Ignorance may be bliss, but why are we so scared to try new things?

By Jim Bright

Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also life. When you think about it – and we rarely do – we are ignorant of many aspects of our lives. Why did I go see Avatar? What did I ever see in my ex-boyfriend/girlfriend? And why did I think I needed a fondue set?

Great books go unread, films unseen, music unheard. It is utterly frightening when you find out that many people will go through life having heard not a bar of Fats Waller, and if asked, might guess that a Fats Waller was some kind of stain remover or olive-oil guru. Not that I am claiming any cultural superiority here – my idea of classical literature is Asterix and Cleopatra.

We think we know what makes us tick – until it doesn’t.
We think we know what makes us tick – until it doesn’t.Credit: Tanya Lake

This ignorance extends to self-insight. I’ve been to Nice and the isle of Greece, while I sipped champagne on a yacht, but I’ve never been to me (Charlene was no.1 for six weeks in Australia in 1982). And if those two sentences make no sense, you have dodged a musical bullet.

We think we know what makes us tick – until it doesn’t. Hobbies that once consumed us can suddenly seem dull or unsatisfying. We make bold predictions – little more than wild stabs or the product of fear – about how we will respond to things in the future. How do we know what we’ll like until we’ve tried it?

Sure, the guardrails of our beliefs and principles may give us a clue, or impose limits, but they still leave a lot of room for discretion. When was the first time you had coriander? Were you brought up on it, did you discover it as a culinary revelation, or do you still avoid it?

Despite most of us treading water in a sea of ignorance, one of the most popular pieces of advice in career development is still to “know yourself”. Given that with every heartbeat we are moving into the future – and therefore the unknown – this seems incredibly naive.

It has always worried me when people say they know what they like. How can they possibly say that, when there’s so much they cannot possibly know? Swathes of human endeavour are ruled out, ignored, avoided or dismissed on the flimsiest of grounds. They didn’t like their biology teacher. They ate “foreign” food once – and never again. Working in an office is horrible, and so it goes.

We all do it, but oddly most of us are evangelists for what we have discovered we love. We often try hard to get our children to share what, we believe, is our cultured love of food, sport, arts – you name it.


You can never know yourself – or the world – even close to any concept of certainty. But we can know ourselves and the world a little bit better if we have the courage to step into the uncertain, and re-learn what young children know instinctively: that there is joy in discovery and surprise.

Dr Jim Bright FAPS owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy, and is director of evidence & impact at BECOME Education an Ed Tech start-up www.become.education. Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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