If you learn something for the first time, does that make you knowledgeable?
Or do you have to be an expert in that domain?
Or perhaps it’s somewhere near the middle?
The problem with treating knowledge as concrete — as a noun—is that such an approach suggests there is a specific point at which what you know becomes an absolute truth. In reality, knowledge exists on a barometer, continuously shifting depending on who you are talking to.
To remedy the problem of assuming knowledge to be definite, we need to be able to measure the quality of information we possess—because knowing more about a subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you are right. For example, in our current political landscape, people are often absolutely certain that they are knowledgeable about a particular topic; really they are simply adopting a position founded on unreliable sources, gathering information from biased news agencies or from solely like-minded people.
To evaluate the quality of information and how we obtain it, we must use Attentional Capital (AC), a measurement used to calculate how we arrive at a place of knowledge.
Having a high AC means that you have obtained your information through focused and objective research, tested your findings with other individuals, and would be open to changing your position if presented with sufficient evidence to do so.
Having a low AC means that you reactively believe whatever comes across your news feed, refuse to dialogue with others about your beliefs, and hold onto your beliefs in a dogmatic and tribal manner.
If our level of understanding of a topic is measured along a horizontal axis (going from zero to expert), then AC is the vertical axis that measures the quality of the information we hold.
Using this revised look, where does “knowledge” itself reside? To further map it out, let’s divide it into four distinct quadrants.
With a high AC and level of understanding, Quadrant 1 should be the home for many of our perspectives on life. In this quadrant, not only do we have a solid comprehension of what we know, that comprehension is also built a strong foundation of objective research and thoughtful dialogue.
It is important to remember, however, that just because you reached Quadrant 1 in an area of knowledge that does not mean the state is permanent. We should always be learning and reevaluating. It is healthy to find yourself in any of the other three quadrants at any given moment.
For example, if an intellectually honest scientist is presented with strong evidence contradicting everything he has previously known, he will find himself in Quadrant 2, where his attentional capital is high (as he is still committed to diligently discovering the truth), but his level of understanding has decreased dramatically (since all of his prior conclusions have been disproven).
Unfortunately, not all people are willing to accept that their worldview may have been misled.
People that were once open and objective about their opinions may begin to harden their beliefs into an impenetrable wall, closing themselves off to an ever-changing world of new information. Their level of understanding in a certain topic may be high, but their attentional capital is low because they immediately dismiss evidence that is objectionable to them and only trust opinions that already align with their own.
In the context of our graph, this behavior represents a precipitous fall into Quadrant 4, where the walls of an echo chamber await their arrival.
The truth is that none of us are immune to moving between these quadrants. And because we are continuously in flux in so many topics, it is not possible for knowledge to live at any single point on this graph.
Instead, knowledge is the process we use to move toward Quadrant 1. Furthermore, once you arrive in Quadrant 1, knowledge also includes the staunch determination to stay for as long as possible.
When knowledge becomes a process—a fluid verb instead of a concrete noun—our worldview changes. We become highly aware of what quadrant we’re in at any given moment and can make a concerted effort to move to a place with a higher quality of attention.
We become aware of when we’re exhibiting low AC behavior, such as relying upon social media for our opinions (Q3) or refusing to engage in conversation with those with whom we disagree (Q4). We can also add humility into our process by admitting that we don’t know much about a topic, but are committed to being intellectually honest in our pursuit to learn more (Q2).
So, how do we make our way into Quadrant 1?
My roadmap is not the only one, but I wanted to share a framework that has worked well for me thus far.
I find that there is a continuous cycle of four stages that inevitably lead to Quadrant 1.
This four-stage process is my framework for knowledge — my way solidifying what I know and improving the quality of the information and opinions I have. And as long as this cycle is vigorously pursued, I know that I am trying my best to remain intellectually honest in my climb toward Quadrant 1.
So what does each stage mean, and how exactly does this cycle work?
Let’s dive in together and explore the details.
The Four Stages of Knowledge
We will start with the first stage: awareness.
1. Increase the quality of your awareness to find the best seeds
I like to imagine information as seeds — little kernels of ideas, news, or interests that can germinate into something greater if we tend to them.
These seeds are contained by capsules that hover over us every day, each representing the different sources of information with which we come into contact consistently. I call them information capsules and they can take many forms: podcasts and blogs; social media and news outlets; conversations with mentors, peers, friends, or family.
During the course of your day, week, or month, these capsules open, and seeds begin to drop all around you in your field of awareness.
When these seeds are all around you, it becomes difficult to sort through them to find the best ideas. It helps to prioritize the capsules from which they are deployed. Personally, I find myself feeling super inspired after a fantastic conversation with someone, as what we discuss is specifically tailored to our unique dynamic and shared interests.
If I tell a mentor about something I am currently struggling with and he recommends an idea to me, that seed will have a much higher probability of growing than the seed from a Facebook feed recommendation. Conversely, a well-crafted tweet from someone I respect but don’t personally know will be a much healthier seed to grow than the seed from a family member preaching the benefits of a job in which I have no interest.
Using these experiences as a barometer, I like to adjust the doors on my information capsules so that only the highest quality seeds can reach me. Some doors I leave wide open.
Some doors I close tightly.
And there are other doors that are only slightly ajar.
With the right doors wide open and the wrong ones sealed, a bottleneck of information is created, thus increasing the probability of a good seed hitting me and preventing most of the bad ones from ever seeing the light of day.
When you have more control over the information you receive, you increase the quality of awareness. You are more receptive to good ideas, and you dampen the impulse to act prematurely upon fleeting ones. This is the difference between growing a seed based on information that elicits fear, greed, or anger, and tending to a healthy seed disseminated by logic, reason, and intention.
2. Cultivate curiosity to sprout and strengthen your roots
As Albert Einstein once said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” Once we select the seeds we want to grow, we shower them with the Mega Life Force. The Sultan of All Great Stuff. The Muse. Our greatest ally, curiosity.
Curiosity is the triangular life force that propels us toward intellectual growth. It is the soil we plant our seeds in, the water that allows the seed to sprout, and the roots that act as the foundation for its sustained growth.
You can have an absolutely masterful level of awareness for a great seed, but it won’t have the slightest chance to sprout life if you don’t ask any questions. For example, you can be made aware of the value of meditation by hearing someone talk about it, but that value dies if you have zero inclination to try it yourself. Ideas only perpetuate when you have the desire to inquire within.
There is a common misconception that if more books are purchased, more schools are built, more teachers are hired, and heads are filled with more facts, then that will be the solution to our education system. This, once again, is based on the fallacy of treating knowledge as a noun. Vast swaths of information (or what we traditionally view as “knowledge”) and the venues that impart it will become intellectual wastelands if curiosity is not cultivated within them.
For a high school student, believing that history is boring is about as commonplace as seeing a pimple on a 9th grader’s face. But a part of me is always sad to hear a student deem history tedious. That sadness, in large part, stems from the fact that I had a fantastic history teacher in high school. Because of his thoughtful framing, I found history to be an absolutely riveting subject. He was able to successfully spark curiosity in a subject that students typically find lame.
It’s rarely the subject itself that is inaccessible. If you want to delve deeper into a topic, you are either already hungrily curious about it or the gatekeepers of that subject (teachers, public figures, etc.) have done a great job of cultivating a culture of inquiry.
Once the condition of curiosity is fully satisfied, we can begin the process of growing the tree itself.
3. Diligently mine information and build skill sets to grow your tree
Albert Einstein went on to say, “One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, or life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”
In entrepreneurship, there is a saying that a great idea is worthless without execution. Although it kind of sounds like something a tech investor would say condescendingly to someone expressing an idea, there is some merit to the (annoying) phrase.
In the same way that a “great idea is worthless without execution,” curiosity is fruitless without diligence. Once we are curious about something, we have to begin researching, learning, and mining for relevant information that will help us get to the bottom of our inquiries.
This is the only way to continue the process of knowledge — without diligence, curiosity will become a hindrance to a clear mind. If your process stopped at curiosity, you’d be a perpetual space cadet, constantly in a state of wonderment about the world without clearing the space for actual knowledge.
This is the very reason why Albert Einstein ends his thoughts on curiosity with that last sentence: “It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”
He doesn’t say that we should stay in perpetual wonderment, mouth agape, pondering the mystery of life every single day. No — even if it’s past the realm of our understanding, we should still attempt to remove as many layers of the mystery as possible. We must enter the Mine of Potential Answers, with Curiosity as our headlamp and Diligence as our pickaxe, to tirelessly extract the information we need to satisfy our questions.
And at the end of each day, the extracted information is collected, processed, and funneled as nutrients into the roots of what was once our seed. These roots then grow to become the foundation for the trunk of our tree.
As questions find answers, better questions start taking their place, thus raising the overall quality of our curiosity. For example, people introduced to bitcoin for the first time may ask, “What is bitcoin and why is it special?”—a question millions of people have wondered. But if they spend some time and effort closely studying it, their point of curiosity may evolve to, “How do we solve Bitcoin’s carbon emissions problem as the computational power required to mine it continues to grow?”—a question far fewer people ask, but which is much more relevant to the viability of the technology.
As we continue to satiate our curiosity with diligent research, our quest to remove more layers from the mystery is prompted by even stronger curiosity. It’s a beautiful, self-reinforcing cycle that eventually builds to the final stage of knowledge.
4. Produce and distribute seeds of your own to reiterate what you (think you) know
As we use curiosity to anchor us in our quest to build our tree, we will inevitably encounter assumptions about what we have gathered. Our intuition is a powerful force that allows us to decipher whether or not something we read, hear, or view feels right or true, but it can definitely misguide us as well. To test and ultimately spread the quality of what we know, there are two things we can do: discuss our findings with those we respect to get feedback and ensure integrity and distribute what we know to others in the form of education.
Discussion provides us with the space to vet our ideas and thoughts about the tree we are building. Your tree has grown to a point where it can produce a seed of its own, and this seed has been carefully cultivated through research, experience, and applicability. Before it is spread to others, it is important to get feedback. Sample that seed with those you respect, so that your ideas and findings are kept intellectually honest.
Dialogue and an earnest exchange of ideas are the best way to properly refine and test your assumptions, which will further increase the probability of your own seed growing into someone else’s tree.
Distributing what we know—or, the process of education—is a fun and deeply engaging next step, but it’s also the most frightening. This is when you get to build your own information capsule — the same type of information capsule that gave you the initial seed to start your own knowledge growth.
Your capsule will allow you to distribute your own well-cultivated seeds to the general public, but to do it right requires a lot of creativity.
What strategy will you employ to distribute what you know? How do you want to infect other people with the excitement you felt throughout the first three stages of knowledge? Why not create a podcast to convey your thoughts? Or perhaps write a blog post? You could also carefully formulate your findings so that you can introduce them in any conversation.
The possibilities here are endless, and also fun to navigate.
On the flip side, this step is frightening because, like all things we grow, our capsules can fail miserably. It can violently malfunction if the seeds in it are bad or if the capsule itself is poorly constructed.
One way to avoid malfunction is with trust, the fuel of every information capsule out there. If you distribute to people seeds of misinformation or malice, then you will no longer have their trust, and the capsule you built to disseminate your seeds will come throttling to the ground in a ball of fury. This is why it’s important to conduct all of the preceding steps (maintain curiosity, conduct research, have discussions with others) to safeguard against misinformation and ensure that what you are distributing is a high-quality seed.
Remember—what is at one point a high-quality seed doesn’t necessarily mean that it will retain its accuracy over time. A seed should reflect what you know to be true, but other opinions, rebuttals, and theories can push you to rethink your conclusions.
This is what education is all about. When you take the time to spread your findings to people, you simultaneously create the opportunity for a revision in your thought process. Hence the adage, “teaching is the best form of learning.”
The seeds you disperse in Stage 4 become a new seed of awareness for someone else’s Stage 1.
Your seed starts the recipient on his or her own process of knowledge, completing each of the four stages.
The conclusions that the recipient comes to on this journey will, if they are unique enough, have the potential to spark your new Stage 1.
This iterative approach to knowledge is the basis for scientific, artistic, and entrepreneurial pursuit and discovery. There is a constant cycle of construction, destruction, revision, and re-introduction that is perpetuated through curiosity and education. Through this process, we continuously test our assumptions, build on what we know, and unearth just a little bit more of the mystery.
This cycle is what it means to knowledge (as a verb). It’s the constant movement from awareness to curiosity to diligence to distribution, and back to awareness, where the cycle starts over again.
Knowledge is not a thing to be rigorously acquired. It is an action to be consistently practiced.
Wisdom lives between the noun and the verb
The acquisition of learned habits, techniques, and information is useless without wisdom. Gaining wisdom means much more than increasing our ability to retain information.
Wisdom, as I define it, is the combination of the following six pursuits:
- discovering new things,
- learning more about these things,
- using these things to improve one’s treatment of self and others,
- being honest about what is known,
- being honest about what is unknown, and
- establishing trust by doing what is right.
Wisdom is what resides between the view of knowledge as a noun and knowledge as a verb—the point at which is it very clear that knowing more does not make you wise. Rather, wisdom is the way you use what you know.
Gaining wisdom means moving through each of knowledge’s four constituent steps, and, most importantly, by starting all over again. Doing so keeps me intellectually honest in my pursuit of information, as I am continuously reminded that my ultimate goal is not to become more “knowledgeable,” but rather to become equipped with what I need to be a better, more compassionate, and more inclusive human being.
The purpose of this post is not for you to correct people every time they use the word “knowledge” as a noun. That would, in fact, be a super unwise thing to do. Instead, it’s meant to offer a framework you can use in the process of learning more about the world. Knowing that knowledge can only perpetuate through dialogue and education allows me to take a step back in the initial stages and view the underlying intent of what I’m pursuing. If the ultimate goal is for me to build an information capsule of my own, only the good seeds should hold space there.
With this in mind, I can ask some powerful questions every step of the way.
If I’m in Stage 1, or the Stage of Awareness, I can ask myself:
Which of the seeds around me hold kernels of truth that will be beneficial to cultivate? Will my awareness of this fact contribute positively to the well-being of myself and others?
If I’m in Stage 2, or the Stage of Curiosity, I can ask myself:
What excites me to consider? What topics allow me to craft the best possible questions I want to explore? Will I be open to exploring that which I don’t agree with if the facts indeed prove true?
If I’m in Stage 3, or the Stage of Diligence, I can ask myself:
What is my motive for all the research and hard work I’m putting into mining this information? Is it purely for self-gain (fame, fortune, status)? As I’m learning more and more about this topic, is it in line with my values? Would it make me happy to be a proponent of this subject, especially in front of those I respect and admire?
And if I’m in Stage 4, or the Stage of Education, I can ask myself:
Am I effectively representing that which I know to be true? Am I open to changing my beliefs based on the quality of feedback I’m receiving? Am I a walking testament to the ideas and arguments that I am proposing?
One thing I’ve realized is that questions, more than answers, bring you closer to wisdom. This is just an inherent part of the way our universe works. Our universe is simply too vast and unknowable to have more answers than questions. And even if we do become experts in any given field, we have only found a few answers in a small subset of a tiny, tiny corner within this infinite expanse of ideas and curiosity.
It is pointless to dedicate yourself to knowing everything. Instead, life is about finding the small corners and crevasses in the landscape of curiosity into which we can deliberately delve deeper. In this process, the mindful discarding of information is just as important — life and curiosity are too important to waste on bad ideas.
This is our one life to live — our one at-bat in the stadium of human existence. All the knowledge we have in our minds will dissipate with the last breath we take, but, if we are wise, the seeds we have distributed will continue to take form and grow into trees of their own.
Knowledge as a collectible is temporary, but knowledge as a framework is everlasting. That humbling thought is what drives my curiosity every step of the way, and it is the vital seed I want to share from my small information capsule.