I love learning.
I’m an Enneagram 5, which if you know anything about the Enneagram, you know that means I’m a hoarder of knowledge, resources and energy. Fortunately, I’m a fairly healthy 5, so I stay relatively engaged in the world and I don’t cling to too many worldly possessions. I do, however, have piles of magazines and books stacked around my room, and I seem to constantly have tabs of online articles pulled up for a quick moment of future reading. While there are particular subjects that speak to my soul (the arts, European history, travel, coffee, wellness and houseplants), I’m usually game to learn about anything.
A long time ago (circa freshman year of college) I became aware of my limitations as a human, and particularly as a scholar. My mind was humbled when I realized how many other brilliant people exist in the world. I’ve never had to try very hard to grasp concepts or memorize facts, so I was very frustrated when I had to put in effort to keep up appearances among other students who seemed to be encyclopedias on every subject. I grew more comfortable sitting in silence in classes than trying to assert my knowledge because I didn’t want to get backed into a corner of needing to admit that I didn’t know something.
While many of my classmates saw themselves as becoming experts in their field of collegiate study, I became more uncomfortably aware of how many things I still needed/should/wanted to learn about. Rather than making me feel comparatively dumb, this new awareness motivated me to be the best jack-of-all-trades that I could be; storing up as many nuggets of helpful and interesting information as possible, so as to avoid being caught off guard. While I thought I was giving myself grace from perfection, looking back, I know that instead of trying to be an expert in one topic, I was ridiculously attempting to be fully competent in every topic, without looking like a broke a sweat.
I take a lot of pride in being able to contribute well to a conversation about a topic that I’m loosely familiar with. I hate being surprised in a dialogue, particularly if it’s in regards to universal basics of geography, world affairs, global history, sports or literature. I test my awareness of the world with online geography quizzes. I regularly alternate my reading list between classic literature and modern biographies. I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and Vogue Magazine to cover the basics of social, political, economic, scientific, fashion and art-related news. I’ve even mastered an award-winning calm facade of neutral agreement that can convince almost anyone that I am tracking with their thoughts, opinions or knowledge even if I have no idea what they are talking about.
But, no matter how much information I consume, I have been reminded lately that there will forever be more to learn. Which is why, in my very mature late-20s, I’ve started to comfortably admit to myself and others “I don’t know,” and then press on to learn about practical subjects that I love — starting with the French language.
I lived in Paris, France for a year after college while completing a master’s program. Unfortunately, my French stayed far below proficient due to many factors, including laziness. If you’ve never studied a second language, it takes lots of effort and commitment to make little progress. Probably my only real regret in life is that I didn’t take better advantage of my year immersed in the culture and language of France. When I returned to the States, I was painfully aware again of my limitations every time someone asked if I became fluent during my year abroad. After wallowing briefly in self-pity for not becoming a French master in a year, I started saying, “I don’t know the language very well now, but I’m taking steps to change that.”
This past week, I completed 365 days of using Duolingo, a language-learning application. By no means have I mastered any element of the French language, but for that matter, I haven’t mastered English either – and I’ve been working on that language for almost three decades. I think my goal in hoarding knowledge was to maintain perfection. Slowly, however it has shifted to a goal of betterment, not expertise.
Saying “I don’t know” could be the catalyst to the start of a new friendship, scientific discovery or personal milestone. Life is meant to be explored, not conquered; knowledge is power, but only if you have discernment to wield it properly; and there is wisdom that comes from openly acknowledging that where you are is not where you want to be.
I will continue to crave information (and will continue learning French because j’adore)! But every once in a while, I will need to check my motives for learning. Am I consuming knowledge to become an expert for the sake of pride, or am I pursuing knowledge to round out my understanding of a subject for the love of the learning journey?
If I needed any more confirmation of this personal conviction, the following is my Enneagram number 5, Enneathought for the Day (which I serendipitously read near the completion of this post): Reflect on this teaching about Transformation today: Our energy can go to one of two places: it may be poured into maintaining the structures of our personality, or if we disidentify with those structures, it may be liberated for our development and growth. (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 348). I think I’ll choose growth today.