To Really Know Something

January 27, 2012 — 22 Comments

One of the most aggravating parts of the media and marketing world I work in is the gurus and experts (charlatans is probably a better word). To them, everything is a theory or a chance to pontificate. Everything can be simplified and extrapolated. None of the natural laws—diminishing returns, unintended consequences, regression to the mean—ever seem to exist.

It’s less messy to think that way, sure. And comforting. It may even briefly be lucrative. But that is not how it really works. As much as a part of me wishes I could live in that universe, I don’t and can’t. It’s not how you get things done.

“See, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it really means to know something. And therefore, I see how it is that they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it—they haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t done the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know how this stuff is done and they are intimidating people by it.”

That is Richard Feynman. What he’s talking about is the flipness of pseudo-science and the false confidence of delusion. Everything about the internet enables those impulses. From the segmentation to the lack of accountability, we forget what it really takes to know something. How hard it is to be truly sure.

That comes from rigor and discipline. From humility and understatement.  It comes practices, checklists, from methods, and the scientific method. It comes from staying up late reading, not blogging. It comes from having deep connections with a handful of smart people who push you to be better, not networking. It comes from separating ideas from your identity—so you can pick up, discard, pick up, rearrange, discard and pick them up at whim.

To really study something almost inevitably eliminates the desire to talk about it. You don’t need to intimidate other people because you’re too busy checking your own assumptions to bother worrying about theirs. You’re not out trying to sell your theory to random people on the internet (and calling it Ryan’s Law or some indulgent shit) because you’re selling it to people who matter—people who actually pay you for your ideas.

All this takes time. That is, it can’t be done in real-time. So be patient and quiet and do the work. Check the experiments and put in the care. Then you start to know what it really means to know something.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

22 responses to To Really Know Something

  1. “So be patient and quiet and do the work.” I needed that.

  2. Ryan, I’m curious about nature vs. nurture; how being a product of one’s environment mingles with genes and about the balance of power of both. Any book recommendations for that subject?

  3. So in essence then no one really knows anything, for certain.

    Would you say it is just that certain ideas are more agreeable, which are usually created by the people who really put in the time to perform their experiments and get their ideas straight before revealing them to their group of smart people with whom they have deep connections? (usually the ideas of charlatans are easy to dismiss by ‘smart’ people)

    For some reason Darwin and Richard Dawkins came to mind while reading this.

    Something that I have been thinking of lately is what it was like to think as a human before language emerged. I assume most people think in words, but prior to that was it just images? Have you came across any books that analyze such a thing?

  4. Great post, Ryan. It really reminds me of a quote in ‘From Peices to Weight’ – “There was no need for running off at the lip…I realised that the people that really mattered didn’t say anything.” I think that it is a lot easier to talk well than to live well, and most people would rather have short term notoriety than go through the hard work and sacrifice necessary to truly be great.

    • WRONG- Ryan is saying that being “great” is irrelevant. The label of “great” is applied by others. These others probably spend their nights blogging or networking, not reading. So, how are they qualified to say what is great? And wouldn’t a blogging, networking, easy-theory charlatan be their definition of great anyway?

  5. Great post, Ryan. Reminded me of Luke’s “What Curiosity Looks like?”: http://lesswrong.com/lw/96j/what_curiosity_looks_like/

  6. About twenty years ago I read an open letter by an artist to her proteges. In it she said “Please think twice before making the rounds of cocktail parties and hip bars after any initial flush of success. Lot of people do and think “Ah, now I’m living the artistic life.” That’s crap. The artisitc life is lived when you are doing tedious, necessary work of making whatever it is that you make or do. It doesn’t have anything to do with the applause you get, who you eat or sleep with. It has everything to do with learning just what you are capable of and to what use you can put it. It can be lonely, exhausting, and no fun at all. If you aren’t prepared to do this, perhaps you should consider a different career.
    I’m paraphrasing her words, but it seems to me to be in the same spirit of what you mean by this post.

  7. In finding this out, when looking “Where is this suffering entity in myself ?” first, so I can say I know it all the others, even if it’s not found, it does not kill compassion. (…) There is a sense of suffering, really analize it, keep looking at it, keep looking at it, keep looking at it ! In coming to seeing, it does not kill compassion, it does not make you selfish, you don’t go about saying “Well it’s all an illusion, so it doesn’t matter”, this is not what you will feel. (…) You have a unique opportunity to look inside your own being, and this is compassion already. With this seeing, this insight, this direct experience, something will become an instrument in service to That. (…) The thing to do, having recognized that there is that space that you come, or come to the recognition of it, because it has not come, this is a part of your recognition, That what Is didn’t make an appearance, It is not a glimps, then you have a sense of a choice : let the attention go with the pull of the mind flow, which then scatters it into so many noisy places, or you hold the attention inside that stillness, and see that everything is taking place from here. (…) Don’t try to make efforts (“I must do, I must do…”), but stay as the I Am which is the natural sense in you. The very I is there, and the sense “I am looking for I Am” is arising in I Am. This I Am-ness sense, stay with it. Don’t think about how difficult it may be, just do it. And like this already, lot of stuff is burning from it, space again, your viewing becomes open and panoramic, and there’s silence in This. So come to this place first.

  8. Great post! Relating to your last post about narcissism something I have a hard time with is “separating ideas from your identity”.

    What I would deem to be “real” curiosity and desire to learn is the doing without being. Discovering and experimenting is the end in and of itself. I think that performing for external validation makes it nearly impossible for you to accomplish something great or add an immense amount of value to the world because discoveries and creations that do add that kind of value are usually disruptive. Things that are disruptive, especially at first, won’t receive the positive external validation that the type of person you are talking about seek and so they will abandon that path and take a path which reinforces the status quo.

    • Andrew, I’ve been thinking a lot about the same thing. Disruption is generally considered something that happens on the large scale. But the principles should be applicable to the act of refining things. You know, most people look to quantity instead of quality, piling on redundant layers of work instead of chiseling away at elegant solutions. I’m beginning to appreciate that to disrupt, even on the small scale of quality over quantity, there are the same bureaucratic barriers that one would find on the large scale.

  9. Reminds me of something I read by Bruce Lee recently:

    “Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick just a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special.”

  10. I struggle with this one, Ryan. What do you mean by being “sure”? I tried to apply this to religion as a teen and failed miserably. Nothing ever seemed sure and I was devastated that I could not be as sold as others were on faith/religino. Since then I have turned a little more cynical and hopefully a lot more pragmatic… I don’t think one really CAN know but that there is a certain practical truth that we can access on a day-to-day level. This I can work with while being open to more enlightenment as it hopefully comes…

    • What’s your question exactly?

      • Yeah, sorry, that got way too verbose. You seem to think that you can be “sure” about something provided you put the hard work of verification in – rigor, discipline, etc… I think that we STILL can’t know.. even after the blood, sweat and tears. What makes think there can be certainty? I would love for it to exist but I am a natural skeptic.

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