Congratulations! You’re ignorant!

I had an algebra teacher in high-school that, when we answered a question correctly, would respond, “Congratulations! You’re ignorant!” Now, that might not seem like the most flattering compliment for a job well-done, but from him we considered it high praise. He had explained earlier in the year that the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know – hence, the more ignorant we become!

His point was that no matter how much we learn, there will always be so much more that we don’t know. Pointing out our increased “ignorance” was his way to encourage us to continually seek learning and additional knowledge and to keep us from reaching the point where we thought we “knew enough.”

I’ve tried to carry that advice with me into the workplace. When I first began working in the software engineering field as a QA analyst, and later as an application architect, I was completely dependent on the examples of others to help get me started and to the point of self-sufficiency. I was a sponge – always observing what those around me did that I liked and thought I could incorporate into my way of doing things.

Since those early days, and despite my teacher’s advice, I think I’ve occasionally fought complacency, and based on discussions with others, I think this is a common enough occurrence. After a while of doing something “well enough” and seeing a certain degree of success, we might lose some of the hunger and some of the “edge” we need to constantly improve and reach our professional potential.

That notion brings to mind something I read recently in The Aikido FAQ: Shu Ha Ri.

Aikido and Learning from Others

Akido, per Wikipedia, is a Japanese martial art “performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on.”  The FAQ includes some wisdom that, though originally provided for practitioners of the martial art, is equally applicable for business and technology professionals. In fact, the author points out that, “[t]he application of Shu Ha Ri is not confined to the study of a martial art or way, but can also serve as a model of any sort of learning.”

From the FAQ:

As You develop a reasonable repertoire of techniques that You can perform correctly, You will need to expose yourself to as broad a range of practitioners as possible. As You watch others, You need to ask and answer at least three questions:

1. Which other practitioners do I respect and admire?

2. How is what they do different from what I do?

3. How can I change my practice … to incorporate the differences that I think are most important?

I think this is excellent advice, and I’ve tried to follow it over the years. One of the primary reasons I began blogging was to motivate me to expose myself “to as broad a range of practitioners as possible”, by investing more time reading the works of fellow practitioners via blogs and articles and books written by industry thought leaders such as Wiegers, Cockburn, and many others.

Participating in online discussion forums and the occasional networking event also provide opportunities to learn from other practitioners.

Co-workers and other mentors that we work with day-to-day are not to be taken for granted, either. In my case, they’ve offered a rich variety of ideas and techniques that have influenced my professional knowledge and work for the good. It’s great to just compare notes and debate the finer points of topics from methodology to strategy to organizational structure.

Now for the punchline…

So, what was my point in writing this post? In a way, I guess it’s to express appreciation to those who have made their knowledge and experiences available via blogs, articles, books and discussions (my readers included!), and to encourage those who read my stuff to consider the counsel of the algebra teacher, the martial artist, and sometimes even the guy who blogs about business analysis!

As is the case with algebra, I’ve found that the more I learn about software engineering, the more I realize I don’t know, and I continue look forward to becoming just a little more ignorant every day.