The three most important words

“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born of a continuous ‘I don’t know,’” said the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska when accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. The phrase, she continued, “is small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.”

Not only poetry but philosophy, science, writing, music, painting, everything that matters begins with “I don’t know.” Even religion begins with “I don’t know” but then degenerates to certainty. Certainty is death. As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his great book Sapiens, the biggest discovery in science was the discovery of ignorance, the recognition that we did not know. From that everything flowed. To not know is joy.

Fourteen years ago I wrote in the BMJ in my “thoughts for new medical students at a new medical school” :

“David Pencheon, a public health doctor, plays a game with new medical students. He asks them questions of increasing difficulty. Eventually—and it may take a while—a student will say: “I don’t know.” Pencheon then gives the student a box of Smarties and tells the students that these are the three most important words in medical education.

T S Eliot thought the same, saying that in order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way which is the “way of ignorance.” Ignorance may not be bliss, but it is the beginning of all learning. Those who want to be even good enough doctors must commit to a lifetime of learning—which means displaying, not hiding, our ignorance.”

Start every day by saying “I don’t know”–and then begin to discover.


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