“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more innovating.”
It should be no surprise that the effort involved in creative thinking can be counter-intuitive in nature. Often people use the framework of problem solving when talking about ideas, which is useful, but primarily logical. This makes the problem itself (“how can I build a better mousetrap?”) and the desire to solve the problem (“mice keep stealing all of my cheese”) provides the fuel to do the work.
But a more surprising way of thinking about ideas is that it’s ignorance, the lack of knowledge, that can also be the motivating force, or at least curiosity about that lack of knowledge. Curiosity is an interest in finding out what you don’t know and you can only be curious about something if you have ignorance. If you know everything, there is nothing to be curious about (an observation that helps explain why know-it-alls are so dull to be around. They know everything but are curious about nothing).
Science is often used as a metaphor for things we completely understand. The common saying “the art and science of…” uses the word science to represent formulas, facts and figures, things that are well understood. But how did we learn those formulas and facts? We forget there must have been a time when we were ignorant of those things, and someone, a scientist perhaps, was curious enough to try and figure them out.
In Stuart Firestein’s wonderfully compact book Ignorance: how it drives science, he explores the central role that ignorance, and curiosity, play in developing all of the knowledge that we take for granted today .
There are strong parallels in his book to any kind of creative work, such as projects where the goal is to do something new, solve an unsolved problem or to work on anything challenging at all. For many its a surprise to think of ignorance being central to science, much less creativity. But if science can be thought of in this way, then so can any field or profession, including the one you work in too.