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The more you know…

by on November 18, 2008

“The more you know, the more you know how little you know.”

This statement was expressed to me about half way through my masters thesis when I was growing a little frustrated with the magnitude of the problem I was working on, the volume of literature that already existed, and the numerous angles to my work that I hadn’t considered.

A great professor at Dalhousie helped me through it. He said “Education is about realizing how much you don’t know, and then learning how to ask the right questions to find the answers”. How true he was, and I haven’t forgotten it since.

The world as I knew it

The world as I knew it

He went on to explain it like this: look at the above diagram. When you’re an undergrad, the red circle is how much you know, and the blue circle is how much you think you don’t know. You’ve shown that you can learn, people point out a few places for you to find more information, and you pursue it to chew it all up. The problem is that you haven’t learned enough to realize that the scope of things to know is quite vast. You know how much you know, but see the scope of “all things” as being limited and relatively small. You either take your time learning new things since you think there are very few things to learn, or you attack it savagely to learn everything as quickly as possible. I was the former. I trotted along at a medium pace since I thought I was pretty close to knowing all there was to know about my subject matter. As a result, I began delving into other areas of research and extracurricular activities (this was all before karate). Naive and, to some degree, pompous.

Then you learn the things in the blue circle and realize that there are things beyond this that you need to learn. New answers brought more questions and the list just seemed to get longer. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a huge space wondering where I belonged and how to proceed.

With a little more work, I realized that the following was more realistic of the circle.

The new world view

The new world view

I’ve finished my research on that subject for now, defended my masters thesis and have been hired to do research in other areas. But I’m being much more realistic of this new area. There isn’t enough room on this page to illustrate the relative size of my new blue circle, but suffice it to say, my red circle is growing at a constant pace.

That brings me to my point: karate is much the same. When you begin karate, and for about the first 3-5 years, many will think they know how much there is to know. I mean, how much effort and time can go into perfecting a rising block, right? Well, lets look back at these fancy little diagrams. After you learn now to do a rising block, then you learn how to tune it. Connected to that block are details of leg and knee position, stance depth and length, and hip rotation. All this comes together with timing. Now, in a sparring match, these things are altered somewhat to allow for dynamicity. Once you learn how to perform a rising block in sparring, then you realize how much improvement you can make to your kihon rising block. The blue circle keeps getting bigger.

When you’ve been in karate for a while, the pattern appears to hold as much as it did for my computer science thesis. We can learn as much as we want to learn and so we make no assumptions or jokes about how much we know. The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.

I chat regularly with a friend who is a little older than I, has been in karate for nearly as long as I’ve been able to walk, and for whom I have the utmost respect and I’m astonished (but excited) by how much I learn from him at every meeting. It’s not self-centered of me to want to get to that point; to want to give as much back as I get. For every question we answer in karate, more questions arise. We’ve all heard the phrase “when one door closes, another one opens”. That’s fine in a “life pursuit” sort of way, but in the context of learning, when one door closes, 32 doors open.

Now, as I see it we can approach the vastness of this realization from one of two angles: we can be daunted by the seeming infinity of it all, or we can get excited as hell and want to learn more. I know I’ll never know everything there is to know about information retrieval, mobile networks, or software engineers, but I’m sure as hell going to try. With this realization, I hope to approach karate the same way.

Make your red circle as large as your blue circle, seek perfection of character; it’s all the same.


From → philosophy

  1. Very interesting thoughts… something that also occurred to me when I started reading… compare the circles you’ve drawn to the symbol for our martial art… i find the likeness rather amusing, and though I doubt it was really an intended parallel it makes the relevence of what you’re saying hit home all the more…

    Could the Shotokan karate symbol of the rising sun really be intended to show us how little we really know? as I said… I don’t think that was the intent but definately the parallel is interesting…

    food for thought

  2. That’s something I thought about when I created those things. Philosophers certainly would make the extension, say “there is more to this symbol than even its creator envisioned” .

    I guess the symbol could be used as a simple graphical cue to beginners, as well as new black belts. Perhaps especially the black belts. Instructors focus on staying humble when you get your shodan, and perhaps this could be just another teaching aid.

    Bit of a stretch perhaps.

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