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TEDSummit

Pico Iyer: The beauty of what we'll never know

June 30, 2016

Almost 30 years ago, Pico Iyer took a trip to Japan, fell in love with the country and moved there. A keen observer of the human spirit, Iyer professes that he now feels he knows far less about Japan -- or, indeed, about anything -- than he thought he knew three decades ago. In this lyrical meditation on wisdom, Iyer expands on this curious insight about knowledge gained with age: that the more we know, the more we see how little we know.

Pico Iyer - Global author
Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness -- and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships. Full bio

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One hot October morning,
00:13
I got off the all-night train
00:16
in Mandalay,
00:19
the old royal capital of Burma,
00:20
now Myanmar.
00:23
And out on the street, I ran into
a group of rough men
00:25
standing beside their bicycle rickshaws.
00:29
And one of them came up
00:33
and offered to show me around.
00:35
The price he quoted was outrageous.
00:38
It was less than I would pay
for a bar of chocolate at home.
00:41
So I clambered into his trishaw,
00:45
and he began pedaling us slowly
between palaces and pagodas.
00:48
And as he did, he told me how
he had come to the city from his village.
00:55
He'd earned a degree in mathematics.
01:01
His dream was to be a teacher.
01:03
But of course, life is hard
under a military dictatorship,
01:06
and so for now, this was the only way
he could make a living.
01:11
Many nights, he told me,
he actually slept in his trishaw
01:16
so he could catch the first visitors
off the all-night train.
01:20
And very soon, we found
that in certain ways,
01:27
we had so much in common --
01:31
we were both in our 20s,
01:32
we were both fascinated
by foreign cultures --
01:34
that he invited me home.
01:38
So we turned off the wide,
crowded streets,
01:41
and we began bumping
down rough, wild alleyways.
01:45
There were broken shacks all around.
01:49
I really lost the sense of where I was,
01:52
and I realized that anything
could happen to me now.
01:55
I could get mugged or drugged
01:59
or something worse.
02:02
Nobody would know.
02:03
Finally, he stopped and led me into a hut,
02:06
which consisted of just one tiny room.
02:09
And then he leaned down,
02:14
and reached under his bed.
02:16
And something in me froze.
02:19
I waited to see what he would pull out.
02:23
And finally he extracted a box.
02:27
Inside it was every single letter
he had ever received
02:31
from visitors from abroad,
02:36
and on some of them he had pasted
02:38
little black-and-white worn snapshots
02:40
of his new foreign friends.
02:44
So when we said goodbye that night,
02:48
I realized he had also shown me
02:51
the secret point of travel,
02:54
which is to take a plunge,
02:56
to go inwardly as well as outwardly
02:58
to places you would never go otherwise,
03:01
to venture into uncertainty,
03:04
ambiguity,
03:07
even fear.
03:09
At home, it's dangerously easy
03:12
to assume we're on top of things.
03:14
Out in the world, you are reminded
every moment that you're not,
03:17
and you can't get to the bottom
of things, either.
03:22
Everywhere, "People wish to be settled,"
03:26
Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us,
03:28
"but only insofar
as we are unsettled
03:31
is there any hope for us."
03:33
At this conference,
we've been lucky enough
03:36
to hear some exhilarating
new ideas and discoveries
03:39
and, really, about all the ways
03:42
in which knowledge is being
pushed excitingly forwards.
03:44
But at some point, knowledge gives out.
03:48
And that is the moment
03:52
when your life is truly decided:
03:53
you fall in love;
03:57
you lose a friend;
03:59
the lights go out.
04:02
And it's then, when you're lost
or uneasy or carried out of yourself,
04:04
that you find out who you are.
04:09
I don't believe that ignorance is bliss.
04:14
Science has unquestionably made our lives
04:18
brighter and longer and healthier.
04:21
And I am forever grateful to the teachers
who showed me the laws of physics
04:24
and pointed out that
three times three makes nine.
04:29
I can count that out on my fingers
04:33
any time of night or day.
04:36
But when a mathematician tells me
04:40
that minus three times
minus three makes nine,
04:42
that's a kind of logic
that almost feels like trust.
04:45
The opposite of knowledge, in other words,
isn't always ignorance.
04:52
It can be wonder.
04:56
Or mystery.
04:58
Possibility.
04:59
And in my life, I've found
it's the things I don't know
05:01
that have lifted me up
and pushed me forwards
05:05
much more than the things I do know.
05:08
It's also the things I don't know
05:12
that have often brought me closer
to everybody around me.
05:13
For eight straight Novembers, recently,
05:18
I traveled every year across Japan
with the Dalai Lama.
05:20
And the one thing he said every day
05:25
that most seemed to give people
reassurance and confidence
05:28
was, "I don't know."
05:32
"What's going to happen to Tibet?"
05:36
"When are we ever
going to get world peace?"
05:39
"What's the best way to raise children?"
05:42
"Frankly," says this very wise man,
05:45
"I don't know."
05:49
The Nobel Prize-winning
economist Daniel Kahneman
05:51
has spent more than 60 years now
researching human behavior,
05:55
and his conclusion is
06:00
that we are always much more confident
of what we think we know
06:02
than we should be.
06:06
We have, as he memorably puts it,
06:08
an "unlimited ability
to ignore our ignorance."
06:11
We know -- quote, unquote -- our team
is going to win this weekend,
06:16
and we only remember that knowledge
06:21
on the rare occasions when we're right.
06:23
Most of the time, we're in the dark.
06:27
And that's where real intimacy lies.
06:31
Do you know what your lover
is going to do tomorrow?
06:36
Do you want to know?
06:40
The parents of us all,
as some people call them,
06:43
Adam and Eve,
06:46
could never die, so long as they
were eating from the tree of life.
06:47
But the minute they began nibbling
06:52
from the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil,
06:54
they fell from their innocence.
06:57
They grew embarrassed and fretful,
06:59
self-conscious.
07:02
And they learned,
a little too late, perhaps,
07:04
that there are certainly some things
that we need to know,
07:07
but there are many, many more
that are better left unexplored.
07:09
Now, when I was a kid,
07:15
I knew it all, of course.
07:17
I had been spending 20 years
in classrooms collecting facts,
07:21
and I was actually
in the information business,
07:25
writing articles for Time Magazine.
07:28
And I took my first real trip to Japan
for two-and-a-half weeks,
07:30
and I came back with a 40-page essay
07:36
explaining every last detail
about Japan's temples,
07:39
its fashions, its baseball games,
07:43
its soul.
07:46
But underneath all that,
07:49
something that I couldn't understand
07:51
so moved me for reasons
I couldn't explain to you yet,
07:54
that I decided to go and live in Japan.
07:59
And now that I've been there for 28 years,
08:04
I really couldn't tell you
very much at all
08:07
about my adopted home.
08:09
Which is wonderful,
08:12
because it means every day
I'm making some new discovery,
08:13
and in the process,
08:16
looking around the corner
and seeing the hundred thousand things
08:17
I'll never know.
08:21
Knowledge is a priceless gift.
08:24
But the illusion of knowledge
can be more dangerous than ignorance.
08:28
Thinking that you know your lover
08:33
or your enemy
08:36
can be more treacherous
08:38
than acknowledging you'll never know them.
08:39
Every morning in Japan, as the sun
is flooding into our little apartment,
08:43
I take great pains not to consult
the weather forecast,
08:48
because if I do,
08:52
my mind will be overclouded, distracted,
08:54
even when the day is bright.
08:57
I've been a full-time
writer now for 34 years.
09:01
And the one thing that I have learned
09:06
is that transformation comes
when I'm not in charge,
09:09
when I don't know what's coming next,
09:13
when I can't assume I am bigger
than everything around me.
09:15
And the same is true in love
09:21
or in moments of crisis.
09:23
Suddenly, we're back in that trishaw again
09:26
and we're bumping off the broad,
well-lit streets;
09:30
and we're reminded, really,
of the first law of travel
09:34
and, therefore, of life:
09:37
you're only as strong
as your readiness to surrender.
09:40
In the end, perhaps,
09:47
being human
09:49
is much more important
09:51
than being fully in the know.
09:52
Thank you.
09:56
(Applause)
09:57

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Pico Iyer - Global author
Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness -- and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships.

Why you should listen

In twelve books, covering everything from Revolutionary Cuba to the XIVth Dalai Lama, Islamic mysticism to our lives in airports, Pico Iyer has worked to chronicle the accelerating changes in our outer world, which sometimes make steadiness and rootedness in our inner world more urgent than ever. In his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, he draws upon travels from North Korea to Iran to remind us how to remain focused and sane in an age of frenzied distraction. As he writes in the book, "Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds ... All of us instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness to offset the exhilarations of this movement and the fun and diversion of the modern world."

The original video is available on TED.com
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