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Robert Penn Warren - Ignorance

Author Robert Penn Warren


What you don’t know may actually help you. Strangely enough, what you do know may hold you back, while what you don’t know may spur you on to greatness. In other words, your ignorance may actually help you.

Listen to this paragraph from the novel “A Place To Come To” by Robert Penn Warren. It is from the conversation between a young man named Jed who is literally starving on the streets of Chicago (but has a love of Latin and Greek) and a professor. Jed is from a very poor town in Alabama, and comes to Chicago, hoping to study at the University of Chicago with a famous professor, Dr. Stahlmann. Dr. Stahlmann takes Jed into his home, where Jed studies under him for more than two years before the following conversation takes place. It is Dr. Stahlmann who is speaking to Jed in this scene, and Jed is the narrator:


“All young men–” he began. Then: “They think they will write the great book. And”–he smiled at me–“I think you will. You have the –the anger, the innocence, the invincible–” He lifted his hand as though to stop me from speaking. “No,” he said, “I was not going to say ‘invincible ignorance.’ No, let me say, with affection and envy, ‘santa simplicitus.’ No–to put it differently–you want something and you do not know its name. Only that–that kind of ignorance, my dear boy–can ever lead to greatness.”

Admit Your Ignorance

If you will allow yourself to do two things, you have a much greater chance at achieving great things in your life. First, allow yourself to long for something that is beyond your grasp. Admit that there is something that you long for, but can’t necessarily name. Second, admit your ignorance. Stop pretending that you know more than you do. Just admit that there is something without a name that you are longing for. There it is, inside your chest, welling up every now and then, when you listen to a certain song, or see a scene in a movie that gets at the longing without a name.

Then get some help. Ask a friend, a spouse, a girlfriend, a stranger, even, to listen to you describe what it is you are longing for. You may be surprised at how someone listening to you from outside your own experience can help you name what it is that you are longing for.

As always, I am here to help. Write to me at, or book your free 30 minute session today.