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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

Manicured Ignorance

We learn. We remember. We forget. Our experiences change our lives. Our emotions our brains. As we grow we learn and adapt. We find discover new ideas, create new routes. We improve in what we do. We grow, we improve, we create.

But as all this happens we manicure our ignorance. We tighten our blinders. We close our windows. We grab our binoculars and tighten the curtains to prevent the vast majority of reality to poison our minds.

"Most ignorance is by choice you know. So ignorance is very telling for what really matters to people" (Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson). This short sentence summarizes a convergent finding from many fields of research.

In cognitive science it is well know that the main role of our neurons is to forget the vast majority of sensory experiences and store the ones we care to remember. In "What is Strategy?" Miguel Porter spends a long meandering road to explain that strategy is what firms choose not to do. What they choose not to pursue. The same notion goes for Warren Buffet's 5/20 rule, or the more common Pareto rule.

That is. Your life is much more defined by what you choose NOT to do than the few things you do. Every day of my life I chose to avoid becoming a billionaire. True. I might not know how to be a billionaire so the choice to not be one is quite an inactive one. But I have decades of choice, some efficiency is meant to build up.

Joking aside, behind Stanley-Robinson's quote there is a clever idea. You can learn a lot about what people choose to be ignorant about. Growing up, I chose to be ignorant about how to do housework for example. I knew the basics of not starving. But I still mess up chores at a higher rate that I can allow myself to remember.

The our choice of ignorant domains is surprising sometimes. Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness explains how the smarter people are the more ignorant they are about the prosperity of the joint social experiment we call humanity . Humanity has improved in radical ways but if you'd ask me the most basic questions about it, I answered wrongly more often than a dice would.

In the 20 years since I entered high school. I failed to learn that in the same time extreme poverty, hunger and child mortality fell by 50%. Half of these metrics went down by half and my overly educated brain chose that it care not to learn this. I learn what historiography is and the limits of postmodernism. And I could not acknowledge how my ignorance marks the line where my romantic pursuit of knowledge mergers with the cynical and pragmatist notions battling my mind.

And I am not alone. Whole fields are built around avoiding the pink elephant in the room. There is even perfectly grounded theories about why we choose to be ignorant of what is important but connoisseurs of the superfluous. Companies invest billions of dollars to learn irrelevant minutiae that allows them to claim ignorance when what they chose to ignore comes to retaliate and claim their negligence.

I guess what fails to leave my mind since I read Red Mars is how normal it is to choose to ignore. And how pervasive it's implications are. Millions of ideas pop to mind. One can look at organizational ignorance as a way more prescriptive theory than organizational knowledge. But could it really work?

Maybe not. At the end the Anna Karenina effect is real. Prescriptive models need some sort of Occam's razor to winnow down complexity. Organizational ignorance would be a much more diverse, complex, and dynamic empirical endeavour. Indeed, ignorance is bliss.

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