Disgustingly ignorant

and where to start

Yo peeps, and welcome to another issue of the ProtoNewsletter, where I share not only ideas, ravings, insights, and tips of dubious usefulness but also grammatical mistakes and odd phrasing.

Today’s topic is one of my favorites: ignorance and how to “fix” it.

Do you ever stop to think about how disgustingly ignorant you are?

I do.

It happens when I meet someone who knows soooo much more than me about a topic, when I see people that seem skilled in a thousand different domains, or when I think about the number of things I want to learn.

Then I wonder what the hell did I do all my life. What have those people done that I have not? How did I waste the time I could have spent learning? How much more knowledge could I have accumulated?

From a certain point of view, this thought makes no sense.

The spectrum of knowledge is so vast that no matter how much knowledge you accumulate in your brief life, your ignorance will always be infinite.

What is the point of learning if your knowledge will always be insignificant? Just relax and take a nap.

However, as much as I love naps, this unproductive nihilism is not satisfying to me. As a human being, I am condemned to seek more, even if it is futile and there is no grand ultimate goal.

And after all, nothing matters. Nothing makes sense. If we were to base our actions on who-knows-what purpose, we would be sitting still, waiting for death.

So, even though our knowledge will always be minuscule, I believe it’s worth making at least a little effort. If nothing else, to acquire valuable tools to navigate the only life we know we have.

One problem remains: the choice. Since you can’t learn everything, what should you focus on?

The answer is simple if you have a passion, an interest, or a specific purpose: study what you like, are interested in, or moves you towards the goal.

Alternatively, if you prefer to build a versatile culture, my advice is to start from first principles.

First Principles

A first principle is similar to an axiom. It’s a statement that we know to be true and cannot infer from other statements.

Well, almost.

In reality, unless we’re talking about math or logic, the definition is not this strict. Our knowledge is imperfect, doesn’t guarantee absolute certainties, and, if we were to be picky, we could break it down over and over until we got to the big bang.

So, rather than being strictly an axiom, a first principle for a particular topic is a block of knowledge that we consider true that can’t be decomposed into other principles belonging to that topic.

In cooking, the organoleptic properties of foods and their interactions are first principles. They can be broken down into more fundamental principles, i.e., the lower-level physical and chemical processes that cause them. And these too can be broken down. But by following this decomposition, we exit the field of cooking and enter physics and chemistry. Not necessarily helpful if we want to reason about flavors.

Starting from first principles has considerable advantages.

1 —

You acquire the fundamentals of the topic.

Learning the fundamentals is a high-return study investment. You go from complete ignorance to the ability to reason about the topic. It’s a giant qualitative leap.

Example: nutrition. If you don’t know anything, you can blindly trust what others say or commonplaces. This means that it’s easy to hold false beliefs and fall prey to publicity stunts and crazy diets.

Instead, learning the basic rules of nutrition (macronutrients, energy intake, energy expenditure, etc.) enables you to evaluate diets and not be fooled.

2 —

You assemble a set of lenses to observe reality and interpret what happens.

You gain the ability to break down problems, situations, behaviors into their fundamental components and to reason starting from these.

Example: psychology. Learning the basic psychological dynamics improves your ability to understand and interpret not only others but yourself too. You can observe what you do and break it down into the forces at play.

Suppose you have learned that one of the brain’s tasks is to find excuses for what the impulsive part has done or wants to do. The next time you tell yourself that you don’t have enough time to do this or that, you can stop and ask yourself: Does what I’m saying make sense, or am I looking for excuses?

3 —

You become more creative.

Mastering the building blocks gives you the ability to mix them into new and original forms. Creativity is born from recombination.

Example: the composer. Composers are experts who mastered the principles underlying music theory. This is why they can use and remix these principles to create original pieces pleasing to the ear.

Those who can play but do not know these fundamentals will know how to play a piece but will not automatically be able to compose one.

If you aspire to have a broad, versatile knowledge, starting from the first principles of foundational subjects (psychology, mathematics, physics, philosophy, economics, computer science), is perhaps the best way to get closer to the goal. Maybe the only way.

If you don’t know where to start, you can take a look at this guide. It is a collection of links to a massive amount of material.

These, instead, are some of the resources that I have used and appreciated. In no particular order:

Things I liked

I discovered Read Something Great, which aims to give you a selection of the best articles from the magical interweb.

I found a list of the 50 cheapest Michelin meals in the world. There is one in Turin. I could have gone if I had known when I lived there.

I started reading Antifragile. I haven’t finished it yet, but it might be worth entering the list above.

The latest content from yours truly

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By following a super simple rule I stole from Warren Buffett.

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