When you think about your life, do you picture it in phases? Do you expect your twenties and thirties to look different than your fifties and sixties? Do you plan accordingly?

When Jon Mertz posed these questions to the Thin Difference team recently, I was intrigued.

Admittedly, I haven’t thought about my life in phases looking forward – but I’ve definitely thought about my life in phases with the benefit of hindsight! Looking backward, I can see different decades both shaping me and taking different shapes.

While considering his questions and pondering life, I stumbled on an illustration by Mari Andrew.  It perfectly summed up how I’ve seen those past decades take shape. When I saw it, it felt as though she’d rooted around in my brain and discovered one of my most deeply cherished life lessons (so far). Mari Andrew’s illustration reminded me of an Introduction to Philosophy class I took a million years ago.

Knowledge: Decade by Decade

I remember studying Socrates as a Freshman in college and having my mind blown by his explanation of Knowledge. I recall being deeply impacted and slightly confused by the idea that true wisdom is understanding that we know practically nothing. At the time it seemed counterintuitive. Little did I know, the older I got, the truer this truth would become.

I do not think that I know what I do not know.

– Socrates

Despite my introduction to Socrates’ idea, initially, it didn’t stick. Spending several years focused on higher education convinced me to live as if I knew better than him. With a degree in my pocket and a little bit of life experience under my belt, I felt pretty confident. I navigated my twenties quite sure that I had it all figured out. Life was black and white, and I was ready to tackle it armed with intellect. I was so certain about things.

In my thirties, I began to see Socrates’ point. The more life threw at me and the more I experienced, the less certain I became. It became apparent that I probably didn’t have life figured out just yet, but that wasn’t a bad thing! I still believed I could crack the code, I just knew I hadn’t done it yet. I felt less and less trusting of people/leaders/teachers who professed absolute surety and was more drawn to folks who confessed how much they still had to learn.

Now, in my forties, I can’t help but giggle when I think about my twenty-year-old self. As my scope of vision continues to broaden, I realize how narrow my understanding has been. And that is incredibly exciting! Life feels less black and white and so much more grey. I’m finding a lot of comfort in that grey. I’m beginning to understand that it takes time, patience, and experience to learn. Figuring out this life stuff is a slow process – at least for me. And I’m proud to admit that I still have so much to learn. I’m even beginning to accept I might never have it all figured out!

If I’m lucky enough to live through my fifties, sixties, seventies, or more, I suspect that Mari Andrew’s illustration will continue to prove true. I hope I’ll continue to be less and less certain and more and more curious. I hope I’ll become increasingly comfortable with how much I don’t know. I hope my heart and mind will continue to expand, and my perspective will continue to shift and broaden.

Applying the Lesson the Work

While Andrew’s illustration is about life and “adulthood” (topics that tend to be her focus), one could argue the same progressive illustration could be applied to owning a business.

When I decided to strike out on my own, I was full of the same self-certainty I had in my 20s. Perhaps that level of self-assuredness is necessary to venture out our own professionally? As the years and my business have progressed, I’ve realized how little I know – or more precisely, how much there still is to learn. Thank goodness!

It could be easy to interpret the illustration or Socrates’ teaching as depressing. “The more I learn, the less I know,” at face value, sounds frustrating. It could seem like backward progress. But there can be freedom in admitting that you don’t have it all figured out. There can be peace in knowing there’s still more to learn and more to experience. We can relax when we know we’re doing the best that we can today with the knowledge we’ve accumulated. All the while, we can look forward to what tomorrow will bring, how our understanding will expand, and what we know will decrease.

Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash
How Socrates and Mari Andrews reminded writer Molly Page that the older she gets and the more she learns, the less she truly knows.