The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge. — Stephen Hawking
I was explaining an interesting concept to a friend. When I dived deeper into the subject, he stopped me.
“I don’t want the details,” he said.
“Don’t you find the subject interesting?”, I probed.
“I just want enough information to talk on the subject to my friends and appear intelligent.”
I searched for humor in his eyes. He was dead serious.
Today, we have access to more tools than ever to learn deeply and progress. Yet, ironically, our reasons to learn have regressed — from seeking self-improvement to seeking appreciation. External validation has trumped the desire for intrinsic growth.
This is why people pursue courses purely for certification and hang out only in rooms where they appear the smartest. This is why conversations have become all about imposing one’s opinions and reinforcing them through ‘likes’ and supportive comments (online and offline).
This validation is also why most people would rather wrestle a gorilla than appear ignorant or uninformed on any subject.
The Effects of Pseudo-Intelligence
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. — Charles Darwin
When we possess little knowledge (just enough for it to become dangerous), we overestimate our understanding of the domain.
As we dive deeper, we discover that there’s more to the subject than we thought. Our confidence wanes and we turn into a mixed bag of emotions.
A tiny minority works despite such emotions to deepen its understanding. Eventually, such people turn their emotional struggle into something beautiful and become experts.
But the majority values its external image more than its self-image. Having an opinion on everything is considered a sign of confidence, being uninformed is considered a sin.
Not wanting to appear “exposed” makes people go to great lengths to avoid anything that attacks their external image (which includes sticking to superficial knowledge).
Our settled impulse is to blame anyone who lays our blind spots and insufficiencies bare, unless our defenses have first been adroitly and seductively appeased. In the face of critically important insights, we get distracted, proud, or fidgety. We may prefer to do almost anything other than take in information that could save us. — Alain de Botton
This behavior makes us unwittingly cause harm to ourselves and others in the following ways.
#1. We Harm Ourselves
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” — Herbert Simon
The more information we try to shove into our minds, the shorter our attention span gets. We also do things against our own good judgment in our craving for constant external validation.
This might seem harmless. But it’s as toxic as being exposed to nuclear radiation. It builds stress, messes up our sleep, induces chronic fatigue, and escalates into alexithymia and other mental health issues.
Imagine the compound effect of such harm over the next twenty years of your life.
#2. We Harm Others
Our understanding shapes our beliefs which in turn, shapes our behavior.
Our beliefs are no longer inconsequential, especially at a time when we can voice them openly. Built on deep understanding, such beliefs can steer others to think for themselves.
But opinions built on poor understanding, hubris and fake news, make us harm others.
“We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to.” — William Kingdon Clifford, 19th Century Philosopher
Some effects are seemingly (but not really) harmless. Like trolling or calling people who don’t agree with us “idiots.”
But others are devastating. Like terrorists whose indoctrination leads them to take millions of innocent lives. Or the neurosurgeon Dr. Death who, in his overconfidence, maimed and caused the death of several patients.
Forming beliefs based on shallow knowledge is irresponsible behavior.
#3. We Reduce the Collective Intelligence Pool
If there ever was a time when critical thinking was the need of the hour and credulity a calamitous sin, it is now. — Francisco Mejia Uribe
According to Clifford, our weakly-formed, strongly-held beliefs pollute the well of collective intelligence.
Intelligence is not just the ability to do math or understand tectonic plates and cloud computing. It’s the ability to process information and generate meaningful conclusions free from common cognitive biases.
Our penchant to rely on emotion more than rationale makes us prone to manipulation by machines, which are turning more capable to make decisions for and about us — what we see, what we click on, and what we should do.
Such manipulation (whether from humans or machines) further solidifies our weak beliefs.
It makes me wonder whether the median of collective intelligence has dropped despite the increase in opportunities and tools to tools.
The Real Reason to Learn
“You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life.” — Marcus Aurelius
The true purpose of learning is to lead a fulfilling life, one where we pursue our ikigai.
Your ikigai is what you love to do. It makes you jump out of bed each morning. It helps you create mental, emotional, and economic value for others and yourself.
Engaged learning is integral to ikigai in three ways.
First, you learn to simplify and build strong mental models.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. — Leonardo da Vinci
Second, putting out your work and collecting feedback helps you improve your work and keeps you motivated. (Nothing is as motivating as self-improvement.)
Third, you turn into a smart worker by learning about and leveraging new tools to help you achieve your goals faster.
Engaged learning doesn’t just keep you relevant with changing times; it makes you thrive in them.
Adjust the sail of your ship according to the direction of the wind. Become wise by trying to prove yourself wrong instead of becoming close-minded by trying to prove yourself right.
Let go of the reluctance to expand your worldview. Open your heart to accept what you need to accept. Focus on growing yourself rather than expecting others to change.
This is how the world gets better… one person at a time.