Sometimes you have to see something familiar from a different perspective to realize just how much you don’t know about it. That’s the kind of experience I had last year. An experience that revealed to me just how much I don’t know about what the world looks like through the eyes of girls and women.
And I’m very glad to have had it.
Two hugely influential domains that influence my ways of knowing the world are through my career as a scientist and my study of martial arts.
As a neuroscientist with an active and thriving research program I’m constantly striving to discover new knowledge through basic and translational discoveries. I’ve worked for decades to understand better how the human nervous system functions when we walk around, how our limbs share linkages and how we can use that knowledge to improve rehabilitation afters stroke and spinal cord injury.
As a martial artist, I’m constantly working to improve my technical knowledge and my coincident sense of self. I seek daily to enhance my ways of knowing about physical movements, psychology, tactics, strategy, and respect, dignity and philosophy of martial arts. I strive to apply those ways of knowing in my daily practice as a human being.
Through decades of study, I recognize I’ve learned a lot about science and martial arts and have developed a basis that lets me approximate where my limits lie. This also provides a way forward to continue to improve with steady effort.
But here’s what I learned last year—I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And, as a man, what I didn’t know very well was what the world actually looks like if you are a woman.
The transformative process I went through while writing Project Superhero from the perspective of my protagonist—Jessie, a 13 year old girl who isn’t particularly gifted at physical activities—continues to resonate with me. In reflecting on the process during discussions and interviews I’ve been thinking more deeply about looking at the world through Jessie’s eyes. I continue to see more subtle gender-based disparities I just failed to notice before, some of which I’ve written about here before.
Lots of the disparities are very subtle, but subtlety is pervasive and we can often overlook them. Using gender as a descriptor is fine but it needs to be consistently used for all genders or else it creates the impression of a diminutive adjective.
Which brings me back to the title of this post—the most important thing I learned last year. The simple fact that you don’t know what you don’t know. The more experience you have in something allows you to gain some sense of what you don’t know. In my own case, the more I investigate the nervous system, the more I train in martial arts, the more I realize I know far less than I thought I did.
In my current focus here related to a more balanced view of the world looking at things from beyond my own perspective as a man, I now realize I know far less than I thought I did. And, unfortunately, I now know far more about imbalance than I previously thought existed.
This all crystalized for me recently when reading a review of “Project Superhero”. The reviewer, a father with a daughter and a son got my main message of empowerment for young girls, of trying to get some science, physical literacy and empowerment across when he wrote that “there are so few resources to celebrate science (and superheroes!) for this specific audience”.
The part that relates to “you don’t know what you don’t know” came at the end of his post which finished with “And my son will be reading it too.” When I saw that it suddenly occurred to me that by saying Project Superhero was largely aimed at tween girls—which was the group I really wanted to influence—I was suggesting that boys might not be interested in the same story.
But why? Why wouldn’t boys and girls want to read about a story of achievement and empowerment regardless of the gender of the protagonist? In this case the lessons of empowerment apply to everyone—learn things, challenge yourself, get better at stuff, even build robots! Why should any of that depend upon gender? The balanced way forward is to challenge, empower, and support everyone regardless of any other descriptors beyond “human”.
So you don’t know what you don’t know and last year I learned more about what I don’t know. Seeking opportunities to understand and tear down the limits of our own knowledge, while it can be both intimidating and frightening, is hugely instructive and empowering.
I am still incomplete in understanding all that I don’t know, of course, and always will be. But the key is in seeking to learn and being open to change and central to that is challenging assumptions we may hold. In the words of the late Isaac Asimov “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.”
There’s a lot more of what I don’t know waiting for me to discover this year. How exciting!
E. Paul Zehr © 2015