At a glance, that probably sounds like the most counterintuitive advice you’ve ever gotten. After all, we have it drilled into our heads constantly that knowledge is power. And as someone who seeks to spread knowledge and understanding about photography, even if it’s only in a small way, you’d think I’d be the last person to advocate for knowing less. But let’s go beyond the title, and the negative connotations of the word, for a moment.
In its most basic sense, ignorance is simply not-knowing. That lack of knowledge isn’t something to wear like a badge of honor, but it’s a necessary part of the process, something that’s worth honoring and putting to good use. As long as it’s a point of departure, it’s a phenomenal tool for growth and something worth having around if you plan to get any better at what you’re doing, whatever that may be.
Stripped of our ignorance, we’re stuck. We have nothing new to learn, nothing new to see, and nothing new to say. Think about it: some of the worst of what we’ve done, whether they were wars, race hatred, religious extremism, blinkered political systems, or any of the other myriad forms of hurt, hatred and stupidity of which we’re capable, came about because we “knew” something. We knew better than someone, or knew we were better than them.
What do we have to show for our ignorance? Landings on the Moon and Mars, the exploration of the depths of the sea, decoding the human genome, better understanding of our own minds and bodies… we’ve accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge, the net effect of which has been to further illuminate the depths of our ignorance, which in turn spurs us on just a little bit farther.
What we “know” as artists doesn’t turn us into genocidal maniacs, obviously. But it arrests us, stunts our growth as people and as artists. Knowing something, we put it off to one side; it loses its appeal and some part of its importance. It’s barely worth our attention, much less our continued effort. So ignorance (whether we’re calling it that, or giving it some other name like Zen does with Beginner’s Mind) is vital to our progress, our growth, and our joy.
If we can forget what we know — or begin to realize all that we don’t yet know — we have something to work toward. We don’t know it all. We don’t even know all of a little bit of much of anything, come to think of it. And we should probably be glad for that, because as long as it’s true, there’ll always be something new to learn, and some new surprise, awaiting us at each stage of our learning and putting what we’ve learned into practice.