The Revolutionary Impact of Ignorance

Like many people around the world recently, I have been fascinated by reading the extraordinary book Sapiens. Its author, Yuval Noah Harari, set out to chart the forces shaping the evolution of the human race and the result is a brilliant exploration of who we are as a species.

One of the insights I found most thought-provoking was the source of inspiration given for the scientific revolution that started in the 16th century. Since that time there has been a dramatic shift in our knowledge across a whole variety of fields – geographic, medical, economic, communication, military etc. This has led, in turn, to a progressive transformation in the way we human beings lead our lives, a transformation that is still very much underway today.

Harari’s assertion is that this revolution has not really been one of knowledge, but rather one of ignorance. “The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions,” he states. His argument is that it was the shift in willingness to admit our ignorance as a species that led people to start challenging existing ideas and ways of thinking more fundamentally. The result has been a search for learning through trial and observation that has enabled human beings to discover a fabulous array of new insights, theories and technologies.

As I considered these ideas, I was reminded of a conversation I had whilst researching my recent book with an extremely wise and experienced business leader called Nihal Kaviratne CBE. Named by Forbes India as one of the five best people to have on your board, Nihal had an illustrious career with Unilever and now serves as a non-executive director for many top companies. He is also the founder of St Jude’s, a burgeoning charity providing shelter and care for street children undergoing cancer treatment in India.

‘As your experience of life builds over the years, I think you begin to develop your own belief set,’ Nihal suggests. At the heart of his personal philosophy is a principle he describes as an unrelenting quest for truth. ‘We need to recognize that the boundaries of what we know are merely the boundaries of what we don’t know, so you have to keep pushing those boundaries further all the time,’ he argues. ‘It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to take decisions based on the best information you have available at certain points in time, but it’s vital to remain curious and to always keep searching for learning.’

Curiosity has become a buzz word in business these days. It is frequently listed as one of the most important characteristics sought after by companies in their leaders, particularly those in the marketing function in which I have spent a significant proportion of my own career. At a time of such turbulent and rapid change, having a mindset that opens us up to learn and adapt quickly is a crucial driver of commercial success.

But what does being curious really mean? In a world powered by Google, is it really that important when so much of the data we seek is just a click away? At the other extreme, if we let ourselves get consumed by a spirit of enquiry, isn’t there a risk that we disappear down endless rabbit holes, wasting precious time by pursuing irrelevant, detailed information for its own sake?

Nihal Kaviratne provides a characteristically insightful perspective. ‘In the early years of my career, I thought it was all-important to know the answers to everything. If I didn’t, I felt insecure, unprepared and vulnerable to being found out,’ he admits. ‘The moment when I became more of a leader was when I realized it was more important to be asking the right questions.’

As these words imply, being curious requires that we are not afraid of our ignorance. We need to possess the humility to acknowledge we do not – and cannot – have all the answers. We need to open ourselves up to embrace new ideas and learning, wherever they might come from within or beyond our organisations.

Perhaps most importantly, by using all our intellectual and emotional resources to define better what we don’t currently know, we will improve our chances of discovering the knowledge that will be most important in helping us flourish and grow as we move into the future.