The Goal of Learning Everything


Recently, I wrote about my goal of learning everything. This is more than a tad ambitious, and probably impossible. Even learning a small fraction of everything can have huge benefits that ripple outwards towards every other area of life. Unfortunately, most people fall into a group I’ll call “functional” learners, and severely cut off their potential.

Functional Versus Lifelong Learning

Functional learning is learning with a purpose. I want to do X, so I need to know how to do Y. If you want to become a doctor, you need to study medicine. To do that, you usually need an undergrad in biology. For that, secondary and primary education are prerequisites. All of these are links in the functional learning chain.

Lifelong learning comes from a different approach. Instead of being driven from the top-down, it’s driven from the bottom-up. Lifelong learning suggests that learning anything is good, regardless of immediate results. So even if there is no functional learning to be done, you should pick up a book and start reading anyways.

Justifications for Lifelong Learning

The justifications for functional learning are easy. If your goal is important, you learn what you need to learn. If I want to become a professor, I need a graduate degree. It’s easy to justify spending time and money learning when the outcome is right in front of you.

The justification for lifelong learning isn’t as obvious. Lifelong learning feels important, but when you break it down to practical reality, it isn’t for most people. Most people see a far clearer return on investment for working more, socializing or entertainment than learning unnecessary subjects.

Lifelong learning, unfortunately, falls into a “should” category for most people. It’s something that they’ve been taught to believe is good, but can’t really support those feelings with a clear motivation. Going to the gym is another “should” in our society. We all know it’s important, but most people haven’t explicitly made the connection between exercise and daily energy levels, lifelong health and overall well-being. They know the destination exists, but the map is fuzzy.

I’d like to remove the fuzzy map between lifelong learning and why it is important, and to show you my justifications for spending time, energy and money on the pursuit.

Holistic Learning

For those of you who haven’t read my book, my free book or the most popular article on this website, I suggest you take a look. Holistic learning was a phrase I used to describe how smart people appeared to learn. Instead of bashing facts into their skull, every idea was woven into a set of existing understandings. Knowing Shakespeare helps you understand parts of chemistry which improves your understanding economics. Ideas are linked together instead of encoded like a computer.

Although I didn’t mention it, holistic learning actually provides the justification for spending hours of your day learning with no clear need to. When ideas are linked together, the facts themselves lose importance. What truly matters is the spaces between linked ideas. The understandings that arise as more than the sum of their parts.

When you learn a lot of seemingly unimportant subjects, you make connections. These connections work in the background to give you supporting knowledge to everything else you do. History, science, computer programming and art all provide a bigger foundation for understanding everything else.

These enhancements can be seen as one way of upgrading your brain. Your hardware doesn’t change much (although some evidence shows constant learning increases new neuron development). What really changes is the power of your software. With more ideas imprinted, your brain has more power than before.

Rejecting the Myth of the Full Cup

A popular notion in learning is the idea that your brain has a max capacity. In order to learn one thing, you must forget another. The mechanics for storing information in memory are still a hot topic of research, so while this might be the case, I have serious doubts.

My experience has shown the opposite. While knowledge does fade with time, that happens regardless of whether you learn or not. In fact, active learning helps keep those memories sharper. Far from being a cup, which once full, must empty contents to add more, your brain is closer to a muscle, which will wither and die without usage.

Why “Everything”, Shouldn’t You Focus on Strengths?

I’m a believer in the “T” model, which suggests you should have excellence in a small subset of areas and a general understanding in a broad area of knowledge. Focusing on your strengths is important, but it misses some of the benefits of lifelong learning. Your profession will usually hone your expertise in one area, it’s up to you to use your leisure time to explore everything else.

The main argument I have for learning from everything is that you’ll never know what you find. You can’t know whether a book will be useful until you’ve finished reading it. So sticking to one narrow domain limits you from a wide variety of opportunities.

Why is a Knowledge Foundation So Important?

What’s so important about being smart? Although there are other qualities more important than intelligence, I’d say most pale in comparison. If you have smarts (not just limited, academic smarts) you almost have superpowers over ordinary people. You can see the patterns that otherwise appear to be noise to everyone else.

Functional learning is a bit like exercising because you know you’re running in a race in two weeks. Not only does it fail to get you in shape in time for the race, it misses out on all the other benefits of exercising. In truth, the race doesn’t matter. What really matters is the healthy body that comes from exercising regularly.

Steps to Go From Functional to Lifelong

I can’t force you to switch learning styles. You need to find the motivation yourself. For me, the motivation to become a lifelong learner was great enough to build the habits to support it. If you are interested, here are a few habits to take that interest and make a commitment:

  • Always have a book. It doesn’t matter whether it takes you a week or a year to finish, just always have one ready.
  • Wikipedia lunches. I’ve recently taken up the habit of reading random Wikipedia articles as I eat my lunch. It’s a great way to get 15 minutes of learning in without taking any time out of my schedule.
  • OpenCourseWare. I’ve taken a self-study course from MIT. Look for ones that have all the content online, so you can get started immediately.
  • Buy a Library Card. When you read dozens of books a year, the charges can expand. Go the library to save yourself the money.
  • Take obscure classes. Yeah, I know, you need to study for your finals and midterms. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take an evening dance, language or martial arts class.

  • Kaitlynn Little

    Hi Jack, I totally know how that feels. I used to have incapacitating stage fright playing instruments as well as public speaking. My hands would get sweaty, my thoughts would race, and I basically would have a full out anxiety attack! Same with tests in school, I had test anxiety too. But I found the solution. The solution for me was that I was putting way to much pressure on myself. I told myself I HAD to do well, and then I would get so nervous about it that I would totally blow the whole thing and then be even harder on myself for messing up. So just get up there and tell yourself that you don’t have to be perfect. Enjoy it. Also for stage fright, I just kept repeatedly making myself perform on stage. Any opportunity to play anywhere I would sign myself up. After three years of doing that consistently, one time I was performing and I was smiling. Moments later when I had a few seconds to collect my thoughts, I realized that I wasn’t afraid anymore. Something that also helped me was realizing that my fear couldn’t get any worse… really! The fear of being on stage in front of everyone… I always that I would pass out or have a heart attack but once I stood up on stage with my sweaty palms, and shaking hands, I willed my nervousness to get worse and it didn’t. In fact… it plain went away! haha! It is the best feeling in the world to accomplish your fear… there is no substitute for it than to keep putting yourself in front of lots of people. If I can do it, and I’m an introvert, then you can too!

  • Star Light Shine

    Yay there are someone like me. I just read another interesting article on the topic. I am so glad I found you and your video. I am on this journey as well to learning about everything in the world, universe and beyond. I have never been good at anything and when I was younger I hardly went to school. All I learnt was how to get in trouble. I was quite good at getting others to do my work and if I did not ask they know that I am useless enough so they do it for me anyway. When I got older i realise I don’t have education, I know nothing and I could hardly read or write, I am so useless I can’t do or fix anything. I wanted to change that so I began on a mission to learn the basic of everything this means to me, science, maths, engineering, arts everything in between 

  • Star Light Shine

    The working of everything. People thinks I am nuts. Since I am poor and don’t even have proper job. I started on basic science, basic maths, basic engineering, basic arts, basic english, basic it, next I need to do basic multimedia, basic construction, basic diy, basic farming and countryside, I am not a fast learner and I have learning disabilities so it’s going to take a while. I do get frustrated sometimes when I don’t understand and when other people have negative comment about what I am doing. I mean eventually I willspecialise but for now I have the need to learn them all because I see it all connecting.I have not really thought about history or languages but I picked up a building researching from the ones I am currently doing.

  • Star Light Shine

    Me too I can totally relate and I hardly attend school.

  • Star Light Shine

    I am really glad you write about your experiences because most of the time I get negative comment about my learning rabbits. I have those kind of questions too and I go to the internet a lot and ending up learning so many things. I am currently learning colour and already I am learning about atoms, spectral lines, energy, wave and I am putting it all together and I want to know how it all works.

  • Star Light Shine

    I think that’s why many people find school hard not because they can’t but they can’t see it so what’s the point. They don’t trust it will be useful or lead to something great.

  • Star Light Shine

    I agree with this too. You can learn anywhere anyhow weather it leads to something or someone or qualification. You are still learning and you still know more than before that make some difference to your life or others.

  • Stojanovic Miljan

    I would advise you to look for the origin roots of math concepts, where it came from, and try to learn concepts the way they where originally conceived in the beginning. Go to Arabic and Indian sources, study abacus and such.. and you will unlock the true meaning and genuine native concepts. 🙂 Just an idea!

  • Simon

    I agree with this approach. I was never very engaged with maths at school, but Arab and Indian maths goes to the heart of what it’s all about. I am just about to buy an abacus. Thanks for reminding me to do this.

  • Simon

    You can’t learn everything (obviously), but you can be receptive to everything which is actually a very unusual in human beings. Humans tend to default to their animal-nature which makes them narrow, conservative creatures of habit driven by survival and self-interest. The thing is, we’re not cave men anymore. In all societies I have encountered I have seen lazy, narrow attitudes in how people use their minds and bodies. Most people prefer bread and circuses over learning something new that is going to make them question received ideas.

    If you are going to go beyond hunter-gather societies into ones of settlement and cooperation my hunch is that you’ve got to go beyond base needs. But if your try to blend short-term survival behaviour with “planned” cultures you get destructive societies (Trump, Stalin, Hitler).

    I feel formal learning is caught between these opposing drives; the drive to do something for yourself and the drive to do something for the good of all – or just for learning as an end in itself, trusting it will benefit someone somewhere, somehow.

    As I write this I’m house sitting for academic friends in north Oxford in the United Kingdom, so I’m bang in the middle of the world of high learning. It’s also right in the centre of affluence. Could these things be somehow related? Of course they are. In the years I’ve been coming up here I’ve got some insight into why formal learning has got knocked off course, at least in Britain. Yes, there’s still the typical eccentric, bookish, slightly other-worldy culture that Oxford’s well-known for, but there’s a lot of upper middle class tribalism too; a big emphasis on fine wine and expensive food. A lot of Oxford learning is about having a springboard to wealth and power – the same things sought after by drug gangs. One’s violent and illegal and the other isn’t, but they are both motivated by ego and self-interest.

    Why does this matter? Education in high schools (even primary schools) as well as universities are now much more focused on obtaining qualifications that the desire for learning that enriches the mind. I suspect that many of the folk writing on this page saw through the shallowness of their formal education and got demotivated like I did. Autodidacts are rarely people who self educate just to make a buck or get a name for themselves. That isn’t self education in the real sense. That’s more about catching up on something you missed out on earlier in life, and when you have what you want you settle into a comfortable lifestyle. No I’m talking about something completely different.

    In trying to uncover the roots of an autodidactism that is genuine one group that keeps cropping up is the Victorian amateurs. It’s true they were often from wealthy backgrounds, but many, a growing number by the turn of the century were from humble backgrounds. What is interesting is how they mixed socially with little interest in class. They were just self-motivated by their various passions for archaeology, entomology, linguistics etc. Here’s an example:

    And this is a good book:

    These folk presented a real threat to the academic establishment and were often looked down on for their regional accents and uncouth ways. Some operated outside the academic system and instead of the internet had a lively culture of interaction from public meetings and journals. The culture of self education was fed by nonconformist religion and trade unions but after WWII is seemed to peter out very quickly.

    Working class culture got very dumbed down with the growth of mass media and – very ironically – mass education which has created a mass pseudo-education for the majority, a medium quality education for the high-middlers and an elite education for the very bright and the privileged. You can move from first to the second, but the high level is fenced off unless you can find magic keys.

    My story is someone who was a highly motivated T-learner, with lots of the horizontal, but all my vertical (deep) learning was in expressed in creative arts which is not recognised as “academic” (fortunately that prejudice is waning). For example, I will spend all my spare time sketching in museums and read voraciously. I also play a lot of musical instruments. My area of interest is primarily outsider art, puppetry and folk music, but I like to struggle with maths, natural history and a load of other subjects, because I believe there’s load of interconnections that you only become aware of when you start doing stuff. Some of the interconnections are creative (subjective), some are provable (measurable) and some just create extra awareness and different mindsets that kick in further down the line (eg, Appalachian banjo and trigonometry warm the same part of my brain – that has something to do with a primitive order – I just hold on to that and then later I might understand the link). Most of this is useless to capitalist society, but it’s very important in other ways. Cynics beware: daydreamers invented the modern computer and split the atom!