How To Make The Shift From Student To Participant In An Intellectual Ecosystem

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Thursday, 6.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. – Pericles

It takes time to be able to see the same thing through different eyes.

What comes to mind when you think about learning and developing – yourself, your career, your relationships?

Probably a bunch of books, mainly self-help ones – that genre which packages inspiration and motivation and serves it with a helping of guilt.

Books have been my friends, my companions for a long time – the places where I have discovered ideas and approaches and strategies and tried many of them out.

You have to try things out.

And over time I’ve learned that lists of things you want stay in the pages where you’ve written them.

Writing daily affirmations ends with you using up stacks of paper and wondering whether you should throw out the pads or keep them.

Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t.

But maybe the greatest value in starting with that kind of material is that it gets you started.

If you’re stuck somewhere taking a step in any direction probably won’t make things worse.

One area where many of us are stuck – I certainly was, perhaps still am – is the quagmire of culture.

I was watching a documentary on Leonardo Da Vinci which talked about how an idea formed and escaped from East to West in the fourteenth century.

Knowledge, before that period, was all about theology – it was god centric, deity centric,

If you said anything that disagreed with doctrine, it usually turned out pretty badly for you.

The idea that escaped was humanism, a way of thinking that put humans at the centre – and opened up new fields of study about what it was to be human.

Now, more than five centuries later, we’re still confused about the difference between ideas trapped in books and ideas that live in the human experience.

Let me explain.

I come from a culture that venerates knowledge – where books are worshipped.

Which perhaps accounts for why I’ve always turned to books when I need to find out something.

But that kind of thinking has a trap – it pushes you towards thinking that the stuff that’s written down is knowledge.

It takes some time to realise that’s knowledge for a particular time and place – not knowledge for the ages.

And I learned that lesson the expensive way.

If you are a fan of investing you may have come across the work of Benjamin Graham, who developed an approach to value investing in a time of social and economic crisis.

Some of his fame comes from having had Warren Buffett as a student.

Buy bargains, he said.

Around seventy years later, I tried doing what he said.

With real money.

And I lost a lot of it.

That was an expensive lesson – but a worthwhile one because it helped me change my approach when it came to investing money I couldn’t afford to lose.

A more modern approach to knowledge sees it as rivers of dialogue – a continually constructed reality held in the minds of a community.

That community holds useful knowledge, some of which is established lore, some of which comes along and upturns certain principles – which are then removed from the group consensus over time.

It’s that image of a party, where lots of people are talking and the conversations are the knowledge.

In that image modern social media stops being a distraction and turns into the manifestation of a community.

If knowledge is held in a community and that community shares its thinking on social media – then what is held in social media is the knowledge you want.

Not the stuff locked in books or papers or institutions.

So what, you ask yourself – what’s the point of all this?

For me, the point is quite important – it marks a major shift in the way I think I should view knowledge.

I should put down my books.

And I should engage more with the communities that talk about the things I’m interested in.

If you want to do that it’s not going to happen quickly.

Communities form over time, they accept newcomers in a more or less friendly way depending on how you act.

If you come in as a know-it-all then you’ll probably be ignored.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to join a group in a playground.

And that way doesn’t change when you leave primary school.

Hang around the edges, make a few contributions, positive ones, and wait to be invited in.

Because, in sharp contradistinction to what your parents told you all your life – what you really should do is stop studying and go to the party.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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