in Personal Reflections

The Pursuit of Knowledge

I started writing this as a comment in reply to Adam Bossy’s post The Paradox of Self-Education. The comment became so long that I decided to turn it into a post here on my blog.

I grew up wanting to “be everything”, from astronomer, to musician, to entomologist, to geneticist, to Navy SEAL, to writer, to geologist, to computer scientist. Hell, even meteorology (the study of weather, i.e., what the weather man does) fascinated me! I was home schooled through high school and never spent a single day in public or private school. (I actually ended up teaching myself through high school because my parents were busy teaching my younger brother and sister.) This gave me great freedom to study anything that happened to interest me. Over the course of a year, I probably switched between being totally engrossed in a dozen different fields. But in my teens, I realized that “being everything” wasn’t a career path and just knowing a little bit about many different fields wasn’t going to pay the bills. So I picked the most developed of my skills and went into IT.

Now at 26 and no college degree, I’m working for a software start-up doing a whole variety of things (programming, sysadmin, tech support, editor, you name it) and I run my own small but successful web hosting company. My interest in many other fields has not changed or decreased in any way. The only thing that has changed is my ability to spend ANY amount of time exploring them.

While pondering many of the same points as Adam does in his post, I came to the conclusion that it’s our bills and our standards of living that are holding us down. By living paycheck to paycheck we make it impossible to take six months or a year off from work to explore some new thing that has peaked our interest. Socially, we’re expected to follow the same routine advancement in our current field from one position to another, making a bigger paycheck and being able to raise our standard of living that much higher (thereby putting us back to where we started and resulting in yet another desire for a raise and advancement).

I went from spending upwards of $2,500 a month down to $800 a month by making lifestyle adjustments. “Do I need cable TV?” No, I have the Internet. “Do I need this two-bedroom, 1,500 sqft apartment?” No, I’m a single guy and the rent is a huge part of my paycheck — 400 sqft will do. “Do I need to drive into work?” No, I can take public transportation. “Do I need this $5 coffee every day?” No, a $.50 green tea will suffice and it will be healthier.

My goal now is to continue living frugally so I can set aside a big enough bucket of money to get me through one year without work. Then, when the time is right, I’ll spend a year learning something of interest, possibly making small amounts of money on the side. When needed, I’ll start working and hopefully keep repeating this process. If something I do makes me tons of money, great. If not… well it’s not about the money.

The pursuit of knowledge is to me more important than all the money in the world. Sure, money would make that pursuit easier, but life isn’t easy. This is where I feel society gets it wrong. We put money and status first and education and knowledge second, using the latter to obtain the former. Imagine a society where the pursuit of knowledge defined our standards of living. (Oh no, what would happen to all the ads?!)

If we’re willing to sacrifice our high-strung lifestyle for the ability to spend time learning and increasing knowledge, then we can accomplish amazing things, both individually and as a society. A world pursuing money and status has all the reason to fight amongst themselves and start wars, but a world pursuing knowledge and advancement has all the reason to maintain peace.

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31 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great reply.

    It appears that we have identified two parallel paths obstructing our pursuit of knowledge:

    1. Cultural and lifestyle changes. Bills. Society. The high-speed life of the 21st century. A do-or-die market. We are burdened by either conforming to society and excelling or being drowned by it. We choose neither path.

    2. The information age. The seemingly infinite tumult of information we are swamped in. We have more access to information than ever before, but we now have more to consume, as well. The human spirit and lifespan can only endure so much. This is what originally inspired my post.

    • I too have observed this huge overload of information. When I was younger, the Internet continued to prove to me that “learning everything” really was impossible, no matter how much I wanted it not to be.

      Interestingly, this constant reminder that we can never keep up with everything and we’ll never “know everything” makes me constantly rethink the meaning of life… if we can’t possibly learn everything there is to learn, then what’s the point in learning? Is it for joy? Personal accomplishment? Perhaps so that we can redistribute the wealth of knowledge to those also searching?

      I often close the Pandora’s box that is the question of why we exist (I refuse to accept any religious answer to the question) by simply telling myself I will be wasting my time if I spend my entire life searching for the answer to that question. After all, one thing is certain: I will die.

      Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder: Of all the questions that I ask, is the one question I should be asking the one I keep avoiding?

      • The answer to why we live is so easy, but so unacceptable that everyone ignores it.

        There is no reason, we live because we can.

        So if you are faced with choices in your life, you must invent an alternative reason to live.

        Many say, if I must live, I would like to do it happily. Sadly, happiness is a relative state so it can only be attained temporarily. But somethings provide a longer state of happiness then others. For example, materialism gives short-lived happiness, friendships can provide long-lived happiness.
        Anyway, do what you think is fun and engaging and ingore the lack of meaning of life.

        • I believe permanent happiness can be obtained by learning to live in the moment! The past is gone, the present is here, and the future will come whether we want it to or not. The most we can do is learn from the past, live in the present, and be ready to accept the future.

          • Personally, I use “happiness” to mean how you feel when things just got better, and “contentment” to mean how you feel when things are good. Being permanently happy would require things getting better and better as long as you live, which may be impractical, but being permanently content would simply require that they stay pretty good.

      • You can’t learn everything. You are definately right about that.

        However, you can come really really really fuckin close, and thats what counts.

        • But surely no one can learn more than a hundredth of all the cool stories and ideas that humanity as a whole knows, and surely that’s not really close at all.

      • I’m about as certain that life has no meaning as I am that God is no more real than Apollo or Thor, which is more than certain enough to drop it and get on with my life.

  2. Happiness wont be found in any level of money or free time until you know yourself and what drives you.

    These things come with age. Real men are just getting started at 40. The average man is already dead by then.

    For now, focus on doing things that make older richer people happy. The rewards and freedom will come.

    To change the system one must first become it. For to challenge it is a sure guarantee of failure.

    • Fidel Castro. Hunter S. Thompson. Fred Smith. You’re talking about one good way to live, but not the only way, and so your “must” and “sure guarantee” statements are false.

  3. Darn! I was writing something *so similar* to this (well, ok I had a title and 3 hastily scribbled bullet points…). I guess I’ll have to scrap it ;)

    I agree fully with what you’re saying. I too have been downsizing a lot of what I do. I actually tried catching the bus, it was a failed experiment (someday I intend to write a post explaining how it wasn’t worthwhile, but I believe in public transit in general – just not for my specific travel needs).

    I was *just* thinking (literally 10 minutes ago as I was driving home) about how to incentivize the pursuit of learning, but then decided that learning was in many ways it’s own reward. It’s nice to see how you wrote out the same things I was thinking!

    • I had no plans to write this post… Adam’s post sparked something inside (it happens to me a various times) that made me start writing, and once I started I couldn’t stop! I guess I beat you to it. :)

      I believe we all inherently have a thirst for knowledge and that only our environment can stifle that thirst. To incentivize the pursuit of knowledge we simply need to provide the right environment. Imagine how many people, who would otherwise not even bother going to college, would attend if it was free and if the exams were voluntary. Would all the people who currently pay for college stop going? Would more people collaborating make knowledge distribution more difficult?

      The Internet has proven that where there is free knowledge (even if it’s not 100% accurate) and an unrestricted environment where people can make themselves heard and make their ideas a reality, people will come with a vengeance and amazing things will be created.

      • True. Curiosity is human nature, and loving learning or hating it are values that can be evangelized and taught like any other values, as well as incentivized by offering education freely or other big organized expensive projects.

        Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

        Also, I’m guessing that just the shift from the push medium of TV to the pull medium of the internet will noticeably increase public interest in learning.

        • I think you’re right on with the part about the shift from a push medium (TV) to a pull medium (Internet). I watched this video today and in the video it noted that 31 Billion searches are done on Google every month and it then asked, “To whom were these questions being addressed before Google?”.

          If given access to a ginormous wealth of information, I think humans will automatically be drawn towards that information. The Internet, and the easy access to an exponentially growing wealth of information, will have the biggest impact on the younger generations, as they’re entering a world where, as long as you have access to the Internet, there are very few unanswered questions and almost limitless knowledge to be obtained… or maybe not obtained. I’ve noticed that I often don’t bother trying to learn or remember something that I know I can find on the Internet in a few seconds. I figure, why waste time trying to store it in my head if the information is already stored somewhere for me. Of course, this has both dangerous and empowering ramifications.

  4. Awesome post here Raam. You’ve made DJT think. The ability to take a year off and travel would be awesome, but yeah… I’m one of those that live from paycheck to paycheck and I keep digging myself into a bigger rut each passing week. I have a job that gets me by and isn’t challenging at all, but yet I live in a community where unemployment has hit 15%, so I’m thankful that people are still buying cars to keep me working.

    Maybe I should look into some web design classes to further my knowledge, since that’s what I enjoy and maybe I can expand and it’ll be “fun” again and the wife won’t hear me complain when I get overloaded.

    I believe we are all put on this earth for a reason and I have faith that God will someday show me why I was put here but as the one poster above wrote about “real men start at 40″, um… I only have 3 more years to go :(

    As for your reason… You’ve inspired me so many times. I may not keep to those inspired moments but I look back at them and start all over again. Yes I now exercise when I find time rather than sit at the computer and play an extra game or 2 (but I don’t do it on a regular basis). Keep after me will ya! Yes I am wanting to reduce the clutter in my life and house – ebay coming soon. Yes I haven’t drunk a cola since Oct 2008 and I don’t miss Pepsi. Yes I eat more vegies, but I haven’t given up meat and probably won’t – no, I know I won’t. Yes I’ve canceled a big chunk out of my TV package. Kept some stations for the wife.

    So part of your reason for being on this earth is to give inspiration to others to succeed in their life by showing examples of your acomplishments. Thanks my friend.

    I might of went on a tangent here and there, but I am of course DJT and I’m allowed. :D

    So, if it ever comes to the point where you and I are not working at the same time, I’ll buy you lunch at a place in Hue, Vietnam.

    p.s. – we’ve narrowed down our vacation places for this summer and your area is on the list ;) be afraid, be very very afraid… djt may come to town. lol

    • Thanks DJT! I never knew that I inspired you so much, but it brings me great happiness to hear it! :D

      Hey, you said you only have 3 years left til’ 40… well you yourself were just talking about looking into web design classes, etc. so that means you’re one of those “real men” who doesn’t just sit back and accept that he has nothing else to learn! When people tell me “eh, I’m getting old…”, I reply with “Hey, accepting that you’re getting older is the first step to making it a reality!”.

      We’re definitely going to Vietnam one of these days! (Make sure you tell me in advance when you start planning the trip so I can start saving.) And I really look forward to finally meeting you if you do come to this area of the country. :)

      • I come to this blog every day throughout the day for that lil something to pick me up.

        I met the 3 good friends in the game of RtCW.

        -Snood brings out the wackyness
        (you should hear the message from Snood on my answering machine)
        -Temujin seems to know when I’m not myself and brings me back to par
        -DigitalWizard inspires me to do something more…

        Oh.. and OhGod is sitting in the background when I feel the need to eat something different, thus I end up mailing it to him to eat first.

  5. Raam, your blog is very inspiring and I feel honored to be your friend. I know we haven’t seen each other for many years but you’ve always been dear to my heart. I agree with you about the whole society obtaining knowledge only to try and get a bigger paycheck. I don’t know anyone a single person who’s in college that is going to college because they would like to learn new things but rather because they want that degree because in their mind, if they have the degree, their salary would be bigger than the average joe.

    I, too, try to live frugally. I am curved a lot of my spending. I don’t go shopping anymore and am trying to pay off all my bills so I can start saving and have a better life. If there was a public transportion that can bring me from my apartment to my workplace, I would jump on that in a heartbeat because it would save me so much in gas.

    Til this day, I still don’t know what I am capable of. I feel like a lost soul at times and sometimes I do wonder to myself, “why am I here?” However, I realize there is no straight-forward answer or possibly there isn’t an answer at all.

    Anyways, thanks for the inspiration and we’ll see if I can meet my fitness goals. =)

    • *I don’t know a single….

      *I have curved….

      Damn… next time, I will proofread my comment before I post. I guess my mind and fingers weren’t cooperating. Sorry about that.

    • Thanks Pholla! That means a lot to me! :)

      Whenever I feel lost, I change my mental state and try to live in the moment. Living in the moment allows me to focus on the task at hand and prevents me from wasting long amounts of time daydreaming (something I find myself doing often!).

      Each and every one of us is capable of so much more than we can imagine. I’m very confident you’ll reach your fitness goals. Just STICK WITH IT! If you miss a day or two, don’t get discouraged!

      • I didn’t get to do the abs last night because I honestly couldn’t even lift my legs off the floor. So I must admit that I did take it easy yesterday just so I can give my muscles a chance to recover. However, I am going forward with my workout and will be doing Yoga when I get home tonight. Also, I find that I am hungry more often now which is weird because it was never like that before. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I’ve been snacking on fruits now more often and trying to steer clear from junk food. I don’t know. I hope this means that my metabolism is revving up and not slow like a turtle like it usually is.

        • That’s exactly what it means! When your metabolism speeds up, your body is constantly burning calories (even when you’re just sitting down!), so you end up feeling hungry more often. To keep the metabolism revved up, just make sure you keep exercising and eating small, more frequent meals throughout the day (every 3 hours is a good frequency).

          Oh, and taking a day or two break if you’re really sore is perfectly fine. Your body needs time to recover. Just make sure you don’t give it “weeks” of time and you’ll be all set! :)

          • Perfect! It’s good to know that I am on the right track. By the way, I was browsing through your pictures and can I just say you’re looking good Raam! I am soooo proud of you! Your success story should be an inspiration for me. If you can do it, then I can too. Gosh, that sounded like an infomercial tagline or something. Anyways, we will just have to see what happens but I can tell you that I make a conscious effort everyday since I started the exercising program to set aside time after work and actually do the workout. Everything else can be planned around that. =)

            • You make a great point: You should try to plan and organize your time AROUND your exercise schedule… just like you do for sleeping, school, work, etc. I think of exercise the way I think of brushing my teeth and taking a shower… you just gotta do it! :)

  6. Friend of Adam’s here. :) Great post!

    Knowledge as a defining principle for society, instead of status and power, isn’t exactly bad, but like the way marketers try to shift people’s preferences from pecans to pistachios or back, people are always going to want some of both, and trying to impose the preference by central authority would be awful.

    • Thanks Will!

      Assuming the Internet remains at least as open as it is now, with time I suppose we could eventually end up with a society that’s extremely well self-educated and less gullible to marketing and scams (or at least not as gullible). We’re just starting the transitional period into a technology-age that will bring enormous changes to this planet and the people living on it.

      There are still plenty of people alive on the planet who either have no clue what “Internet” means, or who have no idea how to use it. A few hundred years from now, no such people will exist. It’s a pretty powerful thought when you really start thinking about it.

      Thanks for stopping by. :)