During my last year at university, I panicked. I realised that I was about to be sent into the world almost entirely ignorant. (Commenters, please fill in own joke here.) I had half-absorbed a few tiny bits of western history, and I’d read and then mostly forgotten some German novels and poems. I knew nothing about science. I hadn’t the faintest idea how the world worked. I wasn’t even entirely sure what interest rates were.
Shortly before graduating, I confessed my anxieties to a high-powered thirtysomething at a dinner in London. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I knew nothing when I graduated either, so I’ve just kept learning. Now my employer is paying for me to study Arabic.” That same evening, I resolved to pursue a project of life-long learning. Twenty-five years on, I’m still ignorant, but still at it.
Because I graduated in Britain, I missed out on the traditional American commencement ceremony at which a middle-aged bore intones, “You can be whatever you want to be.” Instead, a middle-aged bore droned on at us in Latin for an hour. But if any American university is still looking for a middle-aged-bore speaker this commencement season, here’s what I’d tell the graduates:
“After graduating, I decided to find out what interest rates were, so I began reading a newspaper I’d never opened before: the Financial Times. I kept going, hoping I’d eventually learn the thing I most wanted to know: why some people and countries were rich and others poor. In 1994, trying to accelerate the learning process, I joined the FT. I thought that after a few years I’d know enough to go on and do something more useful than journalism, but it never happened.
“Like me back then, you are graduating almost entirely ignorant. This isn’t your fault. Your most fecund educational years were aged nought to three, when your brain was fairly porous, but the opportunity was probably wasted. You then spent each school day surrounded by up to 30 other people, each with their own problems and ability levels. Since high school, you’ve been additionally handicapped by hormones, smartphones and early-morning starts.
“In short, you’re going to have to keep learning all your life. Here are a few tips:
Just shut up and listen. Whenever you think, ‘I know about that’, you don’t. When you hear yourself saying something you’ve said before, don’t bother. When someone worthwhile tells you something about North Korea, don’t sit there waiting till you can interrupt with your one factoid about North Korea. Pre-rehearsed anecdotes will keep you dumb.
Also avoid all house-price talk, route talk, diet talk, name-dropping and current-affairs clichés. Over a lifetime, this can save you years.
Listen hardest to people younger than you. They are ignorant and generally have lowly jobs, but their fragments of knowledge will be more cutting-edge than yours. If you’re ever tempted to kid yourself that your knowledge will hold good over time, listen to aged relatives recite the race theories they picked up in the 1940s.
When you meet someone who likes pontificating, you might pick up his tiny bit of expertise, if he has any. You’ll probably never have a productive conversation with him, and he won’t have learnt much from other people, so best to avoid.
When you discover you were wrong about something, don’t fight it. Treasure the moment: you’ve learnt something.
Don’t let conflicts derail your working life. Frequent changes of career will stop you from increasing your competence in one particular field. If you have to work with somebody irritating, deal with it. If you find lots of people irritating, then you’re the problem.
Even if you become an expert, you’ll still be pretty ignorant. What experts know about any topic is always infinitely less than what they don’t know.
Obviously, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The trick is to work out what you should be.