Sharing Knowledge

The informational age that we live in today is interesting. We feel (at least I feel) a great urge to share the knowledge we gain from reading, interacting with smart people, and by simply being present in the world. Personally, I have also almost always felt that I was supposed to have some type of an opinion about any given topic. The world, it seemed, always wanted me to say one thing or another and have thoughts about one thing, even if I didn’t know much about it.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca briefly touches on this same point. He often started many of his letters in a build-up to the advice that he was passing along. One of those sections opening one of his letters read, “Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, in their book The Elephant in the Brain, explain why Seneca felt this way 2,000 years ago and why I feel this way today. They explain that communication is not really about sharing valuable information. If it was, we would only want to share our valuable information if someone else shared their valuable information first. In a sense, our society would be kick-ass at listening, and Ted Talks probably wouldn’t be a thing. What is really happening in our social worlds is that we evolved to show off. We want to show people how much useful information we have, what unique insights our experiences have given us about the world, and what new knowledge we have. Possessing new, unique, and helpful information 50,000 years ago meant that we could help ourselves and others survive. Sharing that information freely showed an abundance of knowledge and resources on our part, and made us a useful ally which helped us thrive in social groups.

 

We probably should not turn against this urge to share useful knowledge. Books, insightful anecdotes, and Ted Talks seem to have worked out pretty good for humans in terms of sharing and passing along useful information. We should recognize, however, that often the desire to share our knowledge is not as altruistic as Seneca might have you think. Our urge is a bit self-serving, so before we post on Facebook about how obviously correct our political views are relative to others, we should recognize the evolutionary forces driving us to have an opinion and encouraging us to blast those ideas out into the world in an attempt to show off. Ultimately, if you are going to share your thoughts, try to spend some time developing them so that they provide real value to the person who may encounter them.

The Tech Empowered Ego

Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego Is the Enemy, is a critique and critical evaluation of the way our ego can dominate our lives and create challenges for us that are hard to overcome. In his book, Holiday addresses the ways in which social media technologies fuel our egos and drive self-congratulatory behaviors. The ability to communicate our egos to a wide audience has never been easier, and if we are not aware of it, we can easily begin blasting our ego across the internet and across technology in plain view for anyone who wants to see (and for those who do not want to see).

 

What technology and ego blasting leads to is captured in the following quote from Holiday, “…we’re told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. We’re told to think big, live big, to be memorable and “dare greatly.” we think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan–after all that’s what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (but did  they? Did they really?) We see risk taking swagger and successful people in the media, and eager for our own successes, try to reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose.”

 

Our technology doesn’t share everyone’s ego equally. It is used to share the most lavish and extreme egos, or the worlds of those who claim to be the most successful. In a race to increase our status, we share more and more on social media and make ever greater efforts to distinguish ourselves from others by having the biggest goals, being the most unique and creative, and taking the biggest leaps and most daring risks. The problem is that for many of us, this is the wrong approach, and instead incremental growth is what we should focus on. For many of us, success is not as easy to come by as it looks on social media. We are all starting at different places and we all have positive and negative moments in each and every day. The ego blast of social media doesn’t show the advantages that another person had from birth, the challenges that another person has faced to get where they are, and social media hides the incremental changes and steps that lead to the big moments that we all want to share. Furthermore, sharing those big moments and receiving thumbs-up from all our peers tells us that this type of ego inflation is what we should be doing, and it fuels a part of us that wants to live and act for other people, and not for ourselves. This takes away from the value of the present moment and puts more pressure on us to live for others and try to be a virtual person that lives up to an impossible ego.

The Achievement is Not Really Yours

The great thing about an individualistic culture is that you get to own your success and feel great about your achievements. You can feel pride in winning a race, skiing down a mountain, having the best Christmas lights, or getting a promotion. Individualistic cultures treat these achievements as something more than just activities and outcomes. They become reflections of you and who you are, and in many ways your achievements become part of your identify. We show our friends our achievements on Facebook, we hang our achievements behind us on our office walls for everyone to see when they look at us, and we celebrate achievements with shiny objects that sit around on shelves and desktops.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to take a deeper look at our achievements than we typically do in an individualistic culture. He encourages us to look deeply at the successes in our lives and to ask how we contributed to the success, how other people had a hand in our success, and the role that luck played in our achievements. When we truly reflect on our achievements, we can begin to see that what we my think of as our own achievement was really a convergence of our own hard work and effort with many other factors that we had no control over. The outcome that we call an achievement is often less of something that we directly influence and more of something connected to the larger groups and societies to which we belong.

 

In detail, he writes, ” Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success.”  In my own life, I look back at my achievements and I never have a problem remembering the hard work that I put in to achieve my goals. It is easy to remember the studying and reading I put forward to graduate from college. It is easy for me to think about how much I did to earn my grades, but if I am being honest with myself, I can also see how often I was not serious about my studies and how often I was able to benefit from a nice curve on a test.

 

Hanh continues, “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” I received substantial financial support from an uncle during college, and as a result I did not have to work full time and was able to enjoy leisure time. I was able to focus on my studies and had time to be in the library because I did not have to work 40+ hours a week to support myself and complete college. My success academically is directly tied to the support I received from my uncle. I can think about completing my college degree as my own success and as a display of my own virtue, but I relied heavily on assistance from a family member, assistance I can take no credit in receiving.

 

What is important to remember, and what Hanh highlights, is that in an individualistic culture we are often too willing to give ourselves credit for our successes and to view our achievements as entirely our own. When we do this, we artificially inflate ourselves to levels that we do not honestly deserve. It is important that we acknowledge the assistance provided to us from a fortunate birth, our family, random strangers, great teachers, and sometimes from just being in the right place at the right time. Letting go of our achievement as badges of our identities reduces our arrogance and makes us more open to helping others and connecting with those who have not had the same fortune as ourselves.

Exchanging Ideas with Others

“Today, I’m of the opinion that if you want to reach someone, to really communicate in a language they understand and trust, you have to be more flexible.” Colin Wright expresses this idea early in his book Come Back Frayed to introduce some of the changes he has experienced in the mediums we use to communicate in the 21st century.

 

Wright’s book is an exploration of his time spent living in the Philippines, detailing how he has learned to adjust to challenging climates, new cultures, and new demands on his time as an author connected to the world in a sea of evolving media. “There was a time when people who watched videos online were a mystery to me, and I was content to write words I hoped to someday convince someone to read. There was a time when I felt my writing, vocabulary encoded with twenty-six bit alphabetic iconography, was the sole practical and relevant mechanism I had of presenting and exchanging ideas with others.”

 

Together his quotes show the varied nature of communication today, and the importance of learning to reach people through a variety of channels and formats. My blog started as simply a means for me to return to my reading and to think more deeply about passages that initially stood out to me, and so I never thought of trying to reach others and amass an audience. But communicating with others is something I enjoy to do and intend to make part of my future career. Learning to use and understand different formats of media will help me not just send a message to other people, but to understand others in a more profound way.

 

What I truly enjoy about the quotes above from Wright, is that his goal is not to reach more people through new technology just to drive his content and sell people more stuff. Wright’s goal is to actually exchange ideas with other people. I am not good at social media and dislike the quickness with which a lot of our thinking and decision making is done today, but the tools we have certainly do allow us to exchange new ideas in new manners.

 

I think there are areas where individuals can change their habits of consumption, and groups can change their methods of delivering ideas to increase knowledge and help improve perceptions and relationships across society.

 

I am studying toward a Masters in Public Administration through the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada, but one certainly does not need to study politics to see that the general public is distrustful of technocratic knowledge delivered from policy think-tanks considered out of touch with our mainstream population. Better understanding of how we can use our technology as individuals to find helpful information and avoid information silos can reduce this resentment, but at the same time, a better understanding of the ways people communicate today will help academics, policy researchers, and people in government administration better share their ideas, thoughts, challenges, and perspectives with the general public in a way that can build new foundations of trust.

 

Like Wright, the goal must be to further develop the exchange of information and to develop greater knowledge on the end of the person delivering the message as well as the person consuming the message. A driving goal of increased profits would ultimately lead Wright to failure, but a mission of flexible learning will open new perspectives to lead to true development. This idea is true for Wright, and may be true for agencies, companies, researchers, and others who want their thoughts to have a greater impact on the planet.

Friendship

Continuing from my last post, philosopher W.V. Quine in his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, ends his letter with a note about friendship.  Quine writes, “Above all, cultivate easy and sincere friendships with kindred spirits and enter into them with generous sympathy.  Sharing is the sovereign lubricant against the harshness of life.”  I love this quote because it is all about putting others first so that one can build real relationships to not just serve themselves, but to serve everyone and help everyone enjoy their life to a greater extent.
Quine’s quote addresses the challenges and difficulties that result from the dull and tedious nature of hard work, and how friendships can ease those difficulties.  What he is saying is that good friendships, where neither person is trying to gain something from the other but both people are openly sharing, are what help people through the rough, mundane, and tedious parts of life.  What Quine is talking about is not the type of friendship where one seeks the help, advice, or aid of another simply for their own benefit.  The friendships which he discusses, the friendships which build meaningful relationships and help people overcome challenges, are built not on an expectation of returns, but on a true interest in knowing  another person.