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Intentional Ignorance: It’s Not Cute Anymore

We all know someone who has this, and we’ve probably all suffered from the condition at some point: intentional ignorance. The engineers who claim that “the right side of my brain is a raisin.” The baby boomers who pretend to fear each new technological advancement. The artists who couldn’t care less about decent spelling and grammar because (supposedly) that’s just not their skillset. I call it “intentional ignorance” (the term is borrowed from Noam Chomsky, and related to but distinct from the more sinister “willful ignorance”), but it’s really just “playing dumb.” You could also think of it as informational denial.

Look, barring a neurological impairment or a severe lack of resources, most people can pick up on the skills and areas that I just described. An engineer can learn the difference between melody and harmony. A 60-year-old can gain a functional understanding of an iPad. A designer can use spellcheck. Truly, you don’t have to be a “lifelong learner” (like many of us at CSR!) to gain the knowledge you need to navigate life maturely and effectively. What you do need is the determination to resist ignorance. You don’t have to become an expert, just stop making excuses.

I’ve been guilty of this more often than I’d like to admit–just because ignorance is intentional doesn’t mean it’s conscious. As a silly example, for a while I claimed that I couldn’t use an iPhone. The touch screen seemed too sensitive, the interface was unintuitive, and what even is an app? After a few years, I finally admitted to myself that I was just being lazy (and a little bit attention-seeking). I tried using someone else’s phone and after a bit of fumbling and Googling, I started catching on. Eventually I got my own, and now people ask me for help with their smart phones all the time (“it only seems to work when you do it, Rosi!”). I see the same thing happen to other people with standard software, hardware, and operating systems all the time. If they focus a bit and choose to lift the blindfold, they can usually figure out how to get themselves to a functional level.

Intentional ignorance can do more than just irritate other people, though. In fact, it can significantly impede whole areas of your life. I’ll use myself as an example again (so that I don’t insult anyone). I am not a naturally extroverted person, have no formal education in business, and prior to starting at CSR three years ago, I had zero experience in business. For a long time, I’ve learned what I need to learn for whatever projects I’m working on and filling in basic business knowledge as I go–but rarely more than is necessary. I’m pretty good at stuff peripherally related to running a business, like design, software, or social media, but I rarely stray outside of my comfort zone.

But over the past year or so I’ve started branching out. It’s time to stop saying “I’m not the business type” or “get those numbers away from me!” or “I just don’t understand sales.” I don’t have to become a C-suite executive or even pass the GMAT, I just need to be more open to new knowledge and unfamiliar concepts. My approach so far has been to pick my colleagues’ brains, attend meetings and events I don’t have to attend, and read business bestsellers. It’s constantly surprising how much I can pick up when my mind isn’t complacently blind.

Whether you’re a professional services firm clinging to a system from the ’90s or just a student dragging their feet through college algebra, you shouldn’t let a knowledge gap dictate how you operate. Read, learn, adapt, seek advice, find shortcuts. Your intentional ignorance has stopped being cute.

Do you know anyone who suffers from intentional ignorance? Have you ever caught yourself “playing dumb?” And what do you use to keep yourself from slipping into mental laziness? Let us know in the comments or on social media!


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