“Study as if you know nothing. Work as if you can solve anything.” –James Clear
Of course, you don’t actually know nothing. You know a great many things!
But it’s all-too-common to slip into intellectual arrogance based on the knowledge you already have: thinking that you know everything that matters, losing your innate curiosity and wonder, and ultimately deciding that further learning is pointless.
Kids sometimes do this. Teenagers, in particular, are notorious for believing they know everything. But adults do it too.
There are many problems with thinking you know everything that matters. In school, you become demotivated. In your career, you become inflexible. In your social life, you become boring. In politics, you become narrow-minded.
There are some good philosophical reasons to act like you know nothing.
Compared to the vast, perhaps infinite, amount of things there are to learn, your knowledge will always be so miniscule as be effectively zero. In math, we sometimes consider what happens if you divide a number by infinity. No matter how large the numerator (so long as it is less than infinity), the enormity of the denominator makes the fraction effectively zero.
1,000,000,000 ÷ ∞ ≈ 0
There’s an old saying that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Each door you open leads to a room with three more doors. The only question is, how deep do you want to go? For example, if you begin studying biology, you’ll quickly discover that there are whole categories of knowledge that you know little about: microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, zoology, botany, ecology, paleontology, evolution, physiology, medicine, and more. Some people devote their entire lives to tiny areas within these categories.
So what does it look like to “study as if you know nothing”?
Let’s pause the high-minded philosophizing for a minute and talk about actual studying. You know, the thing students do for tests.
If you’re really struggling with overconfidence – or not sure whether you are – take practice tests. Self-testing is not only the quickest way to find out what you don’t know, but it’s also a powerful tool for learning in and of itself. If you have no motivation to study because you believe you’re good to go, take a practice test and prove it. If you ace the practice test, great! If not, well, better to find out now than during the real thing.
More broadly, I take the “study as if you know nothing” command as a call to engage in relentless learning. This means striving to learn something new every day, whether you’re in school or not. It means learning things that are practical as well as things that serve no obvious purpose. It means learning both deeply and broadly.
If you actually engage in this sort of daily learning, you will prove to yourself, over and over again, that you don’t know everything. You’ll discover, in fact, that there are a great many important and interesting things you know nothing about. And you’ll be overcoming the toxic mindset of “done” that pervades our culture. You’re never done; you can always keep growing. And humanity as a whole isn’t done; we’re still learning.
Now, just as important is to “Work as if you can solve anything.”
This means trying your best to tackle any problem that comes your way, whether academic or otherwise. When you’re faced with a problem, your default assumption should be that you can figure it out. But it doesn’t mean you get to feel certain that you’re taking the right steps. You have to take risks.
Many difficult problems are akin to a hedge maze. You stand before the entrance, unable to see the end and unable to fathom what steps will be required to get there. The only way to get there is to enter the maze and start walking. You might get lost along the way, but the only hope you have of getting through is to begin.
However, confidence doesn’t mean blind foolishness. You should use strategies, such as writing to manage cognitive load. You should use resources, like textbooks. And you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.
Remember, true confidence is self-efficacy, which can only be earned through the acquisition of skills and the memory of real-life successes. Solve problems, and you’ll prove to yourself that you can.
We Need Both
Humility and confidence might seem like opposites, but they’re not. It is possible to embody both simultaneously, and you need to if you want to become the best version of yourself.
If you approach learning with humility and take on problems with confidence, then you’ll be engaging life with a growth mindset. We can encourage students to do this, of course, but we also need to lead by example.
What’s something you need to study with more humility?
Enjoy the exploration.
What’s a problem you need to face with more confidence?
Go for it. You’ve got this.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.