Thursday, November 4, 2010


This week I had an experience that showed me how little I knew about certain things.

It also showed me that whilst I am not stupid, I am not necessarily as intelligent as I may think, and that there are people around me whose brains work far better, more quickly and more efficiently than mine.

How does intelligence work anyway? And what defines intelligence? Is it merely the ability to remember a large number of things? Is it the ability to process large amounts of information, or maintain large and complex trains of thought, without getting distracted and losing the objective? Is it therefore a capacity issue? A "mental bandwidth" issue?

And how much of intelligence is innate, a "talent", and how much of it is learned? How much of what we perceive as intelligence in another person is actual mental ability, and how much of it is just mental discipline, the result of a well-exercised mind? We're all familiar with the person in our lives who could have been and done so much more with their talents and abilities if they had just applied themselves, paid attention in school, not been slack and lazy and pushed themselves. Is this person less intelligent for not putting in the effort (i.e. would they currently be more intelligent if they had of) or are they just as intelligent, just mentally undisciplined, with large quantities of mental processing power going to waste?

I know for myself that I found school relatively easy. I could usually come up with the answer to most questions by making an intelligent guess. This, coupled with laziness, meant that when I saw that I could get an average result with little to no effort, I thought "why try harder?" and pretty much just coasted. Certain teachers (bless their cotton socks) took me aside and told me I would not be able to rely on just pure intelligence for much longer, but of course, I didn't listen, because I was fifteen and had the world and everyone in it pretty much worked out. Why bother learning maths? I was going to be a bass player in an improbably popular rock band and would never need to know what pie squared was. Why try harder to learn German? I'm only doing this subject because the alternative was Agriculture, and I don't want to do all those outdoor lessons in the winter. And Chemistry! Even though I find it amazingly interesting, the concepts don't just immediately resolve themselves in my head, therefore I find that, in the face of having to put effort into understanding them, it's too hard and "I don't get it" and I'll just ride it out and hope the end result doesn't stuff up my year 12 results too much.

This became a really bad habit that is with me to this day. The problem then became that whilst yes, a lot of stuff I understood almost instantly, a lot of stuff I didn't; but instead of trying to figure it out, on a sub-conscious level I imagined that I understood it anyway, and just ploughed on with my own imagined framework, coming up with answers that sort-of fit sometimes, and sort-of didn't at other times. This has been very limiting. If only I was one of those "good" kids that had had the sense to push myself to the limit and really achieve something better than what I did. Shoulda coulda woulda.

But I think that, unfortunately, most people experience the same thing subconsciously at a certain age. They decide that, whilst the world didn't make sense before, it does now, thanks to this marvellous little worldview framework that I've knocked up using ordinary household perceptions, preconceptions and prejudices, and woe betide anyone that tries to tell me differently.

There are different types of ignoramus.

1. The proud ignoramus.

This person is actually proud of their profound ignorance. "I don't know anything, but my opinions are so good I don't need to!" Their opinion is their reality. They substitute knowledge for opinions. And, sadly, most of the time their opinions aren't even their own. Is this why advertising is so successful? "This product costs twice as much and is the same as the cheaper one, but the packaging looks nicer and the TV says it's the best one on the market, so I'll buy it." If ignorance was an Olympic sport, they would be three-time gold medallists. They look down on educated and inquisitive people with contempt. "What do you mean, you want to have a balanced opinion? What do you mean, you want to find out all the facts? What do you mean you want to hear both sides of the story? Pfffffft! This is what I think, for absolutely no reason, and if you don't think the same then you're an idiot!" Unfortunately, many proud ignoramuses are just mentally lazy intelligent people, their cumbersome mental powers going completely to waste on fantasies and imaginings instead of being used to correctly perceive their environment. The proud ignoramus is to be avoided - their ignorance is contagious.

2. The angry ignoramus.

This person knows they are not as intelligent as others, and is mad as hell about it. Therefore they avoid any interaction with information because to them it highlights their inability to process it. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, they too create a fantasy framework in which either a) they are intelligent, and everyone else is stupid, or b) they are at the correct level of intelligence, and everyone who is less intelligent than them is stupid and worthy of ridicule, and everyone who is more intelligent than them is arrogant, up themselves, not to be trusted and to be avoided at all costs. These are the types that end up in charge of totalitarian regimes. They see their warped sense of jealousy as a perfectly sound and valid reason to begin a vendetta against a person, group or social organisation. The only reason they are an ignoramus at all is because they spent so much time being pissed off that someone else was more intelligent than them that they had no time to actually exercise the intelligence they did have. The angry ignoramus is liveable with, but only if you are able to convince them that you are no more, or no less, intelligent than them.

3. The misguided ignoramus.

This person usually has been taught from quite a young age that the only thing worth knowing is XYZ and everything else is crap. For example: "my son doesn't need to go to school and learn all that crap. He needs to get an apprenticeship and learn a trade. Then he'll be a real man, not one of these poofters who sits on their arse in an office or a laboratory behind a computer all day." The misguided ignoramus may also have become the way they are due to social or peer pressures: "all the other blokes at school are only interested in cars, girls and beer. Therefore the only things worth knowing about are cars, girls and beer." Sometimes the misguided ignoramus has been led astray by society, and is a victim of propagandist advertising: "I really feel like a beer. A hard-earned thirst needs a big cold beer. And the best cold beer is.... but I'm a bit hungry. I feel like a burger. Should I go to burger joint A, or burger joint B? I know, I'll go to burger joint B, because the burgers are better at burger joint B." The misguided ignoramus is harmless enough, but may not allow you into their social confidence if you do not drive the right make of vehicle, live in the right kind of suburb, barrack for the right sporting team, watch the right kind of American crime shows, eat the right kind of burger and drink the right kind of beer.

4. The blissfully unaware ignoramus.

This person is often also a misguided ignoramus, and can usually be found in the company of the proud ignoramus (the angry ignoramus thinks they're bloody stupid and won't have anything to do with them). Due to social and societal conditions, this person is completely unaware that they don't know anything, because their world is their sphere, and their sphere is so small they know everything about it. They will react to new information with suspicion and fear, because it's unfamiliar, and that makes them feel uncomfortable, because it doesn't fit with the way things are, which is they way they always have been. These are the kind who are born, live and die in the same suburb or small town, and who think going to Tasmania counts as having travelled overseas. They can be quite lovely and easy to get along with, if you can understand a single word they say.

Of course their are more kinds (including the kind that writes blogs attempting to delineate types of ignoramus when they don't know everything themselves), but in my own observations of life these are the main types. Unfortunately, being an ignoramus of any sort does not prevent you from getting into a position of power and influence in society. It's also sad to note that intelligence seems to have no influence over whether or not one is or isn't an ignoramus. Becoming an ignoramus is a choice. Whether or not this choice was yours is not the point. The point is, there is one choice which is yours and yours alone, and that is the choice to stop being an ignoramus.

So how does one stop being an ignoramus? Stop telling yourself that you know everything, that you've got the world figured out, and that you don't need to learn anything more. If you form an opinion, remind yourself that it is only an opinion and in the absence of the knowledge of all facts may not be entirely correct. If everyone around you keeps telling you how smart you are, start hanging around someone who's smarter, in order to avoid little-big-fish syndrome. What's little-big-fish syndrome? Being a big fish in a little pond, who thinks he's reached his peak because he doesn't become a bigger fish, without realising it's just because he's still in a little pond.

The experience I had this week made me realise just that - maybe I'm a big fish in a little pond, and instead of getting into a bigger pond, I've allowed myself to become comfortable thinking bigger of myself than I really ought to. But the experience I had was a part of me attempting to get into a bigger pond, so I'm not going to get all bent out of shape over it. If I make it into that pond, it will be an awesome opportunity that will stretch me and force me to work hard to reach my potential, which honestly does scare me a bit. But I'm a lot more scared of being trapped by little-big-fish syndrome, so I'm more than ready to make the leap. If I don't make it into that particular pond there'll be others, until one day I'll find myself in the pond that allows me to grow to the size I was meant to be.

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