I don’t know, man

I’ve been embracing ignorance. Not the willful kind or the “see no evil” kind. Those I detest. I mean the open, free, “teach me” kind of ignorance. I used to tell my students (1) never be afraid to reveal your ignorance and (2) ignorance is curable. Ignorance is a temporary state. Once you learn, you aren’t ignorant anymore. The best way to learn is to be ready to learn. Really, that’s all it takes. Most of the time we fail to learn because we aren’t ready. In school we “learn” on someone else’s schedule. Hardly ideal. Sometimes we learn because we have to, like deciphering the tax code before you fill out the forms. Or changing a flat on your bicycle so you don’t have to push the thing home. That kind of learning often works, but it’s not much fun.

I think learning should be fun. When we are having fun we aren’t thinking. We are doing and the learning is happening without our awareness. I like to ski. I talk technique with my ski buddies and I practice what we talk about. I read books about skiing and think about how to improve using those ideas. I visualize myself executing perfect turns. All those go into the mix. But the real learning takes place when I mentally shut up and simply go down the hill. If I’m relaxed and confident I can implement the things I’ve been learning effortlessly and I ski more skillfully.

But there’s the rub—relaxed and confident. It takes a lot of falls to learn how to ski. It takes some crummy days on the mountain where I’m frustrated and tired and continuing to fail at what I want to accomplish. The key is to match the pace of the event with the preparation. That is, do what you set out to do. Don’t over-reach. Learning takes place when the new material is just on the frontier of what you already know. Don’t make the big leaps until you can make the little ones. That’s how you gain confidence in your ability to learn. Once you know you can do something the actual learning is a lot easier!

The best way to be relaxed when learning something new is to stop comparing yourself to other learners. We are all different. What will be a snap to one person will be a slog to another. This is the pernicious part of schooling—everyone has to go at the instructor’s pace. When you set goals that are your own and decide on your own pace to achieve them then the learning comes naturally.

I used to be The Answer Man. I’m not that guy anymore. These days I want to be the Not-Answer Man. Or maybe The Question Man. The right question can almost answer itself. When I hit a roadblock in my thinking I respond with a flurry of questions. No one wants a flurry of questions! Usually one will do. The trick is to find that one question. And when you do, when you winnow out the obvious ones and the trivial ones, the meaningful ones are left. And they can often be lumped together and pared down to those essential, useful, difference-making questions. Sometimes the question is so to the point, so clear and in the heart of what needs to be known that it can almost answer itself. That’s real learning right there. When you are ready, relaxed, and confident, things like that happen effortlessly.

I’ve been working on my new favorite phrase: “I don’t know, man.” I use it to free my mind of bias. Of preconceived notions. Of previous experiences and the expectations that come along with them. If I want to learn I have to tune into the signal and filter out the noise. The noise is all the baggage that comes along with something that you’ve accumulated over the years. Ideally, when you are in a full-on learning mode, you automatically connect the new notions with older stuff in your head. You get an upgrade. The old stuff is still there, but it’s new again because you’ve reorganized it and reworked it. It’s not that I didn’t know something before, it’s just that I want to see it in a new way.

I never thought of myself as an athlete. I had poor eyesight as a kid and was uncoordinated. I loved sports and other physical activities but never had the success in those areas that I did in more intellectual pursuits. I’ve come learn, in my later years, that it was mostly in my head. I did not believe in my abilities so they didn’t manifest themselves. Learning to ski again in my forties and now tackling open terrain powder skiing in my fifties I have found that all my barriers are mental. There is absolutely no reason why I can’t do the things I want to do with my body attached to a pair of skis. I have to be realistic, of course. I’m not going to be popping 540’s at the terrain park or plunging down 50-degree icy pitches with rocks and man-eating moguls. But as far as getting to where I want to go, I now know that I can. And that’s because I embraced ignorance. I “forgot” all the things that used to hold me back.

So when you hear me say “I don’t know, man” what I really mean is that I’m ready to learn something new. So be ready to teach me!


2 thoughts on “I don’t know, man

  1. Mr. O’Connor, you are a gift from heaven. You are without a doubt the most intriguing and helpful teacher I’ve ever had the privilege of learning from. You’ve opened my eyes to a perspective that I desperately needed at this time. Thank you for making a difference in so many people’s lives, especially the ones you may not see.
    Know that you have changed mine.
    -Ember Clifford


  2. Thanks, Ember! I appreciate the feedback. And the compliments. I used to tell young teachers “try not to screw up” and if you do “own it” and you’ll probably do more good than you know. Hope all is well with you.


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