Here’s a brief thought experiment.
First, what’s your domain of expertise?
Almost everyone has one or two domains of expertise—areas about which they know far, far more than the average person. We’re often employed in such an area. Your domain of expertise might be farming, software development, music performance, optometry, project management, or the history of the Christian church.
Okay, now imagine meeting a stranger at a party. Your new acquaintance, after asking what you do, starts telling you all about your own field: how it works, what’s wrong with it, and how to reform it. He has no training or experience in your area, he admits, but he’s talking like he does. As the conversation drags on, your mood progresses from puzzled to annoyed to seething. Who does this guy think he is?
That guy is us.
That’s us at home and at work, holding forth on politics, nutrition, education, sports—topics in which we have no training, haven’t done our homework, and just don’t know what we’re talking about. Yet we feel like we should have a viewpoint, like we should have something to say.
It’s partially the internet’s fault. The world wide web has democratized information—a monumental achievement—but it’s also made it easier for us to read a couple of articles on a subject, absorb the authors’ conclusions without understanding how they reached them, and feel like a newly-minted authority in that field. Unless a subject is highly technical—you and I probably have no strong feelings about any of the current hot-button issues in chemical engineering—we feel qualified, even obligated, to have an opinion. We feel like we’re supposed to know something about everything.
But we can’t. No one person can be an expert in more than a handful of areas. And the wisest among us—the people we admire most—understand this. They know what they know and what they don’t know. They can tell you precisely where their knowledge ends and their ignorance begins. And they understand that having no opinion is a sign of intelligence, not ignorance.
Let’s make it part of our personal philosophy:
It’s okay not to have an opinion.