The Unfull Cup

You cannot learn if you think you already know.

Having turned 30 and now considered an adult and citizen, the young Alcibiades prepares to enter the ancient assembly of Athens for the first time.

He has big dreams, this Alcibiades. And big ideas.

He has read a great deal. From these books, he understands much of the world. He has 30 years of experience to draw on. He is an expert in many things.

He wishes to advise the Athenian council on important matters. Proper governance, justice, and war.

With all his reading and his schooling, he is clearly the best person to advise on these serious issues.

There could be none better. He is certain.

He doesn’t need to learn any more. He knows this stuff.

As he adjusts his formal robe, another man appears before him: the great Athenian scholar, Socrates.

Socrates asks Alcibiades if he would answer some questions, warning they may get tough.

Alcibiades gives his permission to begin.

Socrates asks, “So, you do mean to come forward as an adviser to the Athenians?”

Alcibiades confirms that he does indeed mean to advise the Athenians.

Socrates asks, “And do you know their affairs better than they do?”

Alcibiades replies that he knows some topics better than they, and will advise on those.

“And do you know anything outside of the things you’ve learned from others or found out yourself?”

Alcibiades says those things are all he knows. All anyone knows.

“And would you have ever learned anything if you had not been willing to learn?”

Alcibiades says he would not have learned anything had he not been willing.

“And would you have been willing to learn something you believed you already knew?”

Alcibiades says he would not have been willing to learn if he thought he already knew.

The conversation continues, and Socrates pokes and prods at Alcibiades’ so-called knowledge.

He finds holes, errors. False assumptions. Circular logic. An inability to explain concepts or back up opinions.

And he finds ego, as Alcibiades defends his knowledge in the face of his clear ignorance.

Then Socrates hits him with a powerful question:

“Have you forgotten that you do not know this?”

(If I ever get a tattoo, it’ll be this, on my arm where I can always see it.)

And, eventually, Alcibiades begins to doubt his “knowledge”.

Socrates leads Alcibiades to a truth that applies to all of us. In our Chess and our life.

It’s a truth I intend to keep at the front of my mind this year.

We do not know anything.

Not completely. Not 100% for sure.

And thinking we do hurts us.

We have no drive to learn that which we already know.

We are not open to things that contradict that which we already know.

We seek out only things that confirm what we already know. We reject everything else.

This limits us. It limits our growth and our improvement.

Think back to your time as a total beginner at Chess.

You were a sponge for Chess information. You took it all in.

You had no preconceived notions about what’s right or wrong. You just learned.

Curiosity and excitement drove you forward.

You tried things out. Listened to opinions from far and wide.

Socrates described it to Alcibiades like so:

“The reason is, that not only do you not know, but you do not think you know.”

When we acknowledge we don’t know, we create empty space.

Space for more learning to go.

There is a Buddhist phrase that captures it perfectly:

“You cannot fill a cup that’s already full.”

Every day, we acquire knowledge. We expand upon things we’ve learned. We build expertise.

But if we wish to continue learning, growing, and improving, we must never believe ourselves to already know.

Not 100%. Not for sure.

Our cup must never be full.

When I first read this story of Alcibiades, it touched me deeply.

I relate to Alcibiades. I’m a young guy, approaching 30.

I have many ideas about many things. Learning, Chess, history, business, mindset.

I’ve read a lot, tried a lot, wrestled with a lot. And I’ve gathered a lot of data.

(At only 29, I’m not going to be so ridiculous as to say I’ve experienced a lot.)

Like Alcibiades, I set out to offer advice on topics where I feel I have something to offer.

But, like Alcibiades, I must be ever vigilant against close-mindedness.

To continue learning and improving. And to communicate what I discover to others (like you!) in meaningful ways.

I must remember I do not truly know anything. Not 100%. Not for sure.

This year, I commit to that vigilance. I commit to an unfull cup.

I commit to stay open-minded.

I commit to ask myself:

“Have you forgotten that you do not know this?”

I invite you to do the same. In your Chess, and in your life.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of knowing.

A trap that dooms us to stagnation.

And as Chess players, you and I prefer to avoid traps.

Here’s to the journey.


The story in this email is a (very) paraphrased section from Plato’s “The First Alcibiades”, written somewhere between 390 and 350 BC.

You can read the full text for free in English here. It’s also available on Kindle.

If you like philosophy, I recommend it.

About the Author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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