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April 18, 2023

You Can't Learn What You Think You Already Know

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The infamous Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who was born as a slave, pioneered a movement that we now call mindset. He called it "reasoned choice". His core teachings center around taking ownership for your actions and responding to the events around us with emotional control. A classic Epictetus quote is “You can’t learn what you think you already know.”

This opens the door to a larger conversation about perception. We are surrounded by an infinite amount of stimuli, too much to process at any given moment. Our perception takes the fraction of a percent that seems to be most important and creates meaning from it. 

However, this is not a perfect process because what ends up being prioritized as “important” is biased - influenced by our past, patterns, and preferences. Our perception has been shaped in such a way that we don’t see what has been hiding in plain sight and therefore, it doesn’t have the chance to impact us.

Who we are, and the lessons we have to learn, are vulnerable to the same challenges. Once you build a mental model around a concept your brain will look for ways to verify it. You will always find the evidence for what you choose to believe. 

“You can’t learn what you think you already know.”

So as growth-oriented, humble life-long learners, what are we to do about it? We must always keep a curious spirit and an open-mind. As long as we believe that there are other ways to do things, and that it’s possible the current way may not be the best way, we allow our perception to stay more open. We’re willing to consider new ideas because it no longer threatens the way we see the world.

And when you do that, you leave space for improvement, experimentation, and iteration. If you want to evolve you cannot reject the process that induces it. And with that in mind, I’d love for you to reflect on this question - What do you feel so certain about that it might be limiting your ability to explore alternatives?

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