Being Willfully Ignorant

It’s important to always want to learn, right? But should we have a limit to the amount of knowledge we take in? We were told since we were kids to “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave” and “Seek knowledge even if it takes you to China”, and while I think that sounds like a great life philosophy on the surface, it can actually be counterintuitive to helping you accomplish what you want to in life, which many say is the purpose of gathering knowledge to begin with. The issue being that people don’t distinguish between information, and useful knowledge.

In this age of countless social networks, tv shows, Youtube videos and clickbait articles, there is obviously too much information out there for one person to consume. It would take you lifetimes to go through the content produced in a single day, so you obviously have to have some filter right? The problem I see is that most people have a gratification filter and not a filter that’s based off of any higher pursuit or their life goals.

I first thought of writing this blog, when I was rereading Sherlock Holmes (which I haven’t read since I was a kid), and I came across a section in which Watson is astonished that Sherlock is ignorant of basic facts about the universe, even things that everyone in the civilized world takes for granted, like how the earth revolves around the sun. What was more shocking to me (and Watson), was Sherlock’s reply when he was told about our heliocentric universe. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.” How can the model of logical thinking Sherlock Holmes not only not know that the earth revolves around the sun, but when told so doesn’t seem to care and wants to remove that bit of information from his mind forever? Well it turns out that Sherlock Holmes unsurprisingly was ahead of his time, and while the example given is extreme, it is in line with my current way of thinking about gaining knowledge in general.

Tim Ferris has a term that he uses called the “Low Information Diet“. He mentions in the Four Hour Workweek, that he used to read world news all the time, and what generally happens when you stay up to date on the news? Well, two things mainly:

1) The news selectively reports on “when it bleeds it leads”, so you automatically think the world and society is worse than it is.

2) Most (if not all) of the events in the news are out of your sphere of influence. While it is very tragic and heartbreaking to read about how people are being killed in wars and earthquakes around the world, there is really nothing I (or you) can do about it at this present moment, so most people either ignore such news completely or resort to a form of slacktivism.

The only real way to make a significant change, is to either help people and organizations that are doing something or keep expanding your sphere of influence until it overlaps with those tragic events and you can do something about them (which I am trying to do in my own way, and maybe I’ll write more about that later). Once Tim decided to completely stop paying attention to things that are out of his control, his life became better. He became happier and less depressed, because he began focusing on things in his life that he can make a positive difference in.

So going back to Sherlock Holmes, it’s true he was ignorant of basic facts of the universe, but was he was certainly not ignorant about was his craft of detective work and all fields related to it. Watson grades his knowledge in the following way:

  1. Knowledge of Literature – nil.
  2. Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.
  3. Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.
  4. Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
  5. Knowledge of Botany – Variable. 
  6. Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. 
  7. Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
  8. Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

If you notice he’s only proficient in the matters that have a direct impact on his life, through either his work or his own interests. All of which helped him become the greatest fictional detective the world has ever seen (or read about)! He was laser focusing on his life path and creating a complete system in which he could function at maximum capacity.

Sherlock mentions why he is willfully ignorant about many things better than I ever could:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

As a habit,  I think myself and everyone reading this need to constantly re-evaluate what they’re spending their mind bandwidth on. Take in just the knowledge you need to do your job and what you want to do in life not just proficiently but as amazingly as you can. Flood yourself with the kind of knowledge that enriches you and helps you setup systems and habits that lead you towards what you want to do in life, otherwise you’ll be caught in a cycle just waiting for the next distraction.

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