Embracing the Unknown: The Island of Knowledge and Coaching

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan


Recently, I reread Marcelo Gleiser’s great book, ‘The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning,’ and — as always with almost every book I read — reflected upon its implications in sport performance and coaching.  

One of the primary themes in the book is that of ‘embracing ignorance’.  

Gleiser argues that the acquisition of knowledge does not eradicate ignorance, but rather reveals its vastness [like an island surrounded by water, our knowledge is surrounded by a vast ocean of the unknown] — and embracing this vastness can be a powerful catalyst for intellectual growth.

But it also comes with potential challenges. 

Today, I wanted to delve into both sides — examining how embracing ignorance may impact what we do, and how we do it.

Embracing Ignorance: The UPSIDE

  1. Intellectual Curiosity: By acknowledging what we don’t know, we embrace intellectual curiosity. We foster a desire to learn, explore new ideas, and stay up-to-date with the latest developments in coaching and sport performance.
  2. Humility and Openness: Embracing ignorance cultivates humility and openness. We recognize that we don’t have all the answers, and remain receptive to diverse perspectives, challenging our assumptions, and fostering a collaborative coaching environment.
  3. Continuous Learning and Growth: Embracing ignorance drives continuous learning and growth. If we acknowledge our limitations, we are open to self-improvement, we seek new knowledge, and we remain adaptable in an ever-evolving coaching landscape.

Embracing Ignorance: The DOWNSIDE

  1. Lack of Confidence: Embracing ignorance can sometimes lead to a lack of confidence in our knowledge and abilities. Constantly questioning ourselves may create hesitation or self-doubt when making decisions or guiding athletes.
  2. Overwhelm and Paralysis: Without a clear roadmap or framework, we may feel overwhelmed, unsure of where to begin, and experience analysis paralysis, hindering our ability to take decisive action.
  3. Misinterpretation of Ideas: An overly open mindset may lead to the misinterpretation or misapplication of some ideas and concepts. If we embrace ignorance without critical evaluation, we may adopt flawed methodologies or fail to align ideas with the specific needs of athletes.
  4. Potential for Inaction: Embracing ignorance may fuel a thirst for knowledge, but it also carries the risk of overemphasizing acquiring information at the expense of taking action. We must strike a balance, combining knowledge acquisition with purposeful implementation to drive meaningful progress.

Today’s Take-home:

For coaches, embracing ignorance can be a transformative journey.  

While we must be aware of the potential downsides of embracing the vastness of that which we do not know, by balancing intellectual curiosity with humility, we can harness the benefits of our ignorance while mitigating its downsides. Continual learning, collaborative approaches, and adaptability are key to fostering intellectual growth.   

So how do you do this? 

Step 1: Identify one area where you can challenge your existing knowledge, seek alternative perspectives, or engage in self-reflection 

Step 2: Share your plan with a colleague or mentor for accountability and support. 

Step 3: Do this every week, or every month

Have a great week, and here’s to your ongoing pursuit of knowledge, embracing humility, and nurturing a culture of learning and growth.

PS: if you’re interested in digging deeper into embracing your ignorance, check out these two great reads:

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