Commentary: The More I Travel, The Dumber I Get

Posted: March 15, 2010    Categories: Commentary

The first question you are probably asking yourself is “what is a video of Donald Rumsfeld doing at the top of this blog post?” Go ahead and click on it and watch the video. It is only 21 seconds.

I’ve seen a lot of people make fun of Rumsfeld for this quote, and honestly I think he has a point. There are things we don’t even know that we don’t know. Most of you probably are aware of something called quantum physics, and most of you probably have never taken a class on the subject. You are aware that you are ignorant about quantum physics. That would qualify as a known unknown.

Just last week in Singapore, I was being taken around the city by a Singaporean traveler by the name of May. She took me to get Peranakan food. What is Peranakan food you ask? It is the cuisine of the Peranakan culture in Malaysia. What is the Peranakan culture you ask? They are the descendants of 15th and 16th century Chinese merchants who settled in Malaysia and took local Malay wives.

I had no idea this culture even existed until May took me to get laska for lunch. It was an unknown unknown.

Over three years of traveling I’ve learned a lot of things. From a raw knowledge perspective, I’ve learned more in three years of traveling than I did in four years of college. If I am learning so much stuff, how can I say that I’m getting dumber the more I travel? Because the things I know I’m ignorant about increases faster than the things I know that I know.

It is entirely possible for an ignorant person to think they are smart. They know so little, and have been exposed to so few ideas, that that have no idea what they are ignorant of. In their world, they know everything because their world is so small.

In the example I gave above, my knowledge of the Peranakan might have increased by +1, but once I knew they existed there was a flood of things I realized I had no clue about: famous Peranakans, Peranakan dancing, clothing, traditions, holidays, etc. My perceived ignorance of Peranakan culture increased by +10.

Hence, the gap between what I know vs what I know I don’t know gets wider. I feel dumber, even though I’m learning more.

It can be frustrating. I’m often hesitant to write about a subject because I’ve met people who are much more knowledgeable about it than I am. I’ve been taking photos of protesters the last two days here in Bangkok. I can give you the thirty-second explanation as to why these people are protesting, but I’m not Thai, I don’t speak Thai, and I don’t live in Thailand. The ins-and-outs and the nuances of the issues escape me. As I walked around and spoke to some people at the protest, I became aware of a host of issues I had no idea existed before. I learned more, but I sit here feeling dumber than I did when I started because I’m much more aware of what I’m ignorant of now.

Thankfully, ignorance is not bliss. The increasing gap between what you know you know, and what you know you don’t know means you are being exposed to new things and only fuels your desire to fill the gap.

If you travel and come away feeling dumber than you did before you started, don’t worry. It means you are doing it right.

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