I’m terrified of looking stupid.
With so much information available literally at my fingertips, my greatest fear has become not knowing. Of having no opinion.
And I’d wager most of us feel the same way.
When you’re asked a question, even one you might know the answer to, how often do you feel that unconscious move towards pulling out your phone?
Or, when asked about a current event, how often do you find yourself basing opinion on headlines alone? I know I have, and I hate it.
With so much information swirling around us, we feel the need to answer with superficial and uninformed opinions instead of cultivating deep understanding. We’d rather have any answer than say ‘I don’t know’.
“Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization,” wrote Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
But how many of us actually believe the content we’re consuming is expanding our minds? Most of the time it feels like we’re just picking up rocks—filling our pockets with nothing more than unnecessary weight.
With such a glut of information being forced on us at all times, is it even possible to cultivate wisdom?
The difference between information and wisdom
Now, I’m not saying we’re stupid. Far from it.
We’ve reached an incredible place as a society where the knowledge of generations before us can be accessed from a piece of plastic and glass in our pockets.
And no, this isn’t another diatribe against the uselessness of the internet—the cat videos and BuzzFeed Listicles.
This all stemmed from a dinner party. As I sat and spoke with friends, I noticed we weren’t able to dive deep into topics. Sure, we were able to have a conversation, but those deep, meaningful, thoughtful topics seemed few and far between.
We spent the night skimming the surface, never sticking our heads below the water.
We were stuck exchanging information.
Information. Knowledge. Wisdom. They’re all pieces of the same puzzle, right?
In her timeless essay on cultivating wisdom, writer and creator of Brainpickings, Maria Popova explains the real reason why a lack of deeper understanding is hurting our society.
“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two,” wrote Popova in arguing how wisdom requires more than just an understanding of a topic.
“We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”
Popova goes on to explain that wisdom is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works, but also how it should work.
That ‘should’ is the most important part of the above statement, because it explains how wisdom requires a moral framework of what should and shouldn’t matter. To be wise, we need to have an ideal vision of what the world could (and should) look like.
Wisdom, then, is understanding and foreseeing how the information and knowledge you’ve gained can help create a better world.
Reading an article may garner you temporary information, but deeply understanding a topic will give you the tools to make real change.
Garbage in, garbage out: Bridging the gap between information and wisdom
If you’re looking for some shortcut to cultivating wisdom, I’m sorry to have wasted your time.
There’s a reason wisdom most likely conjures images of elders, gurus, or superhuman beings.
For the writer Susan Sontag, wisdom is a lifelong process, and one that you choose to work towards every single day.
“Reading sets standards”, she said in a lecture at the 92nd street Y in New York in 1992, explaining how what you consume on a daily basis sets the standards for how you’ll understand and see the world.
“[Reading was] where the standards come from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.”
Artist and writer Austin Kleon mirrored this sentiment in a recent essay where he observed how “problems of output are usually problems of input.”
Our path to wisdom starts with what we allow to enter our minds.
When 22-year old Arnold Samuelson hitchhiked aboard a coal train to meet Hemingway in Key West, the author gave him a list of books to read: “Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.”
In The Gift, author Lewis Hyde intertwined the path to wisdom with that of the artist’s journey:
“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master…that is to say that most artists are converted to art by art itself.”
Modern studies too have shown the sheer importance of practicing proper consumption.
“The reading brain circuit reflects the affordances of what it reads,” reflects cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf in her 2007 book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain—the more we skim, the more likely we are to keep skimming.
The more we dig deeply into a text, however, the more we will continue to look for those opportunities.
The path to going beyond the superficial starts with understand just what is beyond the superficial—a skill that can only be developed through time and experience.
In The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers his perspective on what it means to truly understand something:
“When we want to understand something, we cannot stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with in in order to really understand. If we understand a person, we have to feel their feelings, suffer their sufferings, and enjoy their joy.
“The sutra uses the word ‘penetration’ to mean ‘full comprehension.’ The word ‘comprehend’ is made up of the Latin roots com, which means ‘together in mind,’ and prehendere, which means ‘to grasp it or pick it up.’ So to comprehend something means to pick it up and be one with it. There is no other way to understand something.”
The ‘trick’, if there is one, is in knowing what deserves your time and attention.
With our lives increasingly distracted my technology and busy work and economic fragility, the idea of taking in a subject deeply is one that’s hard to sell.
It’s so much easier to sell quick fixes. Quick ideas. Quick understanding.
Read the notes. Answer the question. Move onto the next one.
There isn’t time for understanding (am I starting to sound like Yoda here?)
But without taking the time to cultivate a taste level of what’s good and what good art/writing/science should look like, we’re merely shuffling the deck. And whether you pull an ace of hearts or a 3 of spades doesn’t matter because the house has already beat you.
There is no chance to guide or to cultivate wisdom.
Becoming a better content consumer
So, are we all doomed to a life of mediocrity? Is it too late to change our goals and move towards a path of wisdom?
If wisdom only comes from a deep understanding, and understanding is to experience fully, what are the steps we can take to move beyond the bottom rung and take a step towards building wisdom?
Re-experience what made you, you
As Popova so cleverly shows, the difference between knowledge and wisdom is a moral understanding of the world around us—a conviction of how things should be.
In our own lives, this belief system—your worldview—was most likely shaped by a combination of teachers, parents, peers, and stories. To reset your moral compass, go back to the moments that set it in the first place.
Writers Ryan Holiday and Tyler Cowen talk about ‘quake books’—pieces of writing that had a profound effect on your worldview and helped shape your individual experience. I’m sure you can name at least one book or film or piece of content that changed how you viewed the world. For me, most recently that was Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, and its representations of love, friendship, support, and the path of an artist.
To cultivate wisdom is to understand understanding, or as Emerson put it:
“Knowledge is the knowing that we can not know.”
Re-read the books that changed your life. Re-watch the films that shaped your worldview. Re-connect with those who pushed you to go beyond the superficial. It’s only through experience that you’ll know which way to point your moral compass.
Become a great storyteller
“At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller’s value lives,” wrote Maria Popova.
Whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator, a great storyteller according to Popova is “someone who helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters.”
In the path towards wisdom, a good storyteller synthesizes facts and figures with their own moral understanding of how the world should be—moving beyond a basic transference of information and to a level of transcendence.
Learning how to tell a story, even if it’s only your own, forces you to connect the dots of knowledge. To answer that ultimate question for all creatives: why?
Constantly dive deep
Books are our link to the past. As the Roman philosopher Secena explains:
“Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”
Set aside regular time to dive into a subject. Cordoning off an hour or two a day to read, explore, or as Seneca put it, enter into a partnership with every age, will not only give you a better understanding, but help you to cultivate your own taste level.
Always buy books that look interesting. Create a library so there’s never an excuse to not have something meaningful to consume.
And when you do consume, consume with purpose.
Search out writers that speak to you and latch onto their words. Dive deep and see what makes them tick. Find the works that shaped their worldview. And then follow them down the rabbit hole.
Be open to experiences you don’t understand
“Everything that irritates us about someone else us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung
Pursuing a life of deeper understandings and wisdom is difficult because it requires us to be fluid not only in our beliefs, but in our very core values.
A rigid mindset, one that doesn’t allow for options beyond what it holds to be true, has no room to expand. Like a goldfish who only grows to accommodate the space it’s been given, our understanding only grows when we give it the space to.
As Maria Popova explains as one of the 7 lessons she learned in the last 7 years:
“It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, ‘I don’t know’. But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right—even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.“
The Romantic poet John Keats put forth the idea of ‘Negative Capability‘—the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and come to peace with ambiguity.
This level of openness allows us to not only see the dots, but to make the connections that were seemingly non-existent. To see the truly enlightened ideas that only come from farming on seemingly barren land. From planting an unknown seed and seeing what, with proper cultivation and care, pops up.
As Marcus Aurelius explains in Meditations:
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake and looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self deceit and ignorance.”
When you search for the truth, rather than just enough information to form an opinion, you find ways to enrich your life and that of those around you.
We all lead by example, whether we set out to or not.
“Life is long if you know how to use it.”
I used to hate that quote from Seneca. It made me feel like I was missing the point entirely. But now I think I’m closer to understanding.
It’s not merely enough to know. We need to do something with the knowledge. We need to practice. To apply. To become wise.
We need to get off the spinning wheel of mindless opinions and rehashed statements and build a better machine.
But this only comes through dedication to a cause. From pushing our minds beyond our comfort zone.
What we experience shapes who we become. Curating and editing what goes into your own life is the only way to guide yourself forward in continual growth. Staying at a standstill, ignoring the work that seems ‘too hard’, will only bring you back to where you started.