The Difference Between Lifelong Learners and Pretenders

Learning to live in the gray area

There’s an underlying difference between lifelong learners — smart, intellectually curious thinkers — and those who use obscure knowledge as social collateral. Often it’s the first visible symptom of misplaced motivation and a shallow foundation of ideas — overidentification.

We all know someone who overidentifies with each book, documentary, or source of information they come across. They regurgitate the ideas and arguments presented, ad nauseam. There’s no room for personal interpretation. They seek a source that fits neatly into their existing worldview and repeat it for weeks as if it’s their own.

In contrast, the smartest minds allow themselves to sit in the gray area. They don’t overidentify with any single source of knowledge. Instead, they give themselves time to distill information and ideas into their most useful components.

The pretenders take the opposite approach. It’s all or nothing. They fail to grasp that you don’t have to adopt 100% of the arguments presented by a public voice — author, filmmaker, thought leader, etc. But a single idea you don’t identify with doesn’t negate the overall value of their work.

At its core, this mindset is often rooted in the promise of some external reward. When your desire to learn is fueled by ego, approval, attention, or recognition, overidentification is the obvious end result. You’re not truly committed to learning. You’ll stop when you come across the first idea that appears satisfactory, perpetuating your own confirmation bias.

Although, it’s not always a conscious decision. It’s easy to overidentify, especially early in life with limited perspective. You have fewer reference points. As a result, when you find an influencer who you admire, you naturally gravitate towards all of their ideas.

But the more you read and the more you learn, the more aware you become of just how wide the spectrum of opinions is.

It’s a strange feeling. We’ve all experienced a strong desire to identify with the entirety of the views from those we respect. It would certainly make things easier and eliminate most of the painstaking introspection required on our part. Who wouldn’t want a definitive, personal guide to entrust with navigating life’s uncertainties on our behalf?

Unfortunately, there’s no neatly packaged manual for our individual lives.

“Have the moral courage to live in the gray, sit with uncertainty but not in a passive way. Live the questions so that, one day, you will live yourself into the answers.”
–Jacqueline Novogratz

Part of a self-sufficient mind is being able to sift through facts, opinions, and interpretations to piece together your own cohesive worldview. You’re allowed to, and should, borrow ideas from multiple sources. But that means you’re going to have to put in the work.

There’s not a single person who has been right about everything. And there’s not an intelligent, enlightened thinker who has gone their entire life without changing their mind about something.

There are many people committed to learning and developing the most informed view on a specific subject. But that doesn’t mean they have every right answer. Most people are just doing their best to figure things out.

You should still maintain a zero-tolerance policy for deception or pure ignorance. If someone is unable to accept empirical facts or universal laws, it’s probably not worth investing the time to consider their ideas further. By refusing to operate with any sort of foundation in science or reason, it shows an unwillingness to enter a neutral arena. It’s the easiest way to distort reality and manipulate the field.

No one said it was going to be easy. The true litmus test of your critical thinking skills is how well you hold, assess, and incorporate new ideas into your own worldview. Is it a free for all? Or is it a careful examination and contemplation of the ideas that check out and resonate strongest with you?

Lifelong learners embrace ambiguity. They resist the urge to immediately adopt or discredit someone’s point of view based on a single interpretation or opinion. The deeper your well of knowledge, the better you’re able to balance multiple viewpoints, and the more rational your perspective.

Allow yourself to live and learn in the gray area.


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