If there is one lesson I have learned more times than any other, it is this: I have a small amount of understanding. And my understanding of the limits of my knowledge is not trustworthy. I am likely to believe I understand something and be wrong or partly correct, even when l am convinced. But if this is true, why should I continue to learn? No matter what I understand today, tomorrow, I will need to relearn at least some aspect of it.
“As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” ― Albert Einstein
I remember, as a child, having some arrogance about knowledge. Everything seemed clear, easy to understand, and complete. But this illusion did not last long. I overheard adult conversations admitting nuance and uncertainty. Though many things seemed rock-hard, my understanding was naive and partial.
A few years ago, I adopted a mental model of learning that makes sense of my experience. The things I understand are the air inside a balloon. In the center of the balloon are ideas I treat as certitudes. They are the tools from with I build my worldview and expand my knowledge. At the outer edge lie those ideas I am discovering. These are most open to change, and next to them is the unknown realm. As I get more knowledge, the balloon expands, and so does my contact with the unexplored. It explains why, though I know more now than when I was eight years old, I know almost nothing in proportion to the information available to me.
“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.”
The value of learning is not derived from the knowledge you gain but from who you become. And no one can take that from you. But every act of learning has a challenging prerequisite: humility. If one never admits the possibility of error, no learning can happen. Learning is a flash of insight that my belief about a proposition was incorrect. What follows immediately is the new information to replace it. When we adopt a posture of learning, we are more open, we become less judgmental of those with whom we disagree, and we can help others grow.
Nothing aborts learning more than an arrogant teacher. If we approach sharing our faith and knowledge with others using a tone that admits no doubt or questions, our teaching is useless. Others will not adopt our beliefs unless we hold them gently. The more convinced I am that I am right and that others should adopt my belief, the more charitable and open I must be as I make my case. If I am correct, I can trust that it will survive doubt, contradiction, and scrutiny.
Learning Is Better than Knowing
So we come to this: knowing is less valuable than learning.
All the memorized concepts and wisdom we have gleaned through life experience are useless to us unless we apply them. Once clear, our ideas begin to fade unless we put them into use. Knowledge is conceptual but applying that knowledge (and learning through it) is experiential.
We can express our collected ideas in propositional form: if p and q, then p. But these propositions only become beneficial concerning an actual p and q. When we relate our ideas to real-world situations, we learn and grow. If we keep them in propositional form, they do little. Our relational ideas are vehicles of continued learning and impact.
We can retreat to the safe world of our minds and take comfort in the ideas we have gathered. But we will soon find little comfort from them unless we bring them out and share them. Sharing what we know is risky. When we open up, we cannot avoid the judgment of others. But only when you share the learning you have accrued can you impact the world.
I sit in an office next to a shelf full of books. I find those neat rows of books comforting. Things we have already mastered provide order and keep the chaos of uncertainty at bay. But only when we embrace the unknown can we add to the library of our collected wisdom. Every day I face a choice, will I remain hidden in my safe internal world, or will I risk a venture into the unknown to collect more wisdom and knowledge.
We must continue to learn rather than celebrate what we know. No matter how impressive our mental library may be, it is unchanging without continued investment in personal growth. Knowledge is static, and learning is dynamic. The world needs every positive, faith-filled idea you can bring to it. Your knowledge provides the resource material for the ultimate act of creation. We are here to assess our problems and answer the question, “How can I create beauty from the pain and struggle?”
A Call to Action
This week, I have a life-altering question for you. Ask yourself, “How can I use all the knowledge I have stockpiled and an honest appraisal of my problems to create something beautiful?” A complete answer to this question may be impossible, but asking it can enable us to keep growing. Then we can bring something good out of our difficult situations.
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