Last year, I published an in-depth look at willpower – how it works, how to get more of it, and how to strategically reduce your reliance on it. The article proved to be very popular, but among all the positive feedback I got, one reader wrote to inform me that something I had included was wrong: The predictive value of the “Marshmallow Test” had been debunked. I was surprised and a little embarrassed, but I corrected the article and thanked her for the information.
I write two blogs, usually with a tone that conveys “I’ve got it all figured out, so you should listen to me.” But I actually don’t have it all figured out. I offer the best of my current understanding, based on my current level of knowledge and my current set of experiences. As I gain new knowledge and new experiences, my understanding changes. Sometimes it evolves gradually, sometimes it gets flipped upside down.
Being willing to change your mind in the face of new information is often derided as “inconsistency.” In politics, it will get you accused of being a “flip-flopper.” But this kind of mental flexibility is actually a sign of intellectual and emotional maturity, and it is critical to growth and progress.
I’m still learning.
Here are several things that I’ve learned over the past couple years that contradict things I’ve previously believed or written about.
- Meditation can actually have downsides and negative side-effects for some people. While it offers a wide range of benefits for most people, most of the time, it’s not universally good. Click here to learn more.
- Turmeric, often touted as a super-food or, by some, a wonder drug, probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s hard to absorb, and the research on it isn’t very conclusive. Click here to learn more.
- The word “could” isn’t all that better than the word “should.” When you give someone advice, and you tell them what they should do, the implication is that you’re judging them for either doing something incorrectly, doing the wrong thing, or failing to do the right thing. For years, I’ve believed and taught that the solution to this is to substitute the word “could.” But during a staff training last year, Seth Ellner pointed out that, when people are told what they could do or what they could have done, it still feels very judgmental. Imagine the tone of voice that’s probably used when a parent tells a child who has done poorly on a test, “Well, you could have studied.” It’s far better to get the child to name their options themselves. Thanks Seth.
- As discussed in this episode of SciShow, the three-layer model of the human brain is oversimplified and outdated. I presented this model as “an evolutionary turducken” in my article on the history of the human brain several years ago (I’ve since updated the article.) The human brain is not simply composed of three layers, each newer than the last. During the evolution of the outer layers, the inner layers kept evolving. So, no, you don’t have a “reptilian” brain deep inside your mammalian/human brain. Your entire brain is a human brain. It’s also not true that the outer brain is strictly rational while the inner brain is strictly emotional and instinctive. The cortex is involved in emotion and has instincts, while the inner brain plays a role in supporting rational behavior. Most brain activities involve dynamic interactions among the various parts and layers of the brain. What remains true, however, is that higher-order thinking and wise decision making become difficult or impossible when our physical and emotional needs are profoundly unmet or severely threatened.
Clearly, I’m not done learning. While it’s impossible to know everything, knowledge is too interesting and too valuable for me to decide I’m “done.” I will continue to practice relentless learning for the rest of my life.
We’re still learning.
As a species, humanity regularly discovers that its ideas about how the world works or what happened in the past either need adjustment or are simply wrong. Here are some great examples:
- Isaac Newton revolutionized physics and invented powerful equations to describe how things move and how gravity works. But then Albert Einstein showed that, in some cases, he was wrong. Our understanding of gravity along with the very nature of space and time evolved. Then quantum mechanics showed that, on the atomic scale, you can’t definitely predict how things will move – you can only say where they’ll probably And we’ve yet to reconcile Einstein’s theory of gravity with quantum mechanics, so it’s likely that both are slightly wrong.
- We used to believe that brains were fixed, unchanging, and unable to grow new neurons during adulthood. Then we discovered neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.
- We used to believe that hominid evolution was a straight line of descent from apes to humans. But then the evidence showed us that our ancestry was more of a branching tree with many dead-ends. And then we discovered that our hominid ancestors did a fair amount of interbreeding, so the branching tree model has been replaced by the “braided stream” model. Check out this episode of PBS Eons to learn more.
Despite how far we’ve come, humanity isn’t done learning. For instance, we recently discovered a brand new type of neuron!
Sadly, it’s common to feel ashamed of ourselves when we’re incorrect or ignorant. But really, there’s no reason to feel bad as long as we’re willing to face the truth and move forward. Here’s what Joe Hanson said in this episode of It’s Okay to be Smart all about scientific misconceptions:
“Every one of us carries quite a few pieces of incorrect knowledge in our heads, and that is nothing to feel bad about. What matters is being comfortable enough with the idea of not knowing everything that you’re able to replace bad knowledge when you find better knowledge.”
Humanity’s great leap forward in the Scientific Revolution resulted from admitting our own ignorance.1 Instead of being certain that we knew everything there was to know about the world and the universe, we opened our minds, started researching, and vastly expanded our knowledge and power.1 Certainty prevents progress, while embracing ignorance allows us to move forward.
Embracing ignorance doesn’t mean being happy to not know things. I, for one, don’t think ignorance is bliss. It just means being happy to admit we don’t know, and then pursue the truth. This applies to our entire species as well as to our individual lives.
When you embrace ignorance as a student, you’re able to be growth-minded and resourceful. You’re willing to ask questions. When you embrace ignorance in your social life, you accept that you can’t really know what other people think and feel, why they do things, or what challenges they’re facing behind the scenes. This allows you to stop assuming, stop judging, and get empathetic and curious. When you embrace ignorance as a human being, you get to wonder, you get to explore, and you get to participate in the great human endeavor to understand ourselves, our world, and the universe we live in.
1 Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper Perennial, 2018.
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.