Something I’ve always known about myself, but have been more aware of recently, is that it takes me a very long time to retain things. I envy the people who can read a book–or even a news article–once and afterwards recall the names and dates and key facts, stitching them together to understand the narrative well enough to even form an opinion. I’ve started the book Taliban by Ahmed Rashid 3 times now and–partially because I let months go by in between sittings–I have to start from the very beginning each time because I can’t recall the facts well enough (if at all) to pick up from where I left off. Even after I immediately finish a chapter or let a day or two go by, I have to review my notes to remember what happened.
The same is true at work. I have been studying India since August, but there are still so many things I can’t recall even though I know I have read or heard them multiple times. And every time I feel as though I’ve made an intellectual breakthrough, something else arises that reminds me just how much still I don’t know.
This doesn’t just happen at work though. It happens in casual conversation all the time, especially with my friends because my friends are freaking smart. And not just smart, but knowledgeable. About history, current affairs, you name it. I read the news and I did well in school, but more often than not I find myself in that position where you have to make a choice: lying and pretending you know what someone is talking about with the risk that your facade is discovered….or admitting that you don’t know.
In my experience, it is better to be ignorant than a liar. Not knowing something says nothing about who you are as a person, but lying, pretending, posing as something you are not…those are things I don’t like to do. No one should fault you for ignorance if you own up to it, and own up to it confidently with a genuine curiosity to learn what it is you don’t know. And if someone does judge you for it, they are not worth your time and their opinion of you should matter even less than it already did.
It will always feel like you can never quite get there–because you probably never will, given how much there is to learn and the truth in the saying ‘there will always be someone better than you’—but then there are moments as I read an article when I recall reading something previously about the topic and then predict the coming analysis. It happens unexpectedly, as though all of the names and histories and dates and opinions I have been reading have suddenly sorted themselves in my head.
The only way to get there though, is to just keep going. Or, just keep reading, which was the little mantra I came up with when I started work and felt instantly behind on my very first day when I everyone in my office was talking about some dude named Narendra Modi. I know a thing or two about him now.
Since I have been reading every day, per my May 30-day challenge, I am simultaneously confronted with more things that I don’t know–that I sometimes feel like I should know– but am also having less trouble recalling certain things and an easier time sifting through the text.
When I think about this book, Taliban, in the future, I want to remember the analysis. I want to be able to take what I learned and apply it–making connections and drawing conclusions. But I also want to remember the perfect day in April when I read and annotated vigorously for hours in a hammock in Justin’s front yard as he cleaned out his storage closet and organized all of the things he brought back with him from deployment. I happily took breaks from reading to look at his foreign souvenirs, his memories. We read the letters children sent him, telling him to ‘stay safe’ and fight the Taliban as I cradled the book with that title in my lap. Funny how what you read and what you experience collide.
What I think is the most important in the pursuit of intellectual growth, is the persistence and the patience to learn. To never make it feel like a chore. I shouldn’t agonize over reading things quickly enough, retaining information thoroughly enough, knowing every single detail about each news story, so that my knowledge is comparable to those around me. There is a time and a place to bust your back and prove yourself, but that doesn’t have to be how you live your life. It certainly isn’t how I want to live mine. I should work hard and never get complacent, but I remind myself every day to not compare myself to others and that steady progress is ok. Slow progress is still progress and as long as you are on the path to improvement and are enjoying the journey, that’s all that matters.