What is deep knowledge, and how can you attain it when facts are boring?
Imagine that you are at a dinner, and the person sitting next to you appears to be somewhat knowledgeable.
You two talk and get to know each other a bit better when you suddenly realize what a bore this person is:
- He is just reciting facts.
The conversation has turned into a monologue where this person satisfies his ego by burping up all kinds of numbers, facts, and short sentences containing dry and dull information that you didn’t ask to hear.
Needless to say, he’s boring you to tears.
Now, what he is saying isn’t necessarily untrue.
After all, these are the facts.
But how fun are facts on their own, and how appropriate is it to recite them, with no evident aim in mind, at a dinner party when you are trying to be social and make everyone feel welcome?
As you are thinking about how annoying this person is, he says something that catches your attention:
The Illusion of Deep Knowledge
Ah! Finally, a topic you know something about.
You can turn this monologue into a conversation again, so you answer back with a follow-up question regarding the latest fact this person cited — when it happens.
- He doesn’t know how to answer it.
In fact, he doesn’t even have a clue what the topic means, and naturally can’t engage in an intellectual debate with you.
After a few seconds of awkward silence, he goes back to citing some other fact as though nothing happened, completely deviating from the topic you wanted to discuss.
As he continues to rant, you ask yourself:
How come this person can repeat this information while failing to engage in an intellectual conversation about either topic when you wanted to discuss it further?
Even if this might seem like a hard question to answer, the solution to the problem is rather straightforward.
The reason is the following:
He doesn’t have deep knowledge about any of the topics he is citing.
The Origin of Ignorance — The Opposite of Deep Knowledge
The most common approach to these kinds of problems is to blame other people.
It’s always this guy or that who is the stupid one, who doesn’t know anything, but acts as if he does.
She is a narcissist who thinks she is the most important, brilliant, and intellectual person in the room.
No, it’s not me. I am aware of my flaws, my limits, and how little I know.
And the stuff that I do know, I understand fully.
It doesn’t turn me into a Them.
All of this sounds within reason, but according to the scientific literature when it comes to assessing your own abilities, skills, and having a clear understanding of where you fall short, you are terrible at it.
The truth is:
We all are.
- Don’t panic — there is a solution.
The same literature also explains how to overcome these biases of flawed self-assessments.
Let’s Face It
To begin this process, however, you must first come to terms with the fact that you, too, are able to behave in this obnoxious way when it comes to how and when you recite facts, and when you don’t have a deep understanding of the topic that is being discussed, and just want to look smart.
As Carl Jung wrote:
And Marian Keyes said it well when she wrote:
Thinking that something affects other people but not you is a common cognitive bias that blurs your vision, and makes it harder for you to advance in life.
So the first step of this process is to look closely at other people and think deeply about why some of their behavioral patterns disturb you, and how these patterns mirror your less desirable traits.
That is the angle you must work from for these lessons to work.
Sure, other people are narcissistic, ignorant, rude, and even obnoxious.
People might even cite facts, try to impress others, and come off as arrogant more often than you do.
But face it:
- You do it, too.
The faster you can come to terms with this fact, the quicker you can begin to massage this intellectual knot until it untangles so that you can concentrate all your forces on attaining mastery, instead of wasting precious time trying to impress other people with your “facts” and “figures.”
But how does this desire arise, and how can you begin to notice it when it starts bubbling so that you can employ a top-down executive control over your emotions?
They Just Want To Win
One of the most common reasons why people want to become knowledgeable is to be able to win arguments.
They want to impress people with their ability to remember facts; they want to beat an enemy into intellectual submission.
Or they need to cover up a flawed personality with knowledge so that they don’t have to work on their social skills.
For this reason, they memorize all the information in the way they were initially written, and they can recall all the facts and figures whenever they feel so inclined, making them feel at ease, and as if they are regarded as highly intelligent.
Mostly in a social setting because what is the point of remembering things that other people wrote if no one can hear you cite them?
These people want to prove their intellectual opponents wrong by being right.
They want to win an argument for the sake of winning the argument.
This need to feel superior is outwardly directed; it’s a deeply held desire to prove other people wrong.
The only problem is:
This is a terrible reason for attaining knowledge.
From Germany With Love
In his book Beyond Good And Evil, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche posed a question that goes as follows:
- What is your drive to knowledge?
The first answer that comes up is merely a facade, a mask, for the real reason why people want to seem smart, well-read, and have deep knowledge.
It might be that they want to know the truth; they want to understand a topic better, or they have a general interesting in learning more.
If you are not careful, you might fall for this story people tell themselves.
Often, however, there is a more dark and sinister reason why people have a drive to knowledge:
It usually originates from a deeply ingrained desire for, illusory superiority coupled with a morality that tells them a story of how their thinking is more pure, and admirable than other people’s thinking.
Or as Nietzsche wrote:
“To explain how a philosopher’s most remote metaphysical assertions have actually been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to ask oneself first: what morality does this (does he —) aim at? I accordingly do not believe a ‘drive to knowledge’ to be the father of philosophy, but that another drive has, here as elsewhere, only employed knowledge (and false knowledge!) as a tool.”Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, 1886.
Deep Knowledge As A Facade
Intelligence, then, becomes the tool, the facade, for their need to cover up cavities in their personality, which then fuels their ambition — their drive to knowledge.
Because their drive to knowledge stems from a need to prove others wrong to make themselves feel right, merely citing the facts will feel sufficient.
Therefore, they never drill deeper; they never attain deep knowledge, which then becomes a major flaw in their strategy, leaving their flanks vulnerable to attacks.
There is, however, another explanation as to why people behave this way.
Why they are satisfied with proving people wrong while showing no evident signs of wanting to learn the facts and actually understand them, to make the world a better place by connecting the dots, and creating something meaningful in life.
Enter envy and resentment.
The Neuroscience of Envy
In the brain, there is a chemical messenger that fuels ambition — it drives goal-directed behavior.
This chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, is called dopamine.
It was previously believed that dopamine was involved in the pleasure of getting a reward.
However, it has been shown that dopamine has more to do with the anticipation of reward rather than with attaining the reward.
If you know what reward you will get, if you have learned the reward contingencies, and you have a clear understanding what work needs to get done, dopamine will fuel the goal-directed behavior that will get you the reward.
You think of a goal, you get motivated, and behave in a way that moves you toward achieving that goal — that’s dopamine.
This includes making you motivated to eat when you are hungry, it drives sexual urges and other behaviors that will prolong the survival of your species.
Needless to say, dopamine is essential for life — without it, you would be endlessly depressed, and do nothing.
Although this might sound like a story with a happy ending, there is a dark side to dopamine that fuels spiteful feelings like envy, schadenfreude, and resentment; emotions that fuel a goal-directed behavior aimed at tearing others down — this behavior eventually become their drive to knowledge.
Dopamine is, namely, bidirectional.
The Dark Side of Dopamine
To explain how dopamine fuels dark ambitions, we must take a look at the difference between winning or losing the lottery and winning or losing an auction:
In the scenario of winning or losing the lottery, the person hoping to win has a clear understanding of how luck plays a role in whether or not he or she will come out victorious.
It all boils down to chance.
In the bidding scenario, however, another element gets added to the picture:
The component of social competition.
It’s not about luck anymore — it’s a socially competitive landscape where your efforts affect the final outcome.
You determine if you win or lose.
Winning the auction and winning the lottery showed similar dopaminergic signaling in getting the reward.
Losing the bidding, however, differed from losing the lottery in the following way:
Not winning the lottery had no significant effect; losing the auction battle caused an inhibition in the dopamine release.
It makes you feel as if you are falling through the hierarchical ranks of society, ending up at a place of extreme social inferiority and subordination.
Here is where envy and resentment rest.
The Social Scenario
Imagine that you are having a conversation at a party with a person who you know isn’t too fond of your existence.
You are, however, having a normal conversation for the sake of keeping up appearances, when this person asks you how something you have been working on for some time is coming together.
Thinking that this is a genuine question stemming from a real interest, you answer with delight and lay out all the details on how well things are going, without noticing the ephemeral frown in this person’s face once he hears the news of your good fortune.
- Envy has taken over, and the face muscles can’t control themselves.
When this person hears about your good news (especially if you disliked each other before the big reveal), the same regions in the brain that light up during intense pain activate when they receive the news about how well you are doing.
The fact that you are advancing in life, and perhaps they are not, evokes a pain-like sensation in the brain, causing them to feel terrible after receiving the news of your advancements.
This is precisely the same scenario as the auction betting scene — it’s social subordination.
- And it’s painful.
Here is where it gets interesting:
Schadenfreude And Your Fall From Grace
The same is true if you, in the same scenario, reveal something terrible that has happened to you.
If you tell him that you lost your job, your girlfriend walked out on you, or you lost a lot of money, there is dopaminergic activation in this person’s brain when his envied person has been forced to deal with tragedy.
He is gloating over your fall from the heights of fortune.
What’s even more devilish is that the more activation there was during the moment when you told him about the good news, the more dopaminergic activation he’ll get upon hearing about your misfortune.
The more painful it was to hear about how well you were doing, the more satisfying the schadenfreude becomes when he hears about your fall from grace.
This gives tremendous insight into what motivates people to throw around facts to sound knowledgeable, smart, and as someone who you shouldn’t debate on an intellectual topic.
But this is an illusion, it’s a facade, a strategy — it’s a front that they project to cover up the fact that they have no deep understanding of what they are talking about.
It’s a defense mechanism; they are desperately trying to cover up weaknesses in their personality because they have no deep knowledge, and they will fight like hell to keep that dopamine from crashing because you have a better and more coherent understanding of the topic being discussed.
Especially in a social setting; it has to do with social subordination.
It’s Social Subordination
This behavior can be linked to the desire to avoid the social subordination of not only being wrong but allowing you to be right, which would cause them to feel two kinds of pain:
- It’s essentially a weakness, but it’s also an instinct — it’s human nature.
To avoid growing angry, resentful, and spiteful yourself, you want to gather as much knowledge about this problem area, get to know this person better, and develop an empathetic angle from which you work.
Understanding what motivates certain behaviors provides you with feelings of compassion for the person acting this way; he is scared, fragile, and insecure, which probably haunts him every single day.
You will not take his attacks seriously; you will also learn how not to engage this type of person in any kind of intellectual debate because you can’t win over someone who is simultaneously fighting for his life to maintain his perceived social status.
It also gives you insight into what awaits if you grow content with merely citing facts, numbers, and figures as a way to seem intelligent, well-read, and superior.
- You know how people will view you if you become him.
To overcome this, and to not turn into someone who puts to much emphasis on keeping up a fabricated front, a facade, you want to look deep inside yourself, and see that this kind of behavior stirs in you as well.
To reverse this process, to fend off these tendencies that lurk deep in your psyche, there must exist an inwardly directed motivation for mastering a field.
Inwardly Directed Motivation
If there is no inwardly directed motivation for attaining mastery, if the reason why you want to remember facts is to seem superior in a social setting, then you are setting yourself up for ostracization, and exclusion.
You will face a future where everything you know has zero value in your life other than, for a fleeting moment, silencing an opponent in a meaningless intellectual debate that will mean nothing a minute after it has ended.
That is the definition of time wasted.
And if you’re not careful, a life wasted, too.
Instead, what you must aim at is to acquire deep knowledge about what you are trying to learn, and to stay humble in the process, understanding that there is so much left to read that you simply haven’t yet discovered everything yet.
If you work from this angle, if you always think of how much there is left to know, you will also come to see that you are never done.
You can never learn everything there is to know, but you must, however, work as though you will — while maintaining a humble spirit in that you still have to go about and learn it; you have to connect the dots.
It’s a cognitive bias that is keeping you from reaching your potential in life, and you must wake up every day and recommit to fighting off these dark latent tendencies that stir deep inside.
Otherwise, you are running the risk of turning into someone who is working around the clock to remember facts that mean nothing to no one, wasting non-renewable time and energy that you could have used to carve out a successful career for yourself.
Here are three strategies for avoiding the common pitfalls of only citing facts without understanding the meaning of the words:
Deep Knowledge Strategy 1 — Work more, talk less
In the early stages of mastering a craft, you will feel an urge to talk endlessly about what you are trying to understand.
The joy of having found a topic, a field, that excites you will naturally spark a desire to share your findings with the world.
But since you are just getting started, you are not in a position to explain it to people, simply because you haven’t yet understood it yourself, and you will not be taken seriously if you talk endlessly about it.
If you try to be too brilliant too early, regardless if it’s out of excitement or spite, you will stir up vicious resentment, and even piercing envy because people are generally unsure of their path in life, and your sense of direction will shine too bright a light on their inaction.
Naturally, a compulsion to sabotage your advancements in the future will begin to stir inside them.
Your drive to knowledge will create life-long enemies that will make it their life’s work to ruin yours.
The best antidote, then, to avoid this gruesome scenario is to keep your brilliance, your excitement, and your new-found knowledge to yourself until you understand it fully.
To pull this off, you want to pour all your energy and enthusiasm into your work.
Let the silent advancements fill you with feelings of great satisfaction, and meaning so that there will be no need for social validation or an urge to spread your wings before you have mastered the art of flying.
Sharing your opinions, ideas, and thoughts actually activate the same parts of the brain that light up when you are eating junk food.
Therefore, talking endlessly about what you have just discovered is a sign of poor self-control, and executive function — you engage in intellectual gluttony, which is an anti-seductive trait that will irritate those around you.
Get in the habit of doing the work, and find it in you to feel great pleasure in the process of working toward an intellectual goal where you will get a clear understanding and develop deep knowledge, and not just remember the facts — without feeling the need for social validation.
That will naturally put you on the path to mastery.
Create a work schedule.
Set the bar for how much you will engage in deliberate practice every day, and become the self-torturing artist who never accepts anything but absolute excellence from yourself.
Soon you will discover how the need to flex your muscles in public disappears, and left is an immense excitement for the hard work itself.
Catch yourself whenever you feel like falling into old habits of talking endlessly about your newest discoveries, and question yourself whether or not you have understood it or if you are just excited and want to talk.
Get in the habit of doing the work, and the need to share all your findings will vaporize once you become seduced by the widths and depths of the field you are trying to master.
Deep Knowledge Strategy 2 — Be honest, be humble — do you really understand it?
When you are just starting out learning something new, there will be a sensation that you have grasped the concepts better than everyone else.
During the initial stages of the learning curve, you will feel as though you somehow magically understood everything you’ve read, and it just comes naturally to you.
Although this sensation might seem real, it is nothing less than an illusion; it’s a cognitive bias.
In the field of psychology, this is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it’s where you overestimate your understanding of a topic, mostly because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Ironically, experts seem to underestimate their knowledge because they can see all the nuances of what they are studying, and can see how their deep knowledge is insufficient in comparison to the depth and width of their chosen field.
In the beginning, it’s natural to have a limited understanding of what you are trying to learn; it’s even necessary and therefore, unavoidable.
What’s not natural and necessary is the arrogant attitude that often accompanies the initial stages of mastering your field.
Avoid The Narcissistic Approach — Aim For Deep Knowledge
Far too many people will take a narcissistic approach when they are learning something new.
They will think they are so brilliant, masterful and that everyone else is wrong, and they have it all figured out.
And once they reach a point where they can see their ignorance, if they ever do, they will have lost all their social support, and become stuck in a place where they can’t get any further.
To avoid this falling into this trap, you must assume a more humble position when you are first starting out learning something new.
Imagine yourself as a child in desperate need of a parent’s support for your survival.
You are witnessing the world for the very first time, and you don’t know how it works, and you look upon it with a great sense of wonder.
In this process, you will learn to underplay your own brilliance, and you will get in the habit of muting your colors a bit, so that everything you know, every little bit of knowledge you acquire, will seem a bit more awe-inspiring than it actually is.
Don’t Oversell Your Brilliance
If you, on the other hand, try to oversell your brilliance without the knowledge to back up your claims, people will work their fingers to the bone trying to disprove you, and take you down.
For this reason, the more humble approach where you assume you don’t know anything, and always talk from a place of where you are just starting to understand the basics of it all will make more people listen to you, and be more forgiving when you make the inevitable mistakes that you will do in the beginning.
It’s also the most honest way of approaching learning from an intrapersonal point of view.
If you constantly remind yourself of how much there is to learn, and how little you understand, the counter-reaction will be a relentless hunger for more, and a ruthless honesty when you know you are letting yourself off the hook.
You will catch yourself when you are reading too fast — when you aren’t thinking deeply enough, and when you want to tell the whole world about your most recent discovery in the field that you are trying to understand.
This will be your most valuable key in overcoming the disease of illusory superiority.
Overcome The Bias of Illusory Superiority
If you can be aware of the trap of this cognitive bias, you can learn to control your emotions, and see when you fall victim to its tempting lures.
To overcome this bias, you need to carry with you the following steps at all times:
The more you think you know, the more it’s a sign of how little you understand.
Get in the habit of shutting down this internal monologue, and get back to working in silence.
There is always more to learn, and you don’t know it all.
It’s easy to sell yourself the story of your own brilliance when you are comparing yourself to your friends.
Instead, you want to find the most knowledgable experts in your field, and try to outcompete them, and imagine yourself debating them on the topic at hand.
Then you will see how little you know, but you will also get motivated to learn more about the subject and even begin to unearth pieces of information that you can start to study for depth and ultimately gain deep knowledge and see things more clearly.
One of the most evident signs of an amateur is his unwillingness to accept negative feedback.
Studies have shown that the less you know about a topic, the less you will value the input and knowledge of specialized experts, and the more you will listen to the common herd.
To reverse this herd instinct, you must listen to how people correct you, what feedback they let you have and use everything to alter your course.
If you can get your enemies to comment on your ignorance, that feedback is the most valuable because they have no reason to filter out the truth.
This is one of the most critical steps of attaining deep knowledge.
It’s widely known in the field of psychology that people are terrible at assessing their own skill levels.
They either overestimate or undervalue what they know.
For this reason, you need other experts in your field to tell you where your skill levels are.
Their opinions will be your compass, and the summary of their feedback is the truth about where you are.
They will point out your weak areas so that you know what needs massaging.
If you can find people who are more knowledgable than you, they are your golden tickets for avoiding this ignorance bias, and for reaching the heights of power.
A common mistake that amateurs make is that they immediately reach for the shiny titles, promotions, and things that will gain them the recognition that their ego so demands.
What they don’t know, however, is that the people who gain the most attention in their field are seldom the ones with the most in-depth understanding of their field.
Surely, you don’t want to work entirely in the shadows, but if you instantly reach for the heights, you will fly too close to the sun, and you will burn your wings, and the fall will be painful.
A saying in the world is that it takes 10 years to become an overnight sensation. And there’s a reason.
Be content with working in silence. Don’t lose your focus and your drive to knowledge.
The titles will come, but advancement without sufficient knowledge is not real, and it is not going to last.
If you are ever given a choice between rank or knowledge, always seek out a more profound understanding of your field than a higher position in the social hierarchy.
This strategy will always come out on top, no matter what happens in the world because once you become masterful and skilled enough, you will rise to the heights of the hierarchy anyway, so work on your craft first, and the rest will come your way eventually.
The Humble Approach
Ask yourself the following:
Have I really understood this, or is there more to learn?
The truth is:
There is always something you don’t understand, and if you can get in the habit of viewing life from this humble angle, there is nothing that can get in your way of reaching mastery where you have a deep, and sophisticated understanding of your field; when you are not just reciting facts that don’t mean anything to anyone.
Deep Knowledge Strategy 3 — Wait until you can connect the dots
One of the most known signs of a person who has deep knowledge of a topic is that he or she can connect the dots; there is an understanding of causality, and why things happen, and how they interact.
A true sign of an amateur is that she has all the dots, but can’t string them together.
She can recite all the facts, figures, and numbers on their own, but she can’t seem to grasp how everything is interconnected or how this happens because of that.
The reason is because it’s easy, it’s convenient.
Everyone can learn facts on their own, and build a bank of useless information meant to sound intellectual to the common crowd.
But this is work for nothing, and you are not in this to show off.
Imagine the following scenario:
Get Your Ships In Order
If you only have the dots, they are random ships on the ocean. What you want is a harbor of knowledge where all your ships are in line so that you not only can recite the facts, but you have a deep and clear understanding of the subject, which, ironically, will make you more humble and less prone to show off your fancy new skills.
Once you see how the dots connect, and you discover the relationship between cause and effect, you will develop a desire to learn more, to read more deeply, and to talk about it less because you are too busy studying your craft.
The difference between knowing the facts and having deep knowledge is found in having the lines that connect the dots.
It’s a law of human nature that we want to show off our brilliance, and to gain rewards for our work before we have done it.
However, it’s way more productive and awe-inspiring if you seem ordinary or even unknowledgeable until that one day where you can really shine and show off your skills naturally and optimally.
Create An Air of Mystery
If you become known as the person who just talks endlessly, even when no one asked for your opinion on a subject that you brought up, people will instead be focusing on the mistakes you make rather than how brilliant you want to seem.
It’s always a better strategy to gain a reputation for working hard, saying no to late nights out, and to not be available at all hours of the day.
This will spark a natural curiosity in people, who will then begin to ask you what you are up to.
Then you can let them in on what you are doing, and all your knowledge, everything you’ve learned, will be a topic for discussion once you are out in a social setting.
By this time, you will have had plenty of chances of gaining a deeper understanding of your field, and thus being able to connect the dots so that you can display your expertise in a humble, and understandable way.
Before you reach this point, however, you need to be content with the fact that you will arrive there in the future, and that all your hard work will get you where you need to go and be patient in the moment.
Show Your True Colors Among Friends
If you have a deep-rooted desire to talk about, make sense of, and discuss what you have just learned or are trying to learn, find a tight circle of friends who will not view you as a pretentious, highly unpleasant person who is trying to seem smart or win a meaningless debate.
These friends must also maintain the ability to let you know when you are deviating from the course and need to get back to work and think about it some more.
Only then can you begin to connect the dots, see cause and effect, and truly begin to master your field.
Until then, however, work in silence.
Abstain from showing off too early; the fall might dissuade you from getting up and try again.
Once you can see the line that connects the dots, you will know that you have reached the next level, which really only means that the next marathon begins.
The Last Step To Attain Deep Knowledge
It all boils down to is the following:
What is your drive to knowledge?
Do you have the guts to ask yourself this question, and really answer it, and keep two fingers on the pulse at all times so that you don’t stray too far from the path of self-evaluation and ruthless honesty toward yourself?
Do you want to win meaningless debates with people who have no idea what you are talking about, or do you want to become a recognized expert in your field with deep knowledge about what you study?
Only after you’ve answered these questions, only then can you begin the work that will connect the dots, and take you where you need to go and gain deep knowledge.
- Ignorant people never think about their own ignorance; they are doomed to forever remain on a plateau of superficial knowledge.
Gain Deep Knowledge — Avoid The Cognitive Bias
To combat this cognitive bias, this law of human nature, you must always ask yourself if there is something else you haven’t learned.
Can you ask someone to assess your skill levels by giving you feedback, can you seek out an expert in your field and compare yourself to this person, and can you wake up every day and assume you don’t know anything about what you are trying to master?
If you can find it in you to accept the feedback, especially from your enemies, then you are on the path.
If you want to become more than someone who recites facts and instead create a name that is known for having a deep understanding and taking learning and skill-acquisition seriously, then you know what needs to be done.
Get in the habit of using these tools on your way toward mastery.
You will see how quickly your mind will change.