2020: Reflecting, Improving, Learning.

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There are two quotes worth keeping in mind as you read this post:

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion

“It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

2019 was the year I started writing this blog. 2019 was also the year I failed to keep up to it. Not a great start, I’ll admit. Yet first attempts rarely are. So as 2020 arrived, and the new year began, so too did my self-inquisition. I wanted to understand why I failed as I did. I want to, as the first quote attests, demand the best for, and of, myself.

There are two reasons that stand out. The first was a failure to develop a writing habit and schedule. The second was a shortcoming in my knowledge, opinions, and understanding across many subjects. I intend to write about habits, and the (hopeful) development of my own in a future post.

This post concerns the second issue, my lack of knowledge, opinions, and understanding. Hence the second quotation from John Stuart Mill; I have a duty, as we all do, to form the truest opinion we can. But why was this so hard for me? In this post, I hope to answer that question with some introspection, and learn what I can do to fix the issue. Onwards.

The practice of writing, and in particular, my failure to complete many of the drafts I started last year helped me confront my lack of understanding across various subjects, which in some cases was embarrassingly lacking. Embarrassing, as I evidently thought I knew more than I did, when in many cases, it was down-right superficial.

Rather than being able to bring some insight and understanding to a topic, my attempts at blogging instead succeeded in highlighting my own intellectual shortcomings. Yet I am glad writing brought this to my attention now. If nothing else, I have gained more self awareness. The wooden spoon of learning, granted, but a prize nonetheless.

When I reflect on my lack of understanding, it leads to more questions. If I do not understand a topic sufficiently to explain it, is it then possible to then hold a valid opinion on a subject? Surely one cannot do so. Once this sank in, I recognised how the majority of my views are not of my own volition, but instead mimic the thoughts and viewpoints of those I come across.

Furthermore, I habitually find myself agreeing with anyone else’s point of view in a conversation. Why? I would justify it by saying I’m easy going. The hard truth is I don’t know the subject well enough to think otherwise.

Here is Epictetus again:

“It is no great achievement to memorise what you have read while not formulating an opinion of your own.”

Quite so. (And yes I realise the irony of quoting something that in effect tells you to formulate ideas rather than quoting others. Go figure.)

I have decided that without a suitable grounding in facts, and an analysis of both side’s views, it is not possible to hold forth an opinion (or one worth its salt in any case.) If you are unable to defend the stance you take adequately, then I do not believe you can hold your view superior to another’s. Your personal feelings will have little universal credit in the face of logic.

My lack of an opinion then, I believe, stems from an insufficient understanding of various subject matters. The enmeshed lack of conviction and confidence behind the views I do hold is thus symptomatic of this lack of understanding. So why is my knowledge so disappointingly shallow in places?

One of the reasons for this is that I (like many others) fail to recall what I read. Reading something once is not enough. You have to actively go out of your way to learn a subject, to affix anything to your memory. Reviewing your notes; recalling what you read; re-reading passages and copying them down; taking notes and asking questions of a piece; this allows your to critically engage with what is written. And by expending this effort, I believe that the seeds of one’s own opinion will begin to form concurrently.

Of course, coming in to contact with a topic and having a cursory recognition of it might be all that is needed the majority of the time. But if you want to be recognised as someone who knows what they discuss, and want to develop a deeper level of understanding (and thus hold an opinion) it requires time to properly digest the subject matter.

No-one learns to drive from one lesson alone (notwithstanding the antics of some motorists on our roads who appear to have done otherwise.) Rather, it takes weeks and weeks of learning to embed the understanding into our brains.

Another factor, as former world chess champion Gary Kasparov notes in his book Deep Thinking, is the role that tech plays in substituting superficial knowledge over understanding and insight, which is a necessary requisite for those intending to create or lead.

What does an over-reliance on tech look like? It’s searching for a quick answer on Google rather than working through a problem/recalling some information. It’s reaching for the calculator rather than exercising your mental faculties. It’s looking for a synopsis someone else has made rather than rereading a complex piece of writing (this guy). All these examples subsequently weaken our ability to comprehend complex problems, and to critically think and engage with various topics.

Now while I know that tech does offer the greatest opportunity in history to gain knowledge by the vast resources on offer and the open access to them, there is a catch. The catch being, our brains are hardwired to prefer the path of least resistance (i.e. given the choice, we much prefer the fish now to a rod and some angling lessons later.)

Hence Kasparov points to the over-reliance of budding chess players to their machines. By simply memorising what the computer tells them is best, and by not understanding why the moves it churns out are better than others, a distinction soon emerges between good imitators and better players.

Only through repeated exertion of our mental muscles, just as we lift weights, can we strengthen the brain to critically engage with ideas, rather than accepting what an author has written as de facto truth. This was an issue I and many others had on my university course. We found ourselves agreeing with the most recent historian we had read on a matter, rather than balancing and judging between them, and I recognise this now as our failure to critically engage with the works in question.

Having exceeded throughout my education at coming up with the ‘right’ answers too often, (aside from, if I do say so, my dissertation) means it will take extensive practice and repetitions to build up my mental muscles from their small beginnings. But it is never too late to start.

Finding inspiration is the best starting point when facing such a daunting task. I found my own as I welcomed the first days of 2020, by finishing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. The author details the life of Abraham Lincoln, but in particular, focuses on his political adroitness and his remarkable ability in the face of civil war to balance the disparate sides of his Republican Party by bringing together and leading his governing cabinet — the aforementioned ‘Team of Rivals’.

The leadership Lincoln showed; his sound judgement in the face of crisis and division; his humility, kindness, and magnanimity; his knack of political timing and judgement; all deserves special mention and each their own blog post. It is no wonder such a man has become mythologised and revered.

Yet he was not born a towering figure of history. Born smart, yes. But born a lawyer? Born one of the greatest ever public speakers? (Who, in his famous ‘Lost Speech’ was so captivating that not a single reporter remembered to write down what he actually said.) Born as a man who overcame repeated failures and depression to eventually lead his country in its existential struggle?

No. What made him into these things, and what truly fascinated me, was Lincoln’s sheer drive to self-educate himself, born as he was into poverty and obscurity. He once told his close friend Joshua Speed “I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” Indeed, it was later said of him that he would express no opinion on anything until he knew his subject “inside and outside, upside and downside.”

Lincoln’s approach to learning and self-improvement was that of a systematic regimen, such was the desire to avail himself from his limited, and limiting, education. To say he read books is an understatement. He was said to always carry a book and read at any chance he got. He often read into the night, borrowed others books, and re-read all of them constantly, as there were simply so few around to sustain his desire to learn. To a law student in 1855 he had a simple commandment, “Get the books and read and study them…Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other thing.”

His step-mother also noted how “when he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards if he had no paper.” Even before he upgraded to scraps of paper in a notebook, even when on a board that would be wiped clean, Lincoln repeatedly copied out the ideas and lines that stood out to him. The act of writing them out over and over served to imprint them in his mind and committed them to memory, evidence of which came in the many passages, limericks, and stories that he often quoted verbatim throughout his tenure.

This, alongside practicing grammar at night, devouring newspapers, and fastidiously re-reading works of which he had had no education at all — classics and the sciences — until his sheer force of will, repetition, and persistence allowed him to finally unlock their secrets, allowed Lincoln to develop the foundational knowledge, and self-assured opinions necessary to lead his nation so successfully as he did.

Lincoln admitted he was “slow to learn” to his friend. If that is the case, then we all are, and its nothing to feel disheartened about. If we fail to understand something on our first try, as I have, we can appreciate that it is but one step in the learning process.

History often hides the hard work and toil many great men and women put in to their learning and education. Rather like Instagram, it instead picks out the very best highlights to display, the towering magnum opera of these figures’ lives. But let us not forget that the hard work is there. Hard, but achievable work.

As long as we are learning in the time we spend — putting in the repetitions, the effort — then how long it takes to actually form an opinion is secondary. Although it is much easier to follow the path of least resistance, I pledge to try and walk the road less travelled. Not to parrot another’s opinion. Not to agree with the majority around us, or with the opinionated friend who exclaims their views confidently compared to your indecision. Not to share an opinion on something I know little about.

Instead, to be confident in my opinions. To take as much time as I need to formulate them without hesitation or doubt. To ground myself in the facts first, and listen to both sides of the debate. To build what Winston Churchill described as the “scaffolding of logical and consistent views” that “will perhaps tend to the creation of a logical and consistent mind.”

This is what I have come to realise at the start of this new year. It may have taken some time, but as Lincoln’s example has proved, that’s not the issue. What remains important are the steps I take right now. Onwards on the road less travelled. Onwards.


“Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

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