Welcome to this Navigate the Chaos blog post. To hire Michael for a keynote speech, workshop, or presentation be sure to visit the Contact page. You can also purchase a copy of the latest Navigate the Chaos collection and download the Google calendar for free.

How often do you re-evaluate the world for yourself?

Today is July 29 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you re-evaluate the world for yourself?” American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut Mae Carol Jemison observed: “Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out...You can hear other people's wisdom, but you've got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.”

Today’s reflection involves several elements as outlined by Jemison. First, never be limited by the imagination of others. Allowing others to limit your imagination prohibits you from seeing the world through your own authentic perspective. Second, when you adopt the attitudes of others, you lose the capacity to form your own attitudes. Finally, how you evaluate, and re-evaluate the world, should be as free from the influence of others as possible.

On this note of evaluating the world for yourself, it is important to consider the role of ignorance. There are three types of knowledge: things you know, things you know you do not know, and things you do not know you do not know. The last category is synonymous with ignorance. When you evaluate and re-evaluate your world rest assured you will not know what you do not know; therefore, you will be ignorant. As 18th century Thomas Gray noted, sometimes ‘ignorance is bliss.’ Gray was an English poet, letter-writer, classical scholar, and professor at Pembroke College, Cambridge. In 1747 Gray published (anonymously) the poem “Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and wrote

To each his suff'rings: all are men,

Condemn'd alike to groan,

The tender for another's pain;

Th' unfeeling for his own.

Yet ah! why should they know their fate?

Since sorrow never comes too late,

And happiness too swiftly flies.

Thought would destroy their paradise.

No more; where ignorance is bliss,

'Tis folly to be wise.

Gray’s observation ‘ignorance is bliss’ has become part of the nomenclature involved with evaluating a life situation. What is ironic here is that Gray, often regarded as the foremost English-language poet of the mid-18th century, only published thirteen poems during his lifetime. Gray held an evaluation of his world where he was so fearful of criticism and that his worlds would be “mistaken for the words of a flea.” He maintained such an evaluation of his world despite being offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he refused, in 1757. The backstory of American mathematical scientist George Dantzig illustrates Gray’s observation that ‘ignorance is bliss.’

An event in Dantzig's life became the origin of a famous story in 1939, while he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Near the beginning of a class for which Dantzig was late, Professor Jerzy Neyman wrote two examples of famously unsolved statistics problems on the blackboard. When Dantzig arrived, he assumed that the two problems were a homework assignment and wrote them down. According to Dantzig:

"I arrived late one day at one of Neyman's classes. On the blackboard there were two problems that I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework — the problems seemed to be a little harder than usual." Six weeks later, Dantzig received a visit from an excited professor Neyman, who was eager to tell him that the homework problems he had solved were two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics. He had prepared one of Dantzig's solutions for publication in a mathematical journal.

As Dantzig told it in a 1986 interview in the College Mathematics Journal: “A year later, when I began to worry about a thesis topic, Neyman just shrugged and told me to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as my thesis.” Years later another researcher, Abraham Wald, was preparing to publish an article that arrived at a conclusion for the second problem and included Dantzig as its co-author when he learned of the earlier solution.

Over time Dantzig's name was removed, and facts were altered, but the basic story persisted in the form of an urban legend and as an introductory scene in the movie Good Will Hunting. Dantzig’s ignorance allowed him to evaluate his world, or more specifically the two math problems, from a novel perspective. His perspective was that the two math problems were homework; so he figured out how to do them. Knowing that the two problems were ‘unsolvable’ would have completed altered his ability to evaluate his capacity to solve them. Luckily, Dantzig reflected upon this fact and said: "If I had known that the problems were not homework but were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics, I probably would not have thought positively, would have become discouraged, and would never have solved them."

  • How often do you re-evaluate the world for yourself?

  • How often do you look at a problem from a completely different perspective than others usually do?

  • How often do you remind yourself of your potential to think differently and positively?

  • How often do you remind yourself ‘ignorance is bliss?’