“The story is told that the great scientist Einstein was once asked how many feet are in a mile. Einstein's reply was ‘I don't know; Why should I fill my brain with facts I can find in two minutes in any standard reference book?’
"Einstein taught us a big lesson. He felt it was more important to use your mind to think than to use it as a warehouse for facts.“
Quote from “The Magic of Thinking Big” by David J. Schwartz
These days, information is accessible with a press of one button. Most of us is constantly connected to the internet, and carrying a smartphone anywhere and everywhere provides an instant access to all the answers we can dream of. It doesn’t mean that all answers we find are entirely accurate, but usually merely asking the almighty Google can quickly dispel our temporary hunger for knowledge. Even the biggest philosophical questions can be answered within a few seconds. If all thinking can be done by the internet, what role is left for our mind?
The problem with the abundance of information is exactly the abundance of it. In the past, knowledge was a privilege. In order to find an answer, you had to go through many books at the library or simply seek people with the knowledge you had have been searching for. If you’ve had a wild question while trying to fall asleep, there was no smartphone to answer it for you but most likely, you would be stuck with it until the next day when you could finally go through some books or chat with your friends. Although our quantity of thinking might quite different to the one from e.g. 19th century, the abundance of information provides us with a unique way to use our minds for entirely different matters - if we are, of course, prepared to use our minds in a creative way. The brain is something more than a mere storage unit.
Having easily accessible answers saves a tremendous amount of time and frees us to do other important things. This is one of the biggest comforts in this century. You want to build a reactor at 1am at night? You want to know how the Jupiter was formed at 4am? Or maybe you want to know the species of a plant in front of you whilst being in a middle of some jungle? It’s all there whenever you need it. The whole point is knowing what to do with the knowledge you have gained. That’s where the actual thinking comes in.
Even if you push your brain capacity to maximum, there is only the certain amount of information you can process. It’s like with food - you can eat and eat and eat, but at some point you will simply get sick.
The Practice of Selective Ignorance
Not only it is quite impractical to know everything you can know, but doing so will also clutter your attention and steal your time. The art of selective ignorance allows you to prioritise the knowledge that is beneficial, and ignore the knowledge that only wastes your precious resources. If someone prefers to find out the recent celebrity gossips above reading a book on how to organise time and live a better life, that’s their personal choice. Of course, you can have both - the book and the latest gossip, but when you take a broader look at your life, there are many other things that you should be doing with your time. Unfortunately, the day has only 24hrs and there is only a limited amount of things that you can do.
Imagine that you have 100 units of attention per day. Now count how many sources of information demand your attention: newspapers, books, Facebook, chatting to friends, Youtube, watching TV, reading random articles, games, music, advertisements, sales people approaching you on the street and so on and on. Each of these things costs different units of attention (it’s up to you how much you are willing to pay). Now run a quality check and reflect upon the value each of these things provides to you in terms of learning, self development, happiness or life satisfaction.
Selective ignorance is not about staying in a comfort zone by ignoring things you find challenging, offending or difficult to understand. It’s about separating wheat from chaff and to do it, you need to think. We don’t need to know all facts and information if it’s all given to us freely. This energy can be instead spent in a fluid way, such as organising the information, connecting dots, developing ideas or other forms of creativity. One of the reasons why our education system is outdated is precisely this - valuing crystallized knowledge (which involves memorising information) over creative thinking.
What distinguishes passive recipients from active learners is exactly this - passive recipients of knowledge will consume anything what’s available to them: advertisements, newspapers, whatever is on TV, all posts on their wall on Facebook (“Oh look, a flower!"). Active learners respect their limited attentional resources and select only information that has value to them. Compare - passively watching TV versus taking a language course; passively picking up random newspaper in a bus versus reading a manual on excellent communication skills.
“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”
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