Commentary: The More I Travel, The Dumber I Get

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.

26 thoughts on “Commentary: The More I Travel, The Dumber I Get”

  1. Gary, you have a good point. There is so, much we can learn as we travel and expand our lives. I hope you’ll keep sharing even the things you don’t feel well versed in, your teaching the rest of us about something new.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    After having been a shrink, an historician, an epistemologist for years, and lately a traveler, I am sure that I don’t know too much.
    And the little that I do know, well, frankly, I do not fully understand.

  3. Btw it’s laksa, not laska ;D ok doesn’t matter. even to know laksa is a serious part which it has like 10 types of laksa or even more. Each state in Malaysia has their own type of laksa and me myself even never taste all these laksa entirely.

  4. At first I was confused but intrigued by the title of your post. But now I can fully relate. I think as we grow older and older, it’s just an indefinite cycle of realising that you don’t actually know as much as you think you do. And this is why our grandparents and older mentors seem so wise or smart, not because they know a lot but because they’ve accepted and understand this learning cycle.

  5. I too often struggle to make sense of the vast amount of unknowns travel exposes us to. I think, more than anything, this ‘dumb’ feeling we all get comes down to gaining perspective – insomuch as every time I find a new unknown, the world gets that little bit bigger and my place in it a little less important in the grand scheme of things.

    Congratulations on such a refreshing and thought provoking read! You’ve not only hit on a topic that so many can identify with, but you’ve managed to sum up a potentially very confusing subject matter incredibly well… Two thumbs up!

  6. I love that you posted this because everytime I travel and see new things I realize that I am in someone else’s world; that I have entered a new and unusual place that is so normal to the people who live there but which overwhelms me with its newness no matter how small or simple. These are the times when I realize how big the world really is and realize “I didn’t know that I didn’t know” something, and long to know more.

  7. Makes me think of a quote I love from Henry David Thoreau “To know that you know what you know, and to know that you do not know what you do not know, that is true knowledge.” (Yeah I know this can be tied to Socrates and Confucius but I’m quoting my main man Thoreau here)

  8. I agree that Rumsfeld made sense in that clip – even though I am not a fan, I totally understood what he was saying. Years ago when I was training for a new position my supervisor stopped by to inquire how things were going. My response was: “I don’t know what I don’t know until I don’t know it.”

    it applies to so much in life…

  9. Thank you so much for writing this!

    I’ve just began travelling and already have felt as though the amount I have yet to learn was overwhelming. It’s comforting to know that even though it will probably become even more overwhelming, I’m not alone in realizing just how immense my lack of knowledge is. Just yesterday I was thinking (almost panicking) about it for hours before I realized that it was OK… the only thing to do is keep pushing ahead, evolving, learning what I can and accepting that there’s no one that knows everything.

    “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’m pretty sure you hit a chord with many travel bloggers with this, I know I’ve hit that wall countless times already.

  10. Wow, I’m impressed by how you put this complicated issue into such simple words! Fantastic. And I think many travelers know exactly the feeling you are talking about… I do, too.
    Well, Socrates already said “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance. ” So apparently we are all in good company having this feeling.
    And if Socrates is considered wise, then travelling is maybe the best way to become not konwledgeable (or to come to believe one is knowledgeable), but to become wise. Not too bad a perspective…
    But leaving these soul-soothing words aside, the real reason to travel is not to become knowledgeable, or to become wise… it is curiosity itself, the fact that every place we visit and every person we meet on the journey has story to tell and teach, and we enjoy the listening – don’t we?

  11. This is why I love travel. The constant learning to me is the definition of constant growth and mind expansion.

  12. Gary, I am new to your site and found this post to be rather profound. I have an insatiable appetite to fill the gap between what I know I know, and what I know I don’t know. I admire what you are doing and what you are sharing with readers. Thanks!

  13. Haha I agree completely. If you don’t know that you don’t know it doesn’t bother you, because you don’t know. When you travel like you say, you realize how much you don’t know and you sort of wonder ‘ what else don’t I know that I don’t know?”

  14. You put it so well. When I was studying journalism years ago, I began to be afraid to write about anything as I became aware of how easily I could spout about something I thought I knew, only to find out — blushing — just how far off base I was. It was paralysing. But you have to dig in there and give it your best. That’s the only way to find out, not just what you know or don’t know, but what you NEED to know. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

  15. umm…yeah, the more i know, the further i go, the more i feel dumb and dumber …. click! totally got ur point! but sometimes, after years abroad, when i got toooo tired with the diversity of culture/language/beliefs .. ignorance IS a BLISS …^_^

  16. spot on.
    I wish I could embark on a dumbing down phase but it ain’t happening anytime soon…
    ah well, happy travels

  17. I’ve gotta say, this is one of your best posts I’ve read so far; interesting and insightful, about travel and yet some how philosophical as well. Nice

  18. Great post :-). Since living in Southern China, I’m often questioned about strange grammatical intricacies within the English language. I never realized how poor my understanding of the inner workings of my own mother tongue is!

  19. If we really sit down and think about the possible unknown unknowns, I think most of us would be overwhelmed, some of us to the point of paralysis. What we know is such an infinitesimally tiny fraction of all there is to know, but only truly people who are both smart and humble get this.

    All that said I love the excitement and wonder of learning not just something new, but that there is yet another whole new thing to learn about. Of course, that creates its own challenges for those of us with ADD. When I discover something new to investigate, my task-completion rate drops to zilch.

    • Trish, that was my thought exactly as I read this post. I started to think of all the unknown things I know. Everyday there is something more to learn. You never stop learning. There is more information out there they we can obtain in one lifetime. Which I think is great. I don’t want to ever think I know it all. :)

  20. Well, I’m glad you are writing about it, because when we bring something to light…. ignorance fades. Also, your experience and point of view are important to those of us who come here to read about your experiences.

    Thank you, Gary!

  21. I’m so glad to see you write this: “I’m often hesitant to write about a subject because I’ve met people who are much more knowledgeable about it than I am.”

    Because I suffer from this affliction all the time. Glad to know I’m not alone.

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