Turn Off the Ego and Learn

There is always something we can learn and something we can better understand. No matter how smart we think we are or how smart we feel, we can always adopt new perspectives, work to see things from new points of view, and begin to see the world in a more clear way. Challenging ourselves to see the world beyond the perspective we are accustomed to or beyond the perspective that is comfortable can open up new possibilities and help us understand the people in our lives who we would otherwise find puzzling. We never fully understand everything there is about something, and even if we feel we are a true master in a field, we likely don’t have a full grasp of how exactly our field connects with adjacent fields. Adopting this attitude however, cannot be done if we don’t clear our ego.

 

When we allow our ego to take over and tell us that we are smart and have it all figured out, we cease to learn. The ego wants us to believe that our perspective is the best, that our way of thinking is the only truly valuable way of thinking, that the contradictions in our thoughts are not contradictions at all, but rational decisions that others just don’t see clearly. The ego doesn’t want to be challenged, it doesn’t want the boat to be rocked, and it wants us to be morally and intellectually superior to others.

 

When we abandon this ego drive, we can be more open to the world around us and better learn as we move through an ever changing world. By being more humble about just how much we know and understand about the world, we can become more genuine people who better appreciate those around us. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes, “at ever step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

 

Everyone has both received and given the advice to be a sponge when you start a new career, hobby, athletic routine, or cooking class. We tell young people to learn as much as they can from those who are successful and from those who have been in their shoes. For some reason though, we seem to reach a point where being a sponge for knowledge fades away. Holiday would argue that our ego has a big part to do with why we stop focusing on learning from others and from experiences. We get to a point where we feel that we have become the wise elder, the successful person, the one with all the knowledge, and our job becomes teaching others and not learning. But continual learning is crucial if we want to continually adjust to the world around us, maintain the success we build, or even if we just want to stay engaged in the world and have meaningful relationships with those around us. If we can accept that we always have more to learn or that we always need refreshers on basic lessons from our past, we can better connect with the world and approach people and situations with a better perspective focused on gaining more understanding rather than showing how much we already think we know.

The “Learning vs Ego” Clash

Its is not obvious, but our ego prevents us from learning. Our ego is that piece of our brain that thinks we are amazing. It is what drove Kanye West to hang a giant picture of himself in his house so that it is the first thing you see when you walk in. It is the piece of me that put a 1st place plaque in my office at work. And it is the part of our brain that posts “proud mom” photos on Facebook or sticks student of the month stickers on our bumper. Our ego tells us we are amazing, good at everything, and already know it all.

 

This is where the ego clashes with real learning. When we look back at our high school and early college years we all seem to recognize the same thing, that we thought we knew everything when we were younger. As we age and go through new life experiences, we constantly see that we have a lot to learn. Some of my favorite thinkers have often remarked in books or in podcasts that as they have  gotten older, as they have studied a subject more thoroughly, and as they have paid more attention to the world around them, they realize how little they actually do know. When we push aside our ego and look at ourselves truthfully we can see that we really don’t know that much.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. Starting with a quote from Epictetus he writes, “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” highlighting the importance of being honest about ones knowledge or lack of knowledge. Holiday continues, “You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.”

 

Holiday shows that our ego directly interferes with learning and growing. When we are at least slightly humble and can admit that we don’t know everything, we open ourselves up to learning something new about the world. When we admit that we are not the best in the world (or the best we possibly could be) at something, we can begin to see areas where we can improve. Our ego, the piece of us that wants to brag to the world, does not want to admit that there is something we don’t know, that we don’t understand, or that we don’t have everything perfected and we still have areas where we need to get better. The ego makes excuses about all of these things and contorts reality to fit the image that we want to project to the world and see all about us.

 

If we can push past this ego urge and think about the world in a more well-rounded way, we can actually start taking steps to improve ourselves. If we approach the world without a need to validate our ego, we can adopt more perspectives and possibilities that allow us to learn from others and practice things that will allow us to grow in important areas.

The Absurdity of Thinking We Know What is Happening in Another’s Mind

We make claims all the time about what other people are thinking and feeling and about the motivations, beliefs, and desires of others. We can maybe be right about some large things and the study of psychology has given us insight into a lot of patterns of the brain, but to think that we could ever really understand what is happening in the mind of another person is beyond nonsense.

 

This fallacy starts with our misunderstandings of our own brain and our own consciousness. We like to think that there is a single actor in our brain, observing the universe, directing our actions, and making sense of the world in an objective and rational manner. What everything seems to indicate, however, is that this experience of our consciousness does not align with reality. People often fail to act in a way that is in their rational best interest. We are driven by the stories that we tell ourselves, giving rise to prejudices and allowing us to be swayed by our self-interests. When meditating we see just how hard it is to focus on a single thought, even if we try our best to make our conscious mind think about our breath and not the candy jar on our co-workers desk. In all of these situations, our thoughts seem to be a bit beyond our control, a bit random, and heavily influenced by factors that we perceive or imagine even if they don’t exist.

 

When we look inward at our own mind we begin to see just how jumbled our own thoughts and consciousness can be. When we truly work to improve our mind, we can build our self-awareness, look at the world more objectively, and start to recognize patterns of our own thoughts and behaviors, but this is hard work and reveals a confusing set of contradictions within ourselves. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, “If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation.”

 

To know our mind is to recognize the times when our mind is not what we think or imagine it to be. And if we cannot even know our own mind without constant study and evaluation of what we are thinking and believing, then how can we ever claim to understand another person’s mind, even for a second? We can hide things from ourselves, fail to recognize the reality of the world around us and of ourselves, and we can develop false beliefs in our thinking. This is true for each one of us, and for everyone else around us. When we think of other people, of their desires, habits, actions, fears, and their general mindset in any given situation, we must remember that they are as complicated as we are, and that we cannot possibly understand what is happening in their mind.

 

When I think of this, when I read Hanh’s quote about self-awareness and how difficult it is to know ourselves, I remember to judge people less harshly, to slow my thinking down, and to first interrogate my own mind before assuming something about the mental state of another person. This is not easy to do, and it undoubtedly leads to a place where I think to myself, “well the world is hard and this person is influenced by many things and feels many fears and pressures, so their actions and behaviors can to some extent be deemed understandable.” This works well when I am confronted by a grumpy person in line at the bank or a jerk driving next to me on the freeway, but it is less that satisfying when thinking about people who commit serious crime (an area I don’t have solid thoughts on right now), or people who seem to antagonistically oppose beliefs that I find important and noble. What I can say is that remembering how challenging it is to know myself helps me be more empathetic with others and view what they say or do in a less attacking and critical light. In personal relationships and in the office this is a great skill to cultivate, because it stops me from assuming I know what is happening in another person’s mind, and reminds me that they may not even have their own thoughts fully understood.

Advice Doesn’t Help Us Generate Knowledge

As you would expect, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about how to be a more effective coach. Part of becoming a more effective coach involves understanding how the brain works so that you can understand how the people you coach are going to learn and react in certain situations. To help demonstrate the importance of knowing how the brain works, Bungay Stanier references Josh Davis and his colleagues from the NeuroLeeadership Institute and their model known as “AGES”. Specifically, Bungay Stanier focuses on the “G” from AGES.

 

G stands for Generation, and commenting on knowledge generation, Bungay Stanier writes, “Advice is overrated. I can tell you something, and it’s got a limited chance of making its way into your brain’s hippocampus, the region  that encodes memory. If I can ask you a question and you generate the answer yourself, the odds increase substantially.” What is important here is understanding that we create memories and generate our knowledge in an active process. Learning and creating knowledge are not passive processes. We don’t sit in a sea of information and passively absorb new lessons and knowledge as tides of information wash into our brains. Instead, we hunt down the specific information we need or want (or sometimes we inadvertently pursue it) and emotion and engagement pull the knowledge into our minds.

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Quoting the NeuroLeadership Institute, Bungay Stanier writes, “When we take time and effort to generate knowledge and find an answer rather than just reading it, our memory retention is increased.” The chance of us remembering something a professor says, or something we hear on TV, or the advice our parents give us is not great when it is just verbally directed toward us. If we truly seek out the information, if the information is presented to us in a way that forces us to be more engaged to get the answer we need, and if we have to truly use the faculties of our mind to find meaning, reason, and truth, then we will have a more powerful connection to the knowledge. We will generate new information in our brain and become more knowledgeable than we would if the information was simply presented to (or at) us.

Always Asking Questions

Questioning the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our search for answers and a better understanding of the universe is the story of human progress on Earth, and we must constantly ask questions and to find new answers to propel us forward. Often we never reach the answer we were hoping for, but we still ask questions and we still do our best to continue to understand what is taking place in the world around us.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats discusses how he learned to question the world, to truly strive to better understand the universe, by observing what took place around him and asking why.

 

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” —as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as a ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

 

Recently I have been more aware of the answers people have to the frequent questions our world asks: Who should we elect, what is the nature of religion, how should we organize society to maximize human progress? Listening to the responses people have, it is clear to me that most people do not have answers, but instead have partial secondhand responses that they think they should defend. Most people do not live their lives in a constant state of questioning, and if they do, they seek out certainty to place themselves and their actions on the correct side of any given issue. Rather than inquiry and a deeper understanding, people pursue comfort and reaffirmation. This is clear in the simplistic shallow answers people offer to complex questions.

 

What Coats learned from his parents was to find his own answers. His parents pushed him to learn, to be aware of the world around him, to ask why, and to not accept the simple answers that people offered. His story shows why it is important to be constantly questioning what we know, why we know what we know, and whether our model of the universe is operating with the best information available. It is likely that we won’t find perfect answers, but that does not mean we should stop questioning or that we are on the wrong path because our knowledge is in one way or another incomplete. Recycling answers from someone else, especially secondhand answers that were never formed as complete thoughts, is dangerous and misleading. We fall into cycles where we fail to actually look for answers and build more complete understanding, and instead look past the answer given and find the response that seems to support our identity and the belief we want to hold about ourselves.

 

Our understanding of the universe should be nuanced because the universe, human interaction, and the organization of everything from atoms to people is complex. When we fall back on absolute answers and simple solutions, we are avoiding the nuanced and the challenging investigation of our planet. Easy and assuring answers are nice, but they do not aid human progress and they do not allow us to live in a state where we improve upon our knowledge and beliefs.

Crisis

In his book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, author Joel Achenbach explores the 2010 disaster of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  He examines the decisions that were made leading up to the night the well broke open, and how a solution to the worst oil spill in history was reached.  What he discovers in writing the book is importance of keeping our world’s experts engaged and connected when moments of disaster or crisis emerge. In regards to crisis management he wrote, “A good rule in a crisis is , at the point of attack, keep the professionals in charge. This is the battle cry of competency. Don’t let a crisis put you off your game. Don’t rush, don’t panic, don’t deviate from best practices.”

 

In the section I pulled this quote from, Achenbach is explaining the way that engineers with BP and scientists brought in by our government approached the broken well.  The experts for deepwater drilling continued their work in a practical and pragmatic way, with extra brain power and assistance piling on to try to find, research, and understand novel solutions to the problem.  From the outside, the world was going mad in a desperate frenzy to see the well shut off, but for those who must think about, manage, and design solutions for the problem, the top people were kept in charge and provided the resources necessary for a solution.

 

This approach to a crisis reminds me of stoic philosophy which calls for tranquility and clear thought in times that are challenging.  Reactionary behavior and frenzied emotions will pull us in many directions and encourage us to make hasty decisions based on half formed thoughts.  During a time of crisis and during our most challenging moments a clear and consistent thought process may seem maddeningly slow and tedious, but it will serve us better in the long run as we keep ourselves from making rash decisions with unknown consequences.

Saving the Country

In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together.  When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”

 

As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals  to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.

 

When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing.  Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise.  As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution.  In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.