What Is Knowledge?

What is knowledge is a question that has exercised philosophers for millennia, and is one I’m not likely to solve in a 600 word blog post.

On the other hand, at a less fundamental and practical level, you can go a long way to transforming your potential to be creative by changing the way you think about what you know.

Many of us tend to think of knowledge a little like the picture below. That is, knowledge is the sum of the things we know.

Indeed, the way we learn reinforces this. Whether it’s mind maps, or memory palaces, or just lists, the techniques we use to remember things are about helping us to locate each of the things we know so that we can recall them. In this way, our knowledge is somewhat like the Read Only Memory (ROM) of a computer. It is a large set of data, and the most important thing is organizing it so that we can retrieve any part of that data as easily and efficiently as possible.

There are several drawbacks to this. One is that, now we have wikipedia, it’s less useful than it used to be, unless you’re a memory athlete or looking for a neat party trick.

A second problem is that it can actually turn off our natural love of learning, greatly to the detriment of our creative problem solving ability. Think of it like this. When you’re setting out in life, each new thing you learn adds significantly to the sum of your knowledge. But that rate of increase soon slows dramatically. Indeed, by the time you know only 100 things, each new thing you learn adds less than 1% to the sum of your knowledge. There will very quickly be very little incentive to keep learning, so your brain gets used to sitting on what it already has and doing little to add to it.

Suppose, on the other hand, that we change how we think about those two basic elements of knowledge. Suppose we imagine knowledge not as the sum of what we know, but as the product – that our knowledge isn’t “this thing and thins thing and this thing” but rather the potential connections between those things.

That already feels like it captures much more of what makes our brains so remarkable.

Suppose also that we were less concerned with being able to recall what we know, and more concerned with being able to use it. Now we are thinking about the brain much more like the Random Access Memory (RAM) of a computer.

This fundamentally changes the way we think about knowledge.

First, we can see that it’s actually really useful – knowledge is not just the source of party tricks but the raw material for problem solving.

Second, we can see that how we organize our knowledge matters (there’s more on this here, and I’ll write in coming posts about how to put mental “hooks” on your knowledge to make it easier to form connections). We don’t just need to store it securely, we need to find a way of storing it so it can be freely used – what I call building a mind palace that has intentionally leaky plumbing.

And third, rather than an incentive to stop learning once we reach a certain level, now we have an incentive to keep on learning. Now, when we know 100 things, rather than adding just 1% to our knowledge, learning something new adds two orders of magnitude, it multiplies it by more than 100! The more we learn, the more each new thing adds. That really is exciting, because we can feel our capacity for tackling the wicked problems that need our creative attention growing and growing at an ever-accelerating rate.

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