Conventional wisdom tells us that the smartest people have all the answers. From game shows like Jeopardy to documentary makers like Neal DeGrasse Tyson, bona fide smart people often have careers that allow them to profit from having all the answers. Martha Stewart, while not an academician, made a career out of having the answers to all of our questions, even before we had them, in some cases.
Certainly not to disparage the people just mentioned who might not even define themselves as having all the right answers, but let me make a bold statement here: The smartest people are not the people with all of the answers, they are the people with all of the right questions.
Hmm, you may say, but when we seek knowledge or when we need assistance, don’t we want a smart person with all the answers? I mean, who wants a brain surgeon who isn’t smart? Most people would want the smartest person on the planet, do they not?
So here’s the thing. Knowledge is understanding something that could be changing. For instance, if you lived in Oregon and had a view of Mt. St. Helens before 1980, you might see it in a certain shape, describe it accurately for a report, and in fact, you could be the leading expert on everything about Mt. St. Helens. Then the volcano erupts blows off the north face of Mt. St. Helens. It no longer looks like it used to.
So if you’re going to make a report about Mt. St. Helens, you can’t use your old knowledge because it is no longer accurate. If in fact, you intend to remain an expert on Mt. St. Helens, you need to note and make changes in that report.
Does that mean you were wrong when you described the volcano earlier? Of course not. You were right for the knowledge you had at that point in time. Will this be the end of your career as a budding volcanologist? Not if you have the right question. In this case, maybe the right question is, what makes this volcano erupt over time and what will happen to the future of the area? THAT question will lead the report in a relevant and interesting direction.
So why talk about this? In what ways is it relevant to my life today? Here’s the thing- sing along with me, “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got”. Those lyrics became iconic when Cheers hit the airwaves in 1978. Today, it’s gotten much worse. If you are like most adults, you often seek guidance and advice to help you make sound decisions and lead a semi-predictable and happy life. So who do you turn to? Would it be someone with all the right answers or someone with all the right questions?
A look at the political situation in countries all over the world, show political pundits, masters of mass manipulation, hollering that life will be simple if you just follow them. Whether divinely inspired or secular, what binds them all is a fixed truth that prohibits or discourages questions. This turns out to be an attractive option if you are overwhelmed with life’s complexities.
Questioning, analyzing, interpreting our world is exhausting, and quite frankly, depressing. The point, however, is not whether or not they have the right answers, it’s that they don’t have the right questions.
Questioning in fact, when done correctly, leads you to explore new information and new options, new resources and ultimately will probably change what your answers were before you questioned them. And your right answers today will probably be wrong in the future. Why? Because learning means absorbing new information and meaning into the information and meaning already in your brain. You then actually synthesize new information and meaning that is different. If you are a thinker, that is.
Being a thinking person, insures that whoever you are tomorrow, will be a better person than the one you were yesterday. You will understand and accept that the world is not dichotomous and that people and situations are highly nuanced and dynamic. Change is inevitable, being open and flexible are necessary to making the world work well for you. You can’t be afraid to be wrong or you won’t grow.
So back to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He, at this point has quite a legacy as a scientist that reaches out and makes accessible good scientific knowledge to the non-scientific community. If you are not familiar with him, I highly recommend Netflix binge watching. What makes him brilliant, in my estimation, is that he advances the thought that knowledge in any form is a dynamic and changing thing. He is not afraid to be wrong about a theory, because in fact, the new knowledge made him see things more clearly. Real thinkers are not afraid to be wrong, and can actually be quite excited about it.
Either way, the big takeaway from all this, do not follow those who profess to know all the answers. Learn to think. Learn to question. Learn to be wrong, learn to grow. What are the questions that guide your life?