted than I’ve been in a long time, so I’m going to keep this outro brief.
That said, despite everything, I’m still chugging along and looking forward to this roadtrip (which I’ll be in the middle of by the time you read this).
How have you been? What’ve you been up to? Drop me a quick note and tell me what’s up, something about yourself, and/or just a quick hello. Reply directly to this newsletter or send an email to email@example.com—I respond to every message I receive :)
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