Ignorance is my new comfort zone

Homer Simpson

I recently sat on a grant review panel for the first time. The diversity of topics and projects we had to rank was immense and I felt very ill-equipped to scientifically judge most of the grants, which were not related at all to my own research.

In particular, I was the lead discussant for an obstetrics project that was clearly outside my expertise. So I started my discussion by saying:

“I don’t have a problem being outside my comfort zone, but this one is so far out of it that I can’t even see my comfort zone anymore.”

What I got as an answer, surprised me.

One of the senior researchers on the panel said:

“Don’t worry, when you get older, you will make ignorance your comfort zone.”

Well, I haven’t been long enough in science to judge if this is true or not, but even over the last few years I found myself forced to become more comfortable with not knowing all the details of what is going on.

Ignorance in inter-disciplinary research

First of all, ignorance is the usual state of affairs in interdisciplinary research: my collaboration partners are clinicians and molecular biologists with expertise in all kinds of cancers and stem cells. It’s just not feasible to catch up with their full knowledge of their field – so I stay ignorant about most of it. In these projects I’m very happy when I finally understand what contribution my analyses actually have to their field and when I have managed to learn by heart one or two sentences of biological background that I can use in my own talks.

Ignorance every day

But even more importantly, my ignorance extends to my own group. For three years now I’m having postdocs working with me and I find it really hard to establish the right balance between being hands-off and hands-on. To keep my group self-motivated and creative, I try my best to avoid micro-management and to give everybody all the freedom they need to develop their own ideas. But on the other hand I still want to be involved in their projects and contribute my own ideas. It’s driving me crazy sometimes that I never know all the details and often haven’t even touched the data myself – so I even seem to be ignorant about parts of my own research.

Obviously these are not a new observations: Socrates already knew that he knew nothing 2400 years ago, but I still have some way to go to become more comfortable with knowing so litte.

My goal for personal growth in 2012 is to make ignorance my comfort zone!


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