When I was a child, I used to think it was possible to know everything. I just thought that someone just had to be “smart enough” to retain all the information that life had to offer – hearing Solomon referred to as “the wisest person who ever lived” certainly didn’t help. I don’t know if I was unique in that perspective or not, but nevertheless that was my worldview for a large portion of my childhood. Over the past six months or so in particular, I’ve found myself pondering and unpacking the concept of learning itself at a steadily increasing rate. I believe that there are some interesting aspects of knowing, in and of itself, that are fairly compelling when one takes a moment to really think about them.The concept that really began my thoughts on the nature of knowledge was one from the realm of psychology: the Dunning-Kruger effect.
At an extremely simplified level, this observation on human psychology states that it takes a certain amount of skill to realize a lack of one’s own abilities in a given field.
When we, as individuals, begin to learn about a given topic, we know that we know nothing. Then, after we’ve learned a little about the topic, we typically drastically overestimate our abilities for a while. I’ve frequently seen this dangerous combination of an abundance of confidence and lack of experience referred to as “Mt. Stupid” – it’s the peak on the left in the chart below. At this point, we’ve never been more confident of our abilities, but we only know an extremely limited set of information that we are purporting to understand. After this point comes the valley where, as we learn more, we realize how much we don’t know. After this “rock bottom” point, our confidence begins to regrow as we learn more and realize how much we do know at this point. Note, however, that the confidence reached in the chart never quite reaches that of “Mt. Stupid”, and I believe that this is both healthy and accurate.
The way we learn to write (mechanically, not linguistically) is a great “simple” example – a little girl feels an extreme sense of accomplishment the first time she manages to write her own name. As well she should – at that point, that’s the most difficult task in that field she’s ever accomplished. But, she isn’t focused on technique or making it look good – it’s solely about forming the right letters in the right order. At that point, in her mind, she can write, and that’s that. She probably does like a lot of children do and writes her name all over the house, on many different media – paper, walls, the fridge…etc. In her mind, it looks great, and she did it – it deserves to be seen by the whole world. However, as she gets better at printing her name, she learns about cursive, a different way of writing that’s much harder. Now she has to hold the pen a certain way, relearn her name in the cursive script, and try to keep it smooth and flowing at the correct angle.
She realizes how hard it is and how much she doesn’t know about writing.
Then, over time, she gets comfortable with that – she polishes her signature, and is once again pleased with her ability. She then learns about calligraphy – an entire discipline based on writing in an artistic, aesthetically pleasing way – and she realizes, once again, how much she doesn’t know. In calligraphy, each stroke of the pen matters. Not only that, but the pen itself matters. As does the tip of the pen (called the “nib”), the ink, and the paper itself. These are aspects that, when she had first printed her name, never crossed her mind (though she was more confident in her abilities then than now). In fact, she didn’t even know a “nib”, parchment, or calligraphic ink existed – the complexity of writing came from elements that she was completely unaware of when she made her first attempt at her name.
This last observation leads me to the core principle at work in the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.
This statement explains several aspects of creativity quite well: it’s why a drunk frat guy at a party can think he “totally shredded” the riff to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, even though he’s held a guitar twice before and half the room left as he played it. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s why a highly-trained classical pianist who’s studied a single, particular piece for an obsessively long time feels as though he’s letting the composer down by failing to encapsulate the composer’s complete vision when he plays the piece (though to the general audience, it’s a masterful interpretation). The guitarist in the example is just happy he made the guitar sound like Guns n’ Roses – that’s hard for him. He has to hold the string down all the way, make sure he isn’t sharp/flat, play the correct notes in the correct order, and do it in some semblance of time. For the pianist, these points are already a given – he’s memorized the piece inside and out, pouring hours into certain particularly tricky passages. He envisions pastoral scenes in the gentle sections, and feels painful moments from his past during passionate sections. Yet he knows he’ll never be able to see inside the mind of the composer as the piece was written, and to the pianist something is lost in translation – he’ll never be as great as the man who wrote the piece. He’ll also never be as great as the person who played the piece when he heard it for the first time, that time that he fell in love with it.
Hand-in-hand with this, the Dunning-Kruger effect also explains why we, as artists, can tend to look back on our earlier works of creativity and feel a bit embarrassed about them (at least, I know I have and still do). We’re able to remember the amount of confidence/pride we had about a work whenever we finished it and, looking back, we realize how much we didn’t know then; we also think about what we could have/should have done to make the final result better. It can be as recently as a few weeks or as long as 20-30 years – looking back, we can remember the wide-eyed pride we felt for a “job well done” that looks a little less well done in retrospect.
That doesn’t negate the fact that the project was done well initially, but we’ve grown from that point.
As an example of progression changing perspective, I can personally remember Dr. Peter Wagner, eminent and respected theologian that he was, saying many times that his theology had changed in some regards over the course of his life, and his books reflected that: quoting him from 1982 wouldn’t necessarily be as accurate to his current beliefs as a quote from 2012, nor would that quote be as accurate as one from 2016.
Another interesting observation of this effect is that, for an astute learner of any discipline, the goalposts are constantly moving, and the Dunning-Kruger effect repeats itself in more refined ways. When learning to speak, we learn sounds. Then we associate those sounds with letters. Then we combine letters to make words. Words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs. Paragraphs string together to form chapters, then books. Books become volumes, volumes become series. There’s always the temptation to stop at a certain point and become complacent, to let “confidence” overtake expertise and allow mediocrity to rise – though that’s a topic for an article in and of itself.
The more we learn about a topic, the more we realize that it’s not a monolithic, united concept.
Visual art itself, for example, can be broken down into major categories: drawing, painting, sculpting, photography, film, mixed-media art, computer-generated imagery, etc. Each one of those can be dissected even further based on the techniques and theories of taste that have arisen as great artists have shaped them, and the process continues even further from there. Jacques-Louis David’s understanding of light and composition in his French neoclassical painting has been the study of many subsequent artists and scholars, but that’s only one aspect/understanding of neoclassical painting, which is a certain period of painting, itself a branch of the vastly greater field of visual art. This understanding brings me to the final, logical conclusion from all of this thought:
It’s ultimately impossible to completely understand any given field, regardless of what it is.
While this conclusion might feel a bit nihilistic on the surface, it’s actually extremely liberating. If it’s possible to completely understand a discipline, then there is an underlying onus on a truly great artist to master a discipline and completely understand its ins and outs. If it’s impossible to do so, that pressure is off, and this allows artists to experiment with their particular understanding. Rather than being a “jack of all trades, but a master of none”, artists can specialize and innovate in new ways. This specialization adds new aspects to the field at large, allowing the field to be this ever-expanding compendium of understanding and works about a given subject. The goal and the journey of an artist is to never stop learning; to be able to look back at the end of one’s life and reflect on the days when, as a child, thought it was possible to know everything, and to be so very grateful that we were wrong.