Former chess and Tai Chi Push Hands champion Josh Waitzkin told a story in an interview that I keep coming back to.
I was in William C.C. Chen’s tai chi studio. And there was this guy who had been studying for decades, and he was telling a story. He said, “When I studied tai chi for a year, I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was starting to understand it. But after two years, I realized everything I thought after a year was wrong. It was just wrong. But now I understood. And then after four years, I realized everything I thought after two years was wrong.”
And he went on with this story, in this pattern. “But now I understood. Then, when after eight years, the same thing, everything I thought before it was wrong. Now, I’ve been training for 16 years and everything I thought after eight years was wrong, but now I finally understand.” I remember thinking at the time, “Man, you got it, but you didn’t get it.” The point is, you don’t know now either, right? After 16 years, you’ve been going through the repetition? What about after 32 years?
Ignorance never ends. The greatest intellectual and creative discoveries of are past are all proven at least partly incorrect given enough time.
The gospel of business one day is nonsense the next. Olympic training in 1920 wouldn’t cut it in a high school weight room today.
Most of what we believe to be true is wrong. We just don’t know it yet. Given our history, we should be pretty confident that we’re ignorant, and yet I find in my own experience that once I come to a new understanding I declare the search to be over. Now I've got it.
But there is no getting it. Not if you continue to push your beliefs and abilities forward. But our desire for security in knowing will blind us to the evidence that shows otherwise.
We hate being wrong, and we hate uncertainty. I don’t think we’re psychologically wired for these states.
But I'd like to think that overcoming these biases is possible with practice. That's in large part what I'm aiming to do with this blog, and yet I frequently catch myself grasping for knowing. This is no doubt an uphill battle, but I think it could be one that is worth struggling for.
I think it'd be true to say that we'd prefer to be aligned with the way reality actually works. And the reality is that we just don't really know that much. Not to the degree that political pundits or just about anyone on Twitter or Facebook seem believe.
I guess, "I'm 60% confident" doesn't sell. We prefer right/wrong, yes/no, black/white.
I just worry we're closing our minds to disconfirming evidence when we attach ourselves to binary identities. And I suspect that living from a place of not knowing could bring personal freedom. We can't be insulted by the views of others if we're not attached to any views ourselves.
I think it is useful to consider, what might we be wrong about today? While we've made some remarkable ethical, technological, and scientific progress over time, there is room to grow.
And if we're to assume that most of what we believe to be true will later be thought at least partially wrong, maybe the better question is, what would be impactful if proved wrong?
If we're going to look for places to stand apart from the status quo, it might as well be in spots that matter.
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