The Best Worst Advice

Original Publication Date
March 1, 2018
Jan 15, 2023 8:34 PM
Gradschool & CareerCommunicationMeekness

In my first couple years as a graduate student, I struggled hard. I had switched majors, 90% of my professors had thick accents I could barely understand, and my classmates weren't very friendly. For the first time in my life 100% effort was earning me B's and B-'s, which is basically failing in graduate school. I was on scholastic probation for not meeting the required 3.5 GPA, and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. The assignments I turned in were earning 100's and the projects I had to turn in were also earning 100's, but I could seem to get above an F on the tests. How could I do the homework and write the programs but not be able to pass the test!?

You have to figure out what you don't know, and learn it.  👤 My First Advisor

After talking to professor after professor, I finally sat down and talked to my advisor—after all that's what advisors are for, right? When I laid out my problem for him, he said to me: "You have to figure out what you don't know, and learn it." I thought perhaps he didn't understand me, so I showed him again where I'd gotten a 100 on the homework assignment I'd completed and a 100 on the project, followed by the 54 I'd received on the test. He didn't change his advice. I left the conversation angry, because I thought it was the worst advice I'd ever gotten. How in the world was I going to know I didn't know something, if I was doing fine in the class? I wasn't collaborating on the assignments (because my classmates wouldn't talk to me), so whatever I did came 100% from my own brain. If I received a 100 on the assignment, how would I know there was something I didn't know?

There's a line in The Boondocks where a character says "there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns." Those tests had a lot of unknown unknowns, and as much as I hate to admit it, my advisor's advice was spot on.

As I continued through graduate school, changing schools and taking a new advisor, I noticed something very important about the professors we all considered to be geniuses: they were surprisingly humble. These professors have PhDs from schools like MIT and they've published hundreds of papers on various topics. These professors could help you in graduate level courses for things they didn't even study... Yet, when I asked a question that seemed off the wall, off base, or down right stupid, their first instinct was not to assume that I was wrong, but to question their understanding of the question I had posed.

I've noticed that most of us operate as though we understand everything. When new ideas come our way even so-called open-minded people have a tendency to scoff or snub their nose at the idea. A perfect example presented itself at the same time I was struggling to adapt to graduate school (though I didn't see it for what it was at the time). I had just moved to Florida and noticed no one burned their lights when it rained; in South Carolina the law is “if your wipers are on, your lights are on.” So, I asked the native Floridians in my circle what the deal was. One of the people made it clear he/she thought I (and South Carolina) were completely ignorant because rain didn't necessarily make it dark where he/she would need light to see. Taken aback by their brazenness, I was quick to point out that the lights weren't for you to see, but for others to see you since rain reduces visibility, but not so quick to realize what happened.

My friend associated headlights with darkness because Florida law only dictates that lights be burned when it’s dark. While subconsciously he/she probably knew that the lights enabled others to see his/her vehicle, the primary use for headlights in their point of view, was for their own eyesight. Thus, logically, this is unnecessary in rain. When I posed my question, the person didn't stop to wonder if there were things they hadn't considered. It didn't spark curiosity, in which their response might have been something like "Really? I don't understand why that's the law, do you know?" Like most of us, my friend assumed he/she knew the whole picture and since what I stated didn't make sense in that picture, I was deemed crazy. I'm sure I've done this myself, too, it's a natural response.

However, in life, it's important to realize that we don't know as much as we think we know. This was an invaluable lesson to me as a researcher, but it's also an invaluable lesson to us as Christians. The only person who doesn't experience unknown unknowns is God; that's why He's the judge. When we come into contact with people, we're often quick to make assumptions that often lead to judgements, when we don't know all the facts. We are quick to get mad at God or dismiss God because He doesn't operate according to our logic, when our logic is flawed. I know it's difficult, but every time we hear something new that we don't understand, we should take a moment of introspection and ask ourselves, is there something I don't understand about this situation.

PSALMS to God is a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel that discusses many topics and issues, always keeping YHWH as the anchor. Hosea 4:6 says “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge”—here, the aim is to always ask questions and study to find the answers. You can keep up with new content by signing up for the weekly newsletter.