Are You Intellectually Inbreeding?


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“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

One of my missions in life is to learn as much as I possibly can about everything. I’m not doing it to get rich or powerful, but simply because I believe that in order to live an amazing life, you need to push your understanding of it.

And I think that’s why I like this quote and Socrates in general. He was so devoted to learning and teaching that he was convicted in 399 B.C. on several charges including corruption of youth. Instead of escaping he decided to kill himself by drinking hemlock. I have to admire his passion.

What is Intellectual Inbreeding?

This is a term used by universities when they hire their own graduates on as teachers. It is considered bad since ideas just get recycled and the possibility of new discoveries is decreased. Just as genetic inbreeding reduces the possibility of newer, better genes, intellectual inbreeding reduces the likelihood of creating new ideas.

Many people’s intellectual lives are just like this though. If you get your news source from the same place every day, you’re not exposing yourself to different viewpoints. Imagine someone watching Fox News all day long and going to bed reading Rush Limbaugh’s new book. The same goes for someone who only watches liberal programming and reads Al Gore’s book on the side.

However, intellectual inbreeding isn’t confined to news. Information from books, movies, music, websites and more can potentially be other areas of inbreeding. In these areas it is mostly about variety. Do you frequent the same websites? Read the same kinds of books?

I knew someone who actually refused to watch movies older than 1980 cutting themselves off from almost 100 years of film. Watching an older movie is similar to traveling for me. You get a look into a different way of life, culture and beliefs when you watch older movies.

Understanding Other People Will Become Harder and Harder

Reaching beyond your own point of view is difficult now and may get worse. There are thousands of TV channels, books, movies and news sources in the world. In the past people chose from just three TV channels for their news. This required the channels to tailor their reporting to differing views. Now there are hundreds. And not all are balanced in their reporting.

Worse yet, people can skip TV news and go straight to the internet where extremes on all sides of opinion can skew people’s view of the world. You can filter all your opinions and viewpoints in TV, internet and movies now. A wider variety of media to absorb means more selection, but it also means people can find one area that matches their worldview and stay there.

It’s Easy to Retreat to What’s Familiar

Someone who only takes in a narrow stream of ideas like this isn’t looking for information anymore, they’re looking for comfort. Many people can’t handle exposing themselves to something contrary to what they believe. It’s uncomfortable to be challenged and we fear being wrong. It doesn’t need to be like this.

I read things I don’t necessarily believe in because I know I’m wrong. I have been wrong before about things and I know I’ll be wrong in the future. There is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of in that. What I am afraid of is that some ideas I have about the world are wrong and I don’t know it yet. I challenge those ideas so I can be sure I am right and if I’m not, I change them.

Going Beyond Your Comfort Zone

The times when you grow the most are when you’re doing something beyond your comfort level. The same goes for intellectual growth. When you choose to watch a type of movie you don’t normally watch or read a book you don’t agree with, you’ll grow.

In school, they don’t teach kids fifth grade material three years in a row. They add onto what they know and break down their preconceived notions. Learning sometimes means being uncomfortable because you’re exploring the unknown and you might make mistakes.

Unfortunately for adults, there isn’t anyone pushing books into your lap or asking for papers on an unfamiliar subject. You have to do this on your own. But there are plenty of rewards for doing this.

Benefits of Intellectual Advancement

I think the greatest benefit of challenging yourself intellectually is a clearer view of the world. Just like you can only know the cultures of each country in the world through travel, you can only know the ideas of the world by interacting with them.

If your viewpoints of the world really are correct, you should have no problem exposing yourself to something else. You’ll still benefit from learning about different viewpoints because you’ll be able to understand things from another person’s point of view.

Not only this, but you’ll get a clearer understanding of others and yourself. That’s something I think Socrates would definitely have approved of.
photo credit: Jens U.

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  1. I’m definitely a creature of habit but recognizing this I force myself out of my comfort zone to expose myself to things I wouldn’t normally. And I’ve known people that refuse to watch B&W movies-that’s just stupid to me!

    • Refusing to watch B&W movies is stupid to me too. Some of my favorite movies are B&W. I watch silent movies too which is odd to many people.

  2. Great post. There’s this great quote from the show Sports Night that I think about a lot and I think may apply (and yes I quote from Aaron Sorkin shows on a regular basis): If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.

    I try to follow this, but I know it’s just so easy to look for the comfort of shared ideas. My major and where I live tend to surround me with people who think differently than I do which makes me happy……most days!

    • I love that quote! I think the part about smart people hanging out with people who disagree with them is the best part.

      I’ve noticed many smart people hate opinions different from their own. It’s like they become so attached to their own position and see any challenge as an attack on their intelligence. I was like that once too. But now I try to see differing views along the lines of another Socrates quote, “The only real wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

  3. I’d admire your zest for learning, Steve! I decided this year, I’d branch out and try to learn as much as possible about a few new things- yoga and gardening and accounting! You’re right that it’s getting harder to understand other people and their motivations and backgrounds these days. I also love watching old movies and marveling at how people expressed themselves. I especially love how intelligent some of them are and how certain things don’t need to be spelled out exactly for others to get the meaning.

    • I like that about old movies too, Mary. They have a different approach to storytelling that is different from modern movies. I hope you get to learn everything you want this year.

  4. I was thinking about this topic the other day, Steve. People do get so, so comfortable with their beliefs, political stances and world view that we do tend to feed ourselves only the information that continues to make us feel good about the viewpoint we chose in the past. When things change, making the world not quite the same as it was when we chose the position we did, we may be blind to the shift because we’re so accustomed to our beliefs. MaybIt’s important to aways wal on the other side of the street for at least a little while, to keep reminding ourselves of the other side of the story.

    • That’s a good point, Sabina. Things change and sometimes we need to change when new information comes along. But that becomes hard if you shield yourself from new ideas.

  5. When it comes to the world and political stances etc then I like to think that my mind is open. I have been members of quite a few general chat forums and you would be amazed at the amount of people I meet that have such tunnelled looks on life and there is no shifting them. Then I don’t have time for those people and walk away.

    However if I am at a stressful time in my life, then I can not open my mind. I have to keep it closed to all new ideas and beliefs until another point in time.

    • I’ve met people with tunneled views of life before too and they can be hard to talk with. I don’t mind if people have strong views on things. What I don’t like is when they become aggressive if they find out you disagree with them.

  6. great post man!… i just started breaking my habit when i got fond of travelling and now blogging.. i got exposed to more people from different cultures thus making me learn diff stuff…

  7. This is such a great post! If we don’t explore new things, we’ll never get ahead of our knowledge and insight. So, how should you do it? Go rumbling. Go stumbling. Instead of reading your subscribed blogs all the time, go explore comments, new blogs, new sources to appeal to you and get you taken.

  8. greg urbano says:

    i think close mindedness is a big problem for people and leads to a lot of the problems we have on this planet, there is something to be said for tradition as well but experiencing the world around us and absorbing all the influences makes us well rounded people , thanks for provoking ideas on this subject

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