The 3 Stages of Knowledge

by Krishna on April 1, 2007

With regard to any subject from playing basketball to deep sea diving, there are 3 stages of learning, as follows:

  1. Ignorance: The person has superficial or no knowledge in the subject. They may have some or many misconceptions of or prejudices against it. If they have to be involved in some activity in that subject, they are likely to make many beginner mistakes. This situation continues until the person gains adequate knowledge of the topic.
  2. Arrogance: The person is very comfortable with the subject. This manifests into love and admiration for it. It also results in arrogance and hostility towards persons who do not share the same passion or knowledge of the subject. There is a deep suspicion of any competing tool.
  3. Enlightenment: The person recognizes the limitations of their knowledge. They learn to tolerate other viewpoints and interests. They understand the original rationale behind the subject. Principles become more important than rituals. Arrogance is replaced by humility and concern.

Let us take a few examples from different subjects:

  1. Sports: The first few games for the new player are unmitigated disasters. She has no technique and sometimes even doesn’t know the rules of the game. After a few months of training, she starts beating casual players. She doesn’t even show mercy to rookies, beating them black and blue. But then she runs into veterans and realizes the limitations of her game that are beyond technique — things like patience, observation, continuous hard work, improvement and goodwill with others. She then turns into a world beater.
  2. Management: The novice manager feels like a fish out of water. He finds it difficult to manage people, schedules and priorities. But soon enough, he starts reading books and attending courses. At some point, he gains enough knowledge to do his job competently in most situations and believes that what he is doing is the “absolute right way”. He stops learning and listening. Then he lands into a few crisis situations and realizes that there is more to the game. Now, he recognizes that he has to continuously keep adapting and increase his array of skills.
  3. Programming: The starting programmer doesn’t care about coding standards or code optimization — he just wants to get the output! But over time, he learns about the language details, the gotcha’s, the libraries, etc. and slowly becomes a C++ (or whatever programming language) fanatic. He has various reasons why his language is better than others and will get into hot arguments with anyone who is interested in a fight. Then he learns about “software development” as opposed to programming and realizes that the whole point is to help the user solve problems, not about the tool used to solve them.

Every one of us is at one of the 3 stages in different fields. In most areas, we are at Stage 1, because we don’t or cannot know much about them. For example, if one is working in Information Technology, one probably doesn’t know much about medicine, law, journalism, etc. It is a natural situation because we just don’t have the time to learn about all of these subjects. It is just not practical.

However, we will be in Stage 2 or 3 in the subjects that we are interested or working. I know “arrogance” is a pretty strong word, but the fact is that once we human beings become somewhat above average in any field, most of the time, we display excessive pride and look down on others not so fortunate. The subject doesn’t have to be anything complex. For example, white-collar workers are mocked for their lack of “real world skills” like making household repairs, fixing a puncture, etc.

To get from Stage 2 to 3, we have to realize the following:

  1. Although we have above-average knowledge of the subject, it is usually only partial and it would take enormous amounts of time to become an expert.
  2. Our existing knowledge is inadequate for different situations and we have to keep learning.
  3. We are novices in the majority of the activities that we do in our life.
  4. We depend on experts in other fields in which we are novices.
  5. Even in our own field, we depend on people with less knowledge and we only lose by being arrogant towards them. For example, sportspersons need training partners. Every project team will have highly skilled and less skilled persons.
  6. We are only experts in tools or techniques. The basic principles of success are mostly behavioral and they are common to all fields.

Once we reach the final stage, our expertise and knowledge becomes useful to other people in the most significant way possible because we can relate it to different situations. I do not presume to say that you cannot learn from an arrogant person, but the best teacher is not the one who thinks he has all the answers, but the one who makes you interested in exploring the questions he cannot answer. That is progress.


Archie April 3, 2007 at 4:31 am

Hmm..It is very difficult that an arrogant person can get enlightened ("To get from Stage 2 to 3") because arrogant person do not care if they are wrong, they think they are above everyone, they DO NOT WANT to hear the truth, how can such persons get enlightened?
On the other hand Ignorant people can be enlightened (move from 1 to 3), because they do not know things, they are open, they can be taught what is good and bad, they can be moulded and thus enlightened.

Guru April 3, 2007 at 4:34 am

Ignorance breeds arrogance, If a person is arrogant the inner meaning is he/she is ignorant. So arrogant people can also be treated as ignorant and can get enlightment.

Krishna Kumar April 3, 2007 at 3:26 pm

@archie: Yes, it is very difficult to transition from arrogance to enlightenment. Usually some event has to happen in a person's life to change that.

@guru: True, I would say until a person is truly knowledgeable about the meaning of a subject, he or she is both ignorant and arrogant. Without any knowledge though, it is arrogance "against" the subject.

Sunny Nash August 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm

This article is particularly pertinent today, in that the problem lies with the proliferation of political rhetoric built on arrogance bred by ignorance. There seems to be a glutten of this uninformed blabber by those who ignore the facts and historical data, but are increasingly in decision-making positions that affect the well-being of many, whose voices have less volume.

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