Knowing What You Don’t Know

When I was in Grad school, we learned that there were four, let’s call them, awarenesses of being: 1) I don’t know what I don’t know; 2) I know what I don’t know; 3) I know more than I am aware that I know; 4) I am aware that I know.

There is research to show that that the more one knows about a topic, the more aware they are that they don’t know it all, and therefore would say they don’t know much. Conversely, the less of a topic one knows, he/she might think he/she knows more than he/she actually does. 

Here’s a loose example – Jane is an English speaker. She has been speaking English her whole life so she feels rather confident that she “knows” the language. She knows what sounds right and/or wrong. But, when asked how or why some adjectives precede the noun and others follow the noun, she has no idea; she’s never thought about it before. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.

Then there is Mary. She too is a native speaker of English, but she has also studied English and Japanese. She has B2 level of fluency in Japanese. She can tell you exactly what the English rule is of adjectives; which come before and which follow the noun, as well as in what order the adjectives must be. We can say, “The big, old, green house,” but we cannot say, “The green, big, old house.”  Mary knows what she knows in English, and she knows what she doesn’t know in English and Japanese.

We each go through life in multiple awarenesses of being at any given point for any given situation. But some people stay in a place of “I don’t know that I don’t know” for most or all of their lives. Why? Well, there is a saying, ignorance is bliss, and I have to say there is some truth in that. It’s easier to not know what you don’t know. One doesn’t need to take responsibility for misinformation, misunderstanding, misdirection. One can go through one’s day with minimal effort of understanding. But I would also suggest that one would be going through life with minimal opportunity for true pleasure. Not physical pleasure, but rather the kind that stimulates the brain.

But what has this got to do with living in Italy? Well, being present is so important for that brain stimulation. Stopping to ask “why?” and being willing to find the answer is tiring, could be rather frustrating, and it it could also be disappointing. To live in another culture requires one to be fully present, to be curious, and know what you don’t know. This is good place to be, as a rule. When you know that you don’t know you have an invisible road laid out in front of you awaiting paving with information. When you know what you know, or don’t know that you don’t know, there is no road; it’s a dead end. You’ve reached the end of exploration.

There is an endless supply of invisible roads while traveling/living abroad. Be present and be willing to find them. Stay open to alternate ways to pave the figurative road; you may discover a whole new, possibly improved way, to pave the road. Like the literal idea of paving a road, it’s a lot of work and can be exhausting, however the results are satisfying, if not rewarding.

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