Learning Better By Being Selectively Ignorant

How learning less is a way to learn more

This newsletter features weekly musings about life, career, identity, and behaviour by a questioning African centennial. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here:

Knowledge comes at a price. 

We cannot develop our knowledge about anything without spending timeenergy, and attention (let’s refer to these as TEA) learning about that thing. The more topics we’re interested in learning about, the more TEA we’ll have to expend to build our knowledge about those topics.

Modern technology has made it easy for intellectually curious people to drown themselves in an information abyss as we dig deeper to learn about anything and everything.

Today, it’s so easy to ingest new ideas through easily downloadable books, an endless stream of articles, a catalogue of podcasts, and a laundry list of online courses. 

Sometimes, we experience some sense of FOMO when we feel like we’re out of touch with the latest information. So we spend more TEA trying to catch up.

I’ve been there. It took me a while, but I’ve learnt that trying to keep up with every new trend, topic, book, documentary, podcast, or paper that comes up in our different fields of interest is the perfect way to end up intellectually (and sometimes, physically) burnt out.

To prevent such burnout, we must learn to be stingy with our TEA because there’s really only so much to go around. 

The Price of Knowledge

Time is our most limited resource in life, mostly because we don’t know how much of it we have in total. But to learn anything, we must spend some of it.

We spend time identifying which resources best provide us with the knowledge we seek, then we spend even more time absorbing and creatively reproducing the relevant information. 

Our energy may be renewable, but it’s still limited. Learning requires that we expend mental energy absorbing and analysing new ideas. Using mental energy depletes our physical energy, which we would have to replenish through rest.

Attention is our most valuable resource because it’s the productive investment of our time and energy. It’s the process of selectively concentrating on a particular thing while ignoring other things that distract us.

Whatever we give our attention to is where we invest our limited time and focused mental energy. Therefore, we must choose wisely. 

To learn better, considering our limited TEA, we have to get good at being intentional about what we choose to learn and what we choose not to.

On Being Selectively Ignorant

Selective ignorance is the deliberate avoidance of activities, content, ideas, and topics that are irrelevant or unimportant to you.

In some way, it’s like being intellectually snobbish but not in a way that we shun opposing viewpoints. Rather, in a way where we choose to focus our TEA on things that are relevant and important and choose to say ‘no’ to things that aren’t.

Being selectively ignorant can be difficult because it could feel like we’re missing out on something out there that we may need to know. It could also feel like we’re locking ourselves in a thought bubble where we only engage with the same thoughts and ideas without learning about other adjacent things that could enrich our knowledge pool. 

But the reality is that we’re not. James Clear wrote in one of his newsletters that we should “not keep up with it all. The more selectively ignorant you become, the more broadly knowledgeable you can be.” Steve Jobs also said: 

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

But how can we know what to say no to if we don’t know what to say yes to? 

To know what is a distraction, we have to be clear on what is not.

I’m one of the most distractible people. My interests are all over the place and I easily swoon over new topics that seem interesting. That has often led me to pursue paths that just weren’t right for me and learn things that were very useless to me and my life. 

Having realised that, I’m now trying to be intentional about choosing what kinds of thoughts, ideas, and concepts I sink my teeth into. To choose, I ask myself four questions:

  • Is it aligned with my long-term goals?

  • Is it suited to my skills and interests?

  • Will it make me better?

  • Will I enjoy it?

If the answer to 4/4 is yes, I’ll pursue it. I’ll spend my TEA learning as much as I can about that topic. If it’s a yes to 3/4, I’ll take a quick peek and save it for later. If it’s a yes to 2/4, I’ll keep my eye on the topic in case its priority changes in the future. If it’s a yes to 1/4, I’ll ignore it completely and keep it moving. 

I do this most especially with non-fiction books. Because I’m a slow reader, I’m very picky about the books I read because I don’t want to spend any of my TEA on any book that would be a waste. 

There are so many bad books out there with good titles and superstar authors. By thoroughly researching the books before deciding to read them, I’m able to separate the wheat from the chaff. That helps me answer each of those four questions to know whether to indulge or selectively ignore them.

Since I started being selective ignorant towards books, podcasts, tweets, articles, and newsletters that are useless or irrelevant to me, I’ve started noticing:

  • Improved concentration: It’s easier to focus on content that I enjoy and that’s aligned with my goals than on those that just seem cool.

  • Fewer distractions: I’m better at discerning distractions and avoiding them because I have clarity on what important information I should be focused on.

  • Reduced intellectual stress: I’m no longer frantic about what new hot trend I’m missing out on because I’ve curated my learning to encompass all the stuff that’s right for me and relevant to what I want to achieve and who I want to become.

Building Selective Ignorance

Despite how much we may want to, we can’t know everything and we can’t learn everything. Because we have limited time, energy, and attention, we must cut down on content that is boring, negative, irrelevant, or even unhealthy. 

Practising selective ignorance helps us become more effective learners because it helps us focus on the things that interest us and take us closer to our goals. 

To build selective ignorance:

Get clarity on what is important

Figure out what you want to do with your work (or your life) as well as who you want to become. Doing this will make it easier for you to be able to identify what you need to learn to achieve that work/life goal or become that person you aspire to.

Having clarity on this has helped me to know how to separate the seemingly relevant stuff from the actually relevant stuff. It’s important to know how to tell the difference.

Carefully choose your information sources

The things that pour into your knowledge pool shape your worldview. Be picky about who you listen to and whose opinions you internalise. It’s important to be intentional about curating sources that allow you to see both sides of an idea/thought.

Ensure that you have a mix of books, articles, podcasts and so on because relevant information exists across formats. Selectively ignore sources that propagate fake or irrelevant information. They will ruin the quality of your thoughts and spill your TEA.

Learn on a just-in-time (JIT) basis

While you should have long-term goals, focus on learning for the immediate short term. When you learn things that you can apply immediately in your life or in your work, it’s naturally easier to implement those ideas and learn from them more quickly because they’re relevant to your present needs. That’s the power of JIT learning.

Just-in-case (JIC) learning makes you learn stuff that you think you may need in some distant future. While there’s value in such learning, it’s often a waste of time because you’ll most likely forget most of that stuff and have to relearn them in the future. What a way to waste your TEA! Deprioritise JIC learning and selectively ignore such content. 

Reflect on your learning often

The only thing that teaches us more than an experience itself is our reflection on our different experiences. Reflecting on your learning allows you to take stock of how you’ve been learning and identify new ways to optimise. 

It’s by reflecting on my learning that I figured out the need for me to be selectively ignorant about stuff that’s unimportant and irrelevant to me. I’m happy I did that because embracing selective ignorance has helped me learn more quickly and more effectively. I’m sure it could do the same for you too!

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