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“I don’t know anything about anything.”

You can’t know it all, and that’s okay.

Dominik Nitsch
6 min read
“I don’t know anything about anything.”
Seattle, the place where someone didn’t know anything about anything first. Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

“Adulting is hard”, my friend Allie sighed. We were sitting on her couch at her spacious apartment in Seattle, right in the middle of Capitol Hill. “You have to make all these decisions, without having any real frame of reference.”

“How does that make you feel?”, I asked, pretending to be the life coach I’ve always wanted to be but probably will never be unless I stop talking so much.

“Like I don’t know anything about anything”, she replied.

I’ve used this phrase at least one thousand times since. Every day we face situations we have never faced before. This is certainly more extreme as a startup co-founder, but is true for basically everyone. Which leaves you hopeless and feeling out of control some times.

So much shit in life happens that nobody prepares you for. It starts out small. You move out from home, and all the sudden you need to figure out how to cook your own food, which detergent you use (which, looking at my parents’ detergent arsenal, seems to be highly scientific), which insurances you need, why and how to pay taxes and how to not be broke instantaneously.

You may not become an expert in either of those domains, but you figure them out just enough so you can go on to live the adult life. Like, I still wash all my clothes at 40°C, using the same detergent every time, and it seems to be just fine. I have absolutely no clue for what the other 23 settings on the washing machine are, nor do I know why the local drugstore has 1283 different kinds of detergents.

Then, you start working. Shit hits the fan. How do you create an Excel model? How do you hire a team? And, holy hell, how do you manage a team?

That’s where I got to the point where I started using “I don’t know anything about anything” every day.

Look, we’re in the business of personnel placement at hospitals and in the business of teaching people languages. I studied business administration and computer science and spent the years prior renting out buses for a major green European mobility company. I don’t know shit.

The harsh truth about knowledge

We can’t know it all. There is an infinite amount of things to learn. Despite what you like to think as a teenager or college student, no, you can’t know it all.

The more we learn, the more we understand this truth. “The more you know, the less you know” is a common saying. What looks simple on the surface may actually be highly complicated when you go down the rabbit hole.

My first contact with American Football was in 2010, living abroad in North Carolina. I obviously didn’t understand the rules, and naturally, the football coach told me: “aren’t you the European? the soccer coach’s office is across the hallway.”

To me, it seemed simple. Big men are running into each other and then at some point, a guy throws a ball and people cheer. Pretty straightforward.

Nine years later, I still haven’t played, but I have gone down the rabbit hole all the way. And holy shit, is it complex.

Route trees. Blocking assignments. The NFL Draft and its compensatory picks. The more I learn about football, the more I realize how little I know. I can’t tell you how a Cover-2 is different from a Tampa-2 coverage, nor can I tell you when it’s okay to use a free kick and when it isn’t. I just know all those things exist.

That’s just one sport among many, and sport is just one leisure activity among many. There are infinite things to know in the world, and you can only know a select few of them.

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And now, back to scheduled programming.

The Knowledge Arc

Thinking about the subject of not knowing anything about anything, I started wondering: what about the masters of their craft? Don’t they actually know something about anything?

The more you learn about a given matter, the less you know — until you get to the point of true mastery. The learning will never stop, but once you master a subject or skill, things start to become more simple again.

Seeing Lacrosse being played for the first time, it looked pretty straightforward. There are people with sticks, they throw and catch balls, beat the shit out of each other and sometimes score goals. Easy enough.

When I first started playing Lacrosse, everything moved super fast and was highly difficult. All these different plays, defensive schemes, running and catching patterns were way too much information to process at once.

Now, ten years later, the game slows down in front of me. The plays are logical, simple. It’s easy to pick up new defenses, because they all are rooted in the primary mechanics of the game.

If you were to plot it out, with the x-axis being the amount of knowledge you have about a given matter and the y-axis being the “omg I don’t know anything about anything”-indicator (a highly scientific term made up by yours truly), it’d look like this:

Sorry, axis labels were too much to ask. Also had to google how to shift a function on the x-axis. High school math has been a while.

You start out not knowing anything, thus having no idea how much there is to know. The more you learn, the more you realize how lost you are. And at some point, you actually start “getting” it — until you’ve truly mastered the subject, and it seems as simple as it was in the beginning.

There’s only one big problem: getting to the right side of that mastery arc is hard and time consuming. As a matter of fact, you will probably get there in only a few areas of your life at most.

That’s okay.

We all don’t know anything about anything.

In German, there is a beautiful saying: “andere Menschen kochen auch nur mit Wasser.”

Other people are also just cooking with water.”

Nobody has the secret sauce. Nobody really knows what they’re doing.

As kids, we look at our parents like they are demigods. They know everything, do everything right and we want to be like them. As adults, we realize: our parents are also just cooking with water. They’re trying to figure out life just like you are — they’re just a few steps (and, well, years) ahead of you.

Chances are your boss has no idea what he’s doing, either. He’s just had no idea of what he’s doing longer than you have. If you work for me, you know for sure: I (sometimes) have absolutely no idea what I’m doing — and will gladly admit it. But I have this feeling a bit less often than a few years ago.

We all don’t know anything about anything. And we all have the power to change that. The most important skill in today’s day and age isn’t knowing everything; it’s being able to learn new skills fast, to absorb new information fast.

The best thing you can do to learn new stuff is: read, read, read. Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash

Our world is changing faster than ever, and the old style of simply being good at something by “knowing” stuff is over. You have to be agile, to be able to constantly adapt to new developments around the world. Which will leave you saying: “I don’t know anything about anything.”

And then you change. Until you know a little something.

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