Selective ignorance: cultivating intentional knowledge in a chaotic world

Have you ever found yourself aimlessly scrolling online, then feeling guilty about the wasted time? Twelve years ago, the Webster’s New World Dictionary—which is the official dictionary used by the Associated Press and many leading newspapers such as the New York Times—selected “selective ignorance” as a candidate for the word of the year. (it lost to “overshare”)

Tim Ferriss coined the expression to describe his approach to going on an information diet. Since then, the phrase has been used by other creators such as James Clear to describe an intentional approach to relationships, work, and content consumption. In James Clear’s own words: “Ignore topics that drain your attention. Unfollow people that drain your energy. Abandon projects that drain your time. Do not keep up with it all. The more selectively ignorant you become, the more broadly knowledgeable you can be.”

The true cost of knowledge

Curious minds tend to value knowledge as an enabler for personal growth. For many, acquiring new knowledge is the best way to explore life, understand the world, and connect with other people at a deeper level. In order to expand our knowledge, we buy books, we listen to podcasts, we take online courses. No wonder the education industry is a $13.7 billion market as of 2020.

There is virtually a limitless amount of information available at our fingertips. Endless streams of posts on social media, interesting online events, a constant flow of articles from news publications… For people who crave knowledge, not being able to engage with all this content can be a source of FOMO. While there is no lack of opportunities to learn, are all these opportunities equally worthwhile?

It’s helpful to think about some of the inherent limitations we need to take into account as human beings. The limitation that immediately comes to mind is the potential upper-bound limit on human memory. However, according to Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, we should not worry about the human brain’s capacity. “Although there must be a physical limit to how many memories we can store, it is extremely large. We don’t have to worry about running out of space in our lifetime,” he explains.

Paul Reber adds: “The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or a USB flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes.”

Given our current lifespan, 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes) is more than enough to store anything you take the time and make the effort to learn. And these are the real limitations to what you can learn in a lifetime: knowledge costs time and mental energy. The limited amount of time we have in our lifetime is obvious—this famous infographic by Tim Urban is a great illustration—but we rarely think about the amount of mental energy we need to spend to understand, learn, and remember a piece of information.

Studies suggest that mental work requires physical energy. While it is still a debated topic, researchers think that constraints on glucose supply result in cognitive limitation. In other words, we don’t have unlimited amounts of mental energy. So, how can we best spend it?

Selective ignorance as a way to focus

Deliberately spending our time and energy involves some form of selective ignorance, where we actively decide to not engage in certain activities, to not learn about certain topics, or to not develop certain ideas. To choose selective ignorance is to choose intentional knowledge.

Deciding to selectively ignore some activities, topics, or ideas doesn’t mean these are inherently bad. It just means they are not the priority compared to other areas of work, knowledge, or relationships you want to focus on. Steve Jobs famously 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. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Selective ignorance is also a way to say no to productivity porn. Instead of trying to learn all the things and do all the things, it’s about taking a moment to ask oneself: is this really going to be helpful? Is this really going to be enjoyable? Will I feel better or worse after I consume this piece of content? Will have I learned something that brings me closer to my goals?

Practicing selective ignorance doesn’t mean locking yourself into a thought bubble. You can still consume content from diverse sources across a wide range of interests. In addition, not all activities need to be productive. Consuming content or having conversations purely for enjoyment is absolutely worthwhile. By ignoring the noise to focus on the signal, cultivating selective ignorance can lead to less distractions, reduced stress, improved concentration, and more joyful interactions with other people.

How to cultivate selective ignorance

Learning how to cultivate selective ignorance is a long-term process, where you need to find the right balance between unproductive but enjoyable activities, and useful but more tedious activities. Pruning unproductive and tedious activities such as boring conversations, negative content, irrelevant ideas, and unhealthy choices is crucial to practicing selective ignorance.

  1. Critically choose your information sources. Again, it doesn’t mean you should lock yourself up into a thought bubble. Rather, be intentional about where you consume information. For the news, 2-3 sources across diverse political standpoints should be enough to get you covered. Try to read the news for only a specific amount of time, for example with your morning coffee. For timeless knowledge, aim for a mix of sources, such as books, articles, podcasts and videos. Whenever you learn about a surprising claim, check the original source. Selectively ignore content sources that repeatedly make dubious claims.
  2. Cut back on harmful social media. Social media platforms are a reflection of humanity with its spectrum of intentions, attitudes, and behaviours. Go through the list of people you follow, and remove the ones that fill your feed with negative, time-wasting, or plain useless content. The algorithms learn from how you interact with the platform as well. Give a bit of love to the social media accounts that bring you joy.
  3. Avoid draining conversations. Good conversations should foster curiosity, kindness, and personal growth. If you feel like someone is constantly depleting your energy stores whenever you engage with them, it may be time to ignore them. Seek interesting and stimulating conversations instead.
  4. Reflect on your learning journey. It can be helpful to periodically assess your personal growth journey. What have you learned in the past few months? Which people helped you grow as a person? Are there any specific books, podcasts, blogs, or online courses you felt were particularly helpful? How can you bring more of these into your life, and less of the ones that best should have been ignored? 
  5. Don’t forget to have fun. Cultivating selective ignorance is not about maximising your productivity or only consuming content with a particular end goal in mind. Doing something fun, learning an enjoyable skill, having a light conversation—these are all amazing ways to spend your time. And, sometimes, doing nothing can also be a great option.

As American historian Daniel J. Boorstin said: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Selective ignorance doesn’t lead to the illusion of knowledge; quite the opposite. By acknowledging that you can’t possibly know everything there is to know, you can decide where to spend your time and energy to cultivate intentional knowledge and stimulating conversations.

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