Ignorance is bliss: the love/hate relationship with knowing

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In 1747, Thomas Gray wrote “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” which contains the original phrase that we have all come to know so well: ignorance is bliss. Gray’s poem describes his memories of being at Eton College (a boarding school for boys), which he associates with a time when he and the other boys had no pains or worries about the future and any loss was quickly forgotten. After describing the carefree time, Gray speaks of what he currently knows to be true – he and the rest will grow up to become ones who will deal with much worry, pain, and heartbreak. The last stanza of the poem reads:

“To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.”

Gray acknowledges that all will become subject to what has become referred to today as “adulting,” and he suggests that perhaps it’s not such a great thing to know. He infers that precisely because he did not know, he was able to enjoy his youth so well.

I think most of us have experienced this in one form or another: everything seems fine until some new information is either discovered or presented to us, and all of a sudden that fine state of knowing isn’t so great anymore. (Damn you, acquisition of knowledge!) While knowledge is certainly power, it presents its own problems as well.

Learning new things, particularly when they conflict with previously accepted ideas, can be tough to swallow. This past week I witnessed or was a part of so many enlightening conversations that the subject of ignorance was at the forefront for me. I observed some ignorance, and I discovered some in myself.

When we are made aware of new information, oftentimes this can cause a wide range of emotional responses. New information can be polarizing: sometimes we are happy and excited about it, sometimes we feel fortunate for what we found out, and sometimes we wish we didn’t know. Sometimes we get angry, defensive, hurt, scared, confused, frustrated, disappointed, or embarrassed. Sometimes the information is welcomed and many times it is not.

One of the joys of ignorance is the fact that our brains aren’t filled with things that challenge our way of thinking or make us upset, sad, or fearful. Once that information exists to us, however, those things now require thought and consideration. If you didn’t want to hear it, you can’t unhear it, even if you don’t agree with it or think it’s true. That blissful feeling only remains as long as no one or nothing introduces any of that additional information to us.

Another pro of ignorance is a lack of responsibility. If you don’t know about something or its impending effects on something else, you can’t really be responsible for what happens. You didn’t know! Which is great – being liable for stuff only adds to the amount of adulting we have to do, and I don’t know many people eager to head more in depth into that feeling regardless of age…

So that leads us to the cons of ignorance. Really, though – is there a reason we need to find stuff out? Not being burdened by so many things feels much better. If we don’t know something is bad or wrong or hurtful or dangerous, can it be bad for us? If it was, wouldn’t someone have told us?

Turns out many times people do tell us. Reports and articles mention food products that contain mystery ingredients, the inhumane treatment of animals, information about our community…much of the information is out there – you just have to look for it.

The problem with ignorance is that it doesn’t allow us to evaluate different viewpoints about the same thing. It can keep us from improving, from seeking better alternatives, and becoming aware of our options. Ignorance deprives us of information that can make us better people, community members, and leaders. It can keep us from being better at what we do.

But learning new information can be difficult for us. People rarely appreciate the challenging of what they know. If you are receiving new information, try to be curious about it. Imagine that you are receiving it as a third party advisor to yourself, and ask yourself the following questions:

– How does this information compliment or oppose what I already know?

– Have I been provided with information that will cause me to need to make a shift in my thinking? If so, how do I feel about that?

– Is the information valid? Has evidence been provided to support it? Can I ask for evidence? If not, is this something I can research or ask additional sources about?

If we can be curious about new information rather than feeling threatened by it, we might be able to save ourselves some agitated conversations. Less feelings like this would mean less stress, and perhaps that can replace the bliss caused by ignorance.

When it comes to having a career as a creative artist, using the questions above can be most helpful when dealing with the bombardment of information one receives. There are so many people providing information: some of it is very useful, some of it is good but it is presented badly, and some of it isn’t useful at all. Unfortunately, just because someone is in a position of authority does not mean that they are giving good information. The majority of us grew up being taught to believe what teachers tell us and that the books we read are true. And while these sources usually provide good information, teachers usually don’t know everything, and books can have a very slanted or one-sided view on a subject. It’s also possible that the teacher has the best intentions but has not kept up with current industry news and standards. The same with books – when was it written? Who was the author?

Without some sort of supporting evidence, one source is not enough to determine the validity of information. When I taught diction courses, I used one textbook for the course but I explained to the students that my lecturing came from seven different diction resources, that there were conflicting schools of thought on some of those things which I would point out, and that even so, they might have been taught something different and they should always feel free to ask. After teaching the courses for eight years, I still wouldn’t say that I know everything, and as a teacher if I didn’t know something a student questioned, I would seek additional sources so that we could all know the answer. Books can come with errata, and people’s messages can be flawed as well.

It’s the seeking of truth in a message that takes the folly out of being wise. And if you are the provider of new information, see if you can present it in a way that promotes curiosity and not challenge. If you’ve ever experience resistance to new information then you know it can be hard to accept, so try to be kind when giving information.

While knowledge causes us to have to think more and take on more responsibility, for me the value of the information I’m glad I know significantly outweighs the information I wish I didn’t. Ultimately, our perceptions about what new information means to us and how we can use that to inform ourselves is a great trade-off for the bliss of the unknown.

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