A student or a fool

​Rick Rubin, Ryan Holiday and Neil Strauss. That’s a conversation I’d love to overhear..

On a recent James Altucher podcast, Ryan Holiday mentions this dinner. He says he was excited about being with Rick Rubin so he asked him a tonne of questions. Do you know how Rubin responded to a lot of Ryan’s questions? He said, “I don’t know.”

Everyone always says that you have to learn constantly. And to do that, you have to, in many ways, remain an eternal student. To be a student you have to go through two stages. 

Stage one. Accept you have more to learn. This is an intellectual activity. You can pass through it by thinking. By asking yourself questions like: Are there people who are better than me? Do I have weaknesses? Can I do or be better? The answer is typically, yes. There’s always room for improvement. That’s the easy part. It’s obvious that you still have room to grow. The next stage is harder.

Stage two. Allow yourself to be taught. This goes deeper than the intellect. It penetrates to the very core of your being. To get to this stage, there has to be a transformation on a very basic level. You have to subjugate your ego. Place yourself below others. You have to be humble and pay attention to the people and events that have something to teach you. Which means all events and all people. This is the hard part. Because to do that, you have to say what Rick Rubin said. You have to say, “I don’t know.” And you have to mean it.

From an early age, we’re taught to always have an answer. If a teacher asks you a question, you’re not allowed to say, “I don’t know.” They encourage you to try. Which I can understand. There’s some educational value in trying to think through something you don’t understand yet. But that innocent effort evolves into something more poisonous that we carry with us into adulthood.

You’re in an interview. They ask you a question and you have no idea what the answer is. But you can’t show them that. So you make something up and try to steer the conversation away from that topic. You project an aura of confidence and knowing. You mask your incompetencies with a false sense of assurance. Because you know the humble don’t get hired. Yet, you recognise that while the humble don’t get hired, the over-confident stunt their own development. 

How do those episodes tie in to the two stages of becoming a student? In both situations, if you admit that you don’t know, you experience humiliation. You risk looking like a fool in front of your classmates and interviewers. Which is scary and makes us feel uncomfortable.

And that’s how you feel all the time when you acknowledge your limitations and allow yourself to be taught. Unsettled. Uncertain. Confused. Off-balance. But by persuading ourselves that we know, that we’ve learnt enough, that we’ve mastered it all, we can make that unpleasant feeling disappear. 

If we fool ourselves, we can feel better again.