Not knowing

Embrace the gray -- post this on your wall until you can say it with pride!I was once accused of suffering from “Lastworditis”.  (In that moment, the speaker was dead-on, and I thanked him for it.  It was not my finest hour.)

You may know the affliction, even if you don’t suffer from it yourself: it appears as that urge to pretend you know the answer, to be the smartest in the room, or simply (my favorite) to defend your errors when it’s a waste of time.  The idea that something might be out of our realm (or worse, that someone else might know better) is very difficult for some folks to bear.  Whether this weakness is borne of insecurity or pure arrogance is immaterial most of the time — the know-it-all thing is just plain annoying, and rarely functional.

The tendency runs rampant in the arts, of course. Many people pretend to know more than they do, almost regardless of the topic.  Blame it on Hollywood, which encourages its actors to say “yes I can!” to every question of skill.  Or perhaps it’s a natural reaction to living in a saturated field, with not enough jobs to go around.  The desperate attempt to stand out, to be make yourself indispensable, is exhausting, and either arrogance or smile-and-nod coping with a new subject is quite common.  It may also be quite human.

Here’s the difference in music: where there is some hope that an actor who has never been on a horse may be able to fake it once she gets the job and finally arrives on the set, there is little chance that an average sightreader can suddenly “read well” when faced with a book full of unfamiliar music and a quartet situation, with no one else to lean on for the part.  Live performance also doesn’t have the luxury of editing and additional takes.  We need to be able to back up our claims.

Even in casual conversation (essential to networking!), all sorts of people waste time pretending to know about a subject when they could actually be listening and learning.  It’s usually just a bad habit, and most people are either unaware they’re doing it, or scarier still, they think it’s normal.

A new norm?

It is imperative that each of us knows our strengths and weaknesses.  But as the arts evolve out of the old systems and artists and musicians are more and more required to sell themselves, here a new challenge:  can you sell your skills without steering way off the path of reality?  Where real skills count, credibility is far more valuable than fake-it-’til-you-make-it salesmanship.

Knowing the root of that old habit is important too, and for some, you may find you’re fudging your resume and stretching the way you describe your assets because you don’t believe in what you’ve already accomplished — you must forgive yourself for what you don’t know yet.  (And of course, no one knows or can do it all.)



Repeat the following until it feels normal:

“Wow, I don’t know anything about that!”

You’ll end up knowing more than you did.

1 thought on “Not knowing”

  1. Excellent essay on an important social topic. This applies to educators (big time!) as well. Bravo.

    I also liked the follow up topic “I Don’t Know” (but I can find out). Both are feathers of the same bird.


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