Embrace What You Don’t Know

20121010-175025.jpg“Know your limits.” It’s a phrase people say a lot, so much so that it’s become almost a cliché in our society. In many areas of human endeavor, ignorance of our limits can propel us far outside them. Deliberately pushing our limits, with training and preparation, is a powerful and hugely important thing. Tripping, skidding past the limit without awareness that we’ve done it, veering off the road and crashing into the ditch? Not so much.

I was thinking about this topic today because of two blog posts I read. The first, from Kathy at Cornered Cat, talked about purse carry. Kathy wrote, in part:

A word of advice to would-be firearms instructors: If you have never carried a gun in a purse, or drawn and fired from such a purse at the range, you almost certainly do not have the experience to teach or express opinions about purse-related skillsets to other people. This limits your ability to teach women the skills they need.

Almost right after I finished reading Kathy’s post, my RSS reader served up this post by Caleb at Gun Nuts Media, talking about teaching students who are better shooters than you are. I encourage you to read the whole post (as well as Kathy’s), but here’s the important bit for me:

To instructors – don’t be afraid to make recommendations to students who exceed your skill level. Just because someone can blaze through the drills faster than you can demo them doesn’t mean they know everything. You could do something differently that they’ve never tried, and when they try it they make keep it or not. The important tip here is to keep ego out it. You’re there to teach the students in the class, not to show them how awesome at shooting you are, and if you get caught up on trying to beat the student that’s at a higher skill level than you are, you’re just cheating the other students out of their hard earned money.

Here’s my truth: As students, we can learn SOMETHING from almost any instructor we come across, and our challenge is to glean those nuggets of useful information. If we’re rank beginners (at shooting or anything else), the percentage of useful and helpful information will be high and the percentage of stuff we’re experienced enough to evaluate and jettison is smaller. As we gain experience and practice, the ratio will shift some – but I know I learn something every time I watch someone teach a basic firearms course, even though I already know the basics.

As instructors, the challenge is a bit different. When I teach a skill, be it guns or something else, my challenge is to make sure that the main target audience of my course will get as much “signal” and as little “noise” as possible. At the same time, I want to make sure that even the more advanced students are getting something out of the time they’re spending with me. And, most important, I want to make sure that I’m teaching from my knowledge and experience, but I also want to recognize when I don’t know something and say “I don’t know, but let me look into it” rather than faking it. It’s quite possible, even likely, especially at this early stage in my journey, that I’ll have students who know more or shoot better than I do.

But since it’s not about MY ego, I’m okay with that. I am fully willing to admit what I don’t know, to recognize those moments as opportunities. They’re places where, if I can keep my ego out of the way, I can identify skills I need to learn, information I need to seek out, techniques I need to practice. They’re opportunities to grow and expand my knowledge.

If I give in to ego and refuse to recognize them as such, if I spout much-repeated (and often wrong) conventional wisdom or speculation as though it was fact, I’ve done my student a disservice. I’ve given them wrong information and led them astray. This is poor teaching, and in the areas of shooting and self-defense, wrong information can also be exceedingly dangerous. Moreover, I’ve done myself a disservice, because I’ve passed up an opportunity to learn, and that is always a tragedy in my view.

So embrace what you don’t know. Know your limits, sure, and strive to expand them. But strive to do it by recognizing the limitation and seeking out the skills, training and knowledge to transcend it, not by blundering blindly past it and landing yourself and your students in a mess. Embrace what you don’t know, and then go out and learn about it. You’ll be better off for broadening your limits carefully, and your students will be better off for it too.


  1. Absolutely!! Wonderful advice for us all. 🙂

    I learn more when teaching than almost any other time. Keeping one’s head in the realm of reality, while ever striving for excellence – an important part of my success in life, both personally and professionally.

    • “Keeping one’s head in the realm of reality, while ever striving for excellence” – I like that. Thank you!

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