What I Know About Not Knowing Much

Posted: September 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

***This post is dedicated to my freshman students, and all of the lovely freshman new to our university. And all freshman at all universities. And people who know freshman, or were freshman. And people who just generally like to smell and feel fresh. Is that inclusive enough? Ok, cool. Let’s do this.***

From comedian Demetri Martin's book of drawings called "Point Your Face at This."

From comedian Demetri Martin’s book of drawings called “Point Your Face at This.”


Hi. My name is Paul, and I don’t know much. And by “much” I mean almost nothing. And by “almost nothing” I mean absolutely nothing.

I was an awful high school student. I rarely studied, rarely did my homework, and never lived up to my potential. My GPA was never even as high as Lindsay Lohan’s resting BAC.

When it was time to apply to colleges, my top choice was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When my advisor reviewed my transcripts with me to see if I could get in, all she said was, “Oh, honey. That’s not gonna work out.”

She then asked me if I knew how to dig a ditch or work a deep fryer.

My teachers probably didn’t see me as the brightest student. I gave them little reason to. But that didn’t irk me quite as much as being labeled as one of the “dumber” friends in my social group. I knew I was as smart as any of them; I just had no evidence to support that claim.

In college, I got off to a rocky start. I switched colleges and dropped out twice in my first year. When I finally finished a full semester of classes, I managed to make the Dean’s List almost on accident. I hadn’t tried particularly hard, but somehow I earned two A’s and two B’s to just make the cut.

That little victory lit a fire under me and I started to put some effort into school. When I graduated, it was with honors and the distinction of being the co-winner of the “Departmental Award” for the best student in my major.

As I found more academic success, I started to really believe in my own intelligence.

Then I started to believe in it way too much.

By the time I was a junior in college, I was a hubristic little monster. And by the time I graduated, I was even worse. I had no doubt that I was an intellectual giant capable of any mental feat just short of telekinesis.

On second thought, I’m pretty certain I at least tried to move objects with my mind.

I told everyone I would be rich and famous by the age of 25: friends, family, classmates, people in line at Starbucks, the dude on the off ramp squeegeeing windshields with a newspaper. I didn’t have a get-rich-plan; my brain power was simply going to spring forth riches and glory.

Actually, my plan was to be a monstrously successful writer. (I mean, I am NOW with the Turtle….) I thought I was great. I thought I knew EVERYTHING. My success was predestined!

Yeah, not so much.

As it turns out, it’s actually quite hard to be great at something.

And as it turns out, I didn’t actually know everything about the universe by the time I was 22-years-old.

As I went through graduate school and got into teaching, I got the opportunity to meet many extraordinarily talented and brilliant people. I graduated from college thinking I was at the forefront of genius; by my late 20s, I had firmly moved to the back of the genius line.

Now in my department at Robert Morris University, I openly acknowledge that I am the least knowledgeable person on the roster. Even for the subjects I know a lot about – creative writing, movies, music, sports, humor/comedians – I can quickly identify someone else I work with who knows as much or more about those subjects.

I still believe I’m smart. but I eventually learned what most people learn with a little age, that truly intelligent people aren’t the ones who know everything. Truly intelligent people are the ones who are acutely aware of how little they know, and they want to fix that problem by soaking up every learning opportunity.

None of what I’m saying is meant to be discouraging, though it may sound like I’m saying, “Look around and realize how NOT awesome you are!”

Instead I’m encouraging you to recognize how much room for growth you have. Take every learning opportunity you can get so that you can get stronger, smarter, and better. Give yourself the chance to fulfill your full potential. Be confident, but don’t hype yourself to the point that you think you’ve figured the world out already. And don’t discredit any subjects or classes as if you are certain that info won’t come in handy in the future; that’s a terrible decision. Never push away learning opportunities. You’re just holding yourself back and if you do.

But look how preachy I’ve gotten. Ten years from now, I’ll read this post and groan at how obnoxiously sagacious I was trying to be.

And then I’ll groan about using the word “sagacious.”

And if you don’t know what “sagacious” means – take this opportunity to learn by looking it up.


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