Knowledge and False Empowerment

AA014212Ah, the feeling of being a new grad. That extra spring in your step. The feeling that you can conquer the world with your newfound tool chest. That the world will come knocking on your door. That smug smile you have on your face—partially hidden if you’re polite—when you hear some technical term that you learnt in class. Those nuggets of wisdom you drop upon unsuspecting friends now that you have a freshly minted degree to back you up.

If I recall correctly from the last time I graduated, the feeling lasts for a few months and gets lost when reality crushes it out of your system.

The world does not change because you acquired a new piece of paper—unless it is green and has a lot of zeros next to it. This is where the distinction between acquiring knowledge and feeling empowered comes in. We assume that the moment of graduation is the moment of empowerment, a clean transition into a new world after which we can use the tools of the new trade we just picked up. In reality, graduation only represents the opening of opportunities to graduates—opportunities that need to be sought, chosen and conquered. Empowerment lies in the ability to act upon the knowledge distilled from school and life, not in the mechanical act of acquiring the skills.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, WG’83

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, WG’83

In that context, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, without the ability to act upon it, can be disempowering. The boredom of using older tools while newer ones rot in your toolkit can both serve as a disempowering dose of reality, as well as a sure way to gradually lose those new skills. The medical world solves this by requiring physician recertification every few years to ensure that doctors keep pace with the latest findings and unlearn dated materials, thus sharpening their tools for another epoch of usage. Sadly, this is not the case for most other professions such as engineering or business.

So as we contemplate how we will transform the world through our newly acquired degrees, setting our expectations straight will help us prepare for the long run. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. So set your bar high for what you expect out of yourself. Be less certain of what you think and more open to what contradicts your beliefs. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb, WG’83, says in his latest book, Antifragile, being robust in the face of uncertainty is not sufficient. Being antifragile helps you grow stronger with uncertainty and build better, brighter careers and lives.

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