Ignorance Isn’t Bliss; It’s Sanity

I learned a lot my first year at Harvard.

That doesn’t shock most of you.

And if that does shock you, than you probably just finished your freshman year at Harvard as well. In which case, I’m in Mather House. Let’s grab a slice at Noch’s sometime.

But what if I told you I learned more outside the classroom than inside?

Slightly more shocking, right?

I’ll take it one step further.

What if I told you I learned more about myself than anything else?

You probably think I’m referring to some sort of freshman year of college angst — inspired introspection, accompanied by emotional catharsis and a revelation of Biblical proportions.

I’m not (although I am doubling down on the sophomore year of college angst-inspired introspection).

And I blame cheesy romantic comedies and their tired break-up clichés for making education about oneself almost exclusively emotional in connotation (If I hear “I just need to be alone right now so I can find myself” one more time…).

What I am talking about is self-awareness.

More specifically, I’m talking about the newfound awareness of just how knowledge-less I am.

Lacking in knowledge. It’s not naiveté. I don’t consider myself a naïve person (then again, part and parcel with naiveté is a lack of self-awareness, rendering a naïve person incapable of assessing the extent to which he or she is naïve, but that’s neither here nor there).

To me, naiveté implies a scarcity of intellectual curiosity and an abundance of hubris.

I am fortunate enough to possess an adequate supply of both (or possibly an ample supply of one; jury’s out on which one) .

Maybe it’s a form of ignorance. Not the willful ignorance that is borne from bigotry and racism. But the accidental ignorance that is borne from having spent a bit too much time on ESPN and not enough time on CNN.

Okay, so from a definitional perspective, I’m ignorant; knowledge-less. Or at least knowledge-deficient.

So where’s the bliss?

Was Kid Cudi lying to us all?

And how is it that students at Harvard all seem to know so many things about so many things?

But of course they do! The prestige! The endowment! The acceptance rate! Harvard should be home to some of the most knowledgeable, bright young minds in the world.

How could I not have anticipated this upon my acceptance? I had the rest of senior year and my entire gap year to become a knowledgeable person, not to mention the first 18 years of my life!?

Maybe I am naïve…

Either way, a year in Cambridge taught me that I had a lot to learn about a lot of things.

I decided to do something about it. I was going to wage war on my own ignorance.

What was I going to learn? And how was I going to educate myself?

Well, I had a few things in mind.

To be honest, I thought the UK left the EU years ago, so I figured current events was a good place so start.

I renewed my subscription for the New York Times, signed up for daily emails from The Atlantic, Wired, and Inside, and customized my Digg, Tumblr, and Medium profiles to deliver me relevant, interesting news.

Current events — check.

I must be pretty knowledgeable by now.

Next, my summer internship at a venture capital firm inspired me to get smarter about the industry and about startups in general.

I signed up for daily newsletters from Pitchbook, CBInsights, Mattermark, and Strictly VC, began following the blogs of successful venture capitalists like Mark Suster, Fred Wilson, Charlie O’Donnell, and Brad Feld, and started watching VC and startup-focused podcasts and videos, like This Week in Startups and Sam Altman’s course in Stanford on building a startup (oh, and Techcrunch too).

Venture capital — done.

The jury’s no longer out; I’m definitely experiencing a surplus of hubris right now.

Lastly, with all this recruiting season talk from my sophomore friends, I couldn’t help but start my education in finance.

I signed up for finance terms of the day from Investopedia and InvestorWords.com, started reading Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times daily, and created accounts on Coursera and edX to audit online financial accounting and modeling courses.

Finance — nailed it.

Full speed ahead.

Two Months Later

I did it.

I waged war on ignorance and came out the other side…victorious?

Sort of.

There’s no doubt that I am now less ignorant.

But truthfully, my struggle against ignorance was very much like the first time I saw the movie Inception; I was confused almost the entire time and walked away with a conclusion that I hardly expected.

What happened?

I drowned in a sea of content (got lost in a state of limbo, if you will) and very much like Leo, washed up on shore.

Only instead of waking up in a dream, I woke up an infomaniac.

My symptoms included:

· Refreshing news outlet web pages and my own inboxes every 7 minutes.

· Reading 15% of an article before scrolling down to see how much longer it is.

· Moving onto the next article because there’s just too much scrolling left for this one. Besides, this article isn’t that compelling or that informative anyway! But the next one sure will be! (Spoiler alert: it won’t, and never will)

· Feeling like I should be reading/watching/consuming something, anything, other than what I am currently reading/watching/consuming.

· Feeling like no matter how much I learn, I’m hardly even making a dent in what I want and need to learn.

Worst of all was the feeling of paralysis in the face of (almost) infinite choice.

We’ve all been there in one form or another. Just think about the Netflix Effect:

Person 1: “What should we watch?”

Person 2: “I don’t know, check what’s on Netflix”

Person 1: “I don’t know man, I’m browsing Netflix right now and there’s nothing to watch. I really need an Amazon Prime account…”, as he moves on to page 127 out of 523 for the query, “Nicholas Cage Thrillers”.

We’re exposed to so many options and choices, that at some point, whether it be with Netflix, or Spotify, or content consumption, we actually feel restricted.

The consequences?

I’m never satisfied with my movie choices, I listen to the same 12 songs on Spotify everyday (how can I be bothered to discover weekly when I could listen to Life of Pablo again?), and I find that my perceived level of knowledge and the amount of information I consume seem to exhibit an inverse relationship.

It’s the paradox of choice (highly recommend the Barry Schwartz TED Talk on this very topic), and when combined with the wealth of information that technology and globalization has given us access to, educating yourself can be pretty overwhelming.

So what should I do? Discontinue my self-education? Live the rest of my life playing the role of the token head-nodder, tacitly lowering and raising my chin, hoping the people actually contributing to the conversation think I have some semblance of understanding and insight on the discussion we’re — they’re — having?

I can’t accept that, and I won’t.

I’ll pivot (hey, there’s a venture capital term! Thanks Pitchbook!).

I won’t learn all at once, but amortize (finance term? I guess that WSJ subscription was worth the $30 per month!) what I learn over a reasonable period of time through moderation and precision.

I’ll tune out the voice in my head that derides, discourages, and constantly reminds me of how much there is to learn and how hopelessly, pathetically out of my league I am.

I’ll decide what’s truly important to me, and focus my efforts on those topics.

In the end, I guess I did learn a lot this summer.

I learned about globalization, human nature, psychology, and moderation.

I learned that contrary to all indications from the age of information we live in, we are meant to be ignorant, to a certain extent.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to learn, and that doesn’t mean that ignorance is bliss (sorry Cudi).

But if you ask me, complacency with lacking knowledge isn’t stupidity; it’s sanity.