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How you think is more important than what you know


I started 2022 worried about my ignorance. To succeed in the knowledge world, what matters is how much you know, right? But there are so many things I didn’t know, so many books I haven’t read. The more I read and write, the more I regret spending my past years not understanding anything deeply. How could I possibly catch up?

Later I learned perhaps the most valuable lesson of the year.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said,

I can guarantee you, the most important moments of your life, are decided not by what you know, but by how you think…

I doubt it at first. But I’ve grown increasingly convinced he is right.

Nobody knows shit

I used to think knowledge must come from some authority — experts, scientists, books — and I’m certainly not one of them. So I need to learn what they say and run my ideas by them.

This turns out to be a mistake called justificationism. What I now believe is that nothing is ever justified. All we know are wrong. And there is always room to improve. Why? The pattern has played out numerous times in history — new theories replacing old ones, new findings rejected long-held beliefs, new problems emerge as old ones are solved…

[…] the recognition that there are no authoritative source of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable is called fallibilism. […] Fallibilists expect even their best and most fundamental explanations to contain misconceptions in addition to truth, and so they are predisposed to try to change them for the better. […] Moreover, the logic of fallibilism is that one not only seeks to correct the misconceptions of the past, but hopes in the future to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic. — ‌The Beginning of Infinity by David Duestch

Because nothing is absolutely right, I’m in the same boat as everyone else. To use Tim Urban’s words, “you don’t know shit”, and “No one else knows shit either.”

‌Not knowing can be a good thing

There are plenty of examples to show why experts are no better than most people. David Epstein writes in Range,

The average expert was a horrific forecaster. Their areas of specialty, years of experience, academic degrees, and even (for some) access to classified information made no difference. They were bad at short-term forecasting, bad at long-term forecasting, and bad at forecasting in every domain.

What’s more important is the ability to think across domains and contexts, rather than holding on to the tools/beliefs/methods even when they no longer work.

Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.

There are no smart people, just smart thinking

Derek Sivers argues that there are no smart or stupid people, just people being smart and stupid.

Being smart means thinking things through. […] Being stupid means avoiding thinking by jumping to conclusions.

How do you evaluate how good your decisions are? You cannot judge by the outcome, because the outcome depends on situations outside of your control. (There is a fable where a farmer always responded with “We’ll see” to unexpected events, and whether he is lucky or not depends on what has happened. Same decision, different outcomes.)

And smart thinking can be learned. Albert Einstein once said,

I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking reminds us, “Extraordinary people are just ordinary people who are thinking differently.”

Our minds are all we have

I want to expand “thinking” to all that are happening in our minds, including emotions and feelings.

There were a few months this year when my mind was very poor. I know exactly what my problems were, but I couldn’t pull myself out of my own bootstrap. I know I’m living a good life most people would want to trade with, but I was just not happy. No surprise my thinking was severely impacted too.

Sam Harris writes in Waking Up,

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. […] Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.

This is why training the mind is also important. Meditation and mindfulness allow me to not just understand things conceptually, but go deeper to the level of direct experience.

Learning to think better and training the mind are much more valuable than simply loading our brains with ideas that will be proven wrong. I think this will continue to be my priority in 2023.

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