The Goal of Learning Everything

Some Books

You might be surprised to read this, but one of the first goals I ever wrote when I created my first bucket list was to “learn everything”.

It’s certainly an ambitious goal – impossible even.  With all the information out in the world, learning everything would probably take several lifetimes.  And that’s assuming you could even pinpoint a finish line to the process.

But even if no one could possibly accomplish it, I still believe it is an extremely useful goal.

Journey to a Goal

It’s hard for me to trace back to the exact moment when I decided to learn everything. Although I’m pretty sure it started in my early teens.

That’s when I became an avid reader.  I got into nerdy books like Lord of the Rings and short stories from sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury.

From there I expanded to more difficult writing including Edgar Allan Poe and Dante’s Inferno.

I still remember when I bought Dante’s Inferno.  I randomly ran into a friend of mine outside the store as I was leaving.  He asked me what I had just bought and I showed him the book.

He asked what class it was for and I told him it was actually for my own enjoyment.  This perplexed him.  Why would anyone read something like this unless it was for an assignment for school?

In turn, I couldn’t understand his distaste for reading.  From what I understood, he didn’t read anything unless it was forced on him.

It’s a shame too.  I consider Dante’s Inferno as the catalyst that started my love for learning.  The theological, historical and philosophical ideas were way over my head at the time.  It was the first moment I realized just how little I really knew – it was a humbling experience.

Why Learn Everything

The thing that made this book so powerful for me was that I took the time to look up many of the references within the story.  Some were quite obscure.

Each piece of information led to even more information.  The more I gathered, the more it became a driving force to find the next piece.

I became insatiably curious.

Since then I’ve realized the amount of information out there in the world is way too much for any one person to learn.  Yet, I feel as if there are three huge benefits for trying.

1. You make connections

There is a really eye-opening documentary by James Burke called Connections.  In the documentary, he makes a series of seemingly unrelated connections between various scientific discoveries and how they influenced each other.

In one episode, he connects the invention of bank credit in the Middle Ages to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969.

The link goes like this: credit helped finance larger armies.  The difficulty in feeding those larger armies helped create canned food.

Later studies into why some canned food spoiled led to new discoveries in containers.  The designs on those containers helped make V-2 rockets which ultimately put a man on the moon.

The invention of credit and the moon landing are separated by hundreds of years and are seemingly unconnected, but one invention set into motion the things that brought about the other.

This is what learning is like to me.  Learning opens up connections in new and meaningful ways.

The world we have today has been influenced by so many different ideas, inventions, concepts, ways of thinking and thinkers.  Learning helps you see how.

Almost more importantly, it helps you see connections to things coming up in the future.

2. The world (and people) makes more sense

The more you learn, the more you figure out why things are the way they are and why people act the way they do.

People especially can be complex.  Their behavior often doesn’t make sense; they’re often irrational.

You can understand people a lot more if you learn about them.

Think of all the things that go into making someone’s personality.  It can be influenced by socioeconomic circumstances, beliefs, psychology, sociology and a variety of other factors.

Learn about these things and you’ll understand people a lot better.

The world doesn’t seem as random or perplexing as it used to.  Things that once seemed irrational make a little more sense when you understand the basic underlying reasons behind them.

And what is more, I think if I understand why people do what they do, I get just a little closer to what goes into a human being.  Maybe I’ll understand myself just a little more.  It’s a way of connecting with my own humanity.

3. You become a better person

When you read biographies, you introduce yourself to real-life decisions and consequences people have experienced.  Those are all life lessons you can learn from and apply in your own life.

If a big part of success comes from experience, then you might as well read about other people’s experiences.  It’s the quickest way I know of to learn from successes and failures.

You can learn a lot from fiction too.  Reading fiction has helped me to develop empathy and my emotional IQ so I can better interact with other people.

Also, the more you know the better you become at making decisions.  You’re more aware of what’s going on in the world.

You don’t generally see uninformed people making the best decisions.

Impossible Goal?

It seems that the more I learn, the more I realize how much more I need to learn about.  I guess that’s what makes the goal seem so impossible.

Yet I still continue to strive for it.  I like to think of it in terms of that old saying, “sometimes the journey is better than the destination.”  While I don’t always agree with that saying, in this case it’s the best way to look at it.
photo credit: Ben Oh

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Comments

  1. Great post and goal. To fully live and excel in life requires having a teachable mindset. I want to learn everything I can in the are of leadership because that’s one of my top passions.

    • Yeah, I think that having a learning and teaching mindset would help in the area of leadership. A lot of leaders are lifelong learners. There’s always something more you can learn to enhance your leadership skills.

  2. That’s a seriously ambitious goal Steve. I wish you luck with that buddy.

    But I’m sorta the same, except on a much smaller scale. I like to learn everything about whatever topic it is that I’m currently interested in. I try to absorb all that I can, relevant or not, then discard (forget) what I don’t use.

    Cheers!

    • That’s more or less what I do. There’s only so much information your brain can manage so I try to learn what’s most important. Of course, it would be easier if I could just remember everything, but I know I’ll forget some things.

  3. While I don’t know if my goal is to learn everything, I do agree that we should be continually open to learning new things.

    I often fall in the trap of closing my mind off to new things because I think, “Oh, I’m not interested in this topic” or worse, “I’m not good at X”. But when I keep my mind open, I surprise myself at becoming interested in areas I might not normally consider.

    • I’m the same way. There are a lot of subjects I find interesting now that I had no interest in when I was younger. I was a little closed-minded to certain subjects. Once I opened up a little and learned about them, I realized just how interesting they really are. I was surprised too at what I had become interested in.

  4. Why not? Says I. Learn it all or die tryin’. And the drawing of connections, that inter and intra-disciplinary learning is so valuable.

    I agree, it makes one so much more interesting and better to be constantly learning. Why not learn as much as possible?

    • Sorry.I meant to say that the site is looking snazzy too;)

    • Learn it all or die trying. That’s the spirit. You never know what kind of information you’re going to come across or how valuable it will be. How many people have created something new and innovative simply by building off what other people have learned?

      • Thanks Steve! As a musician, I totally consume and digest the works of the great composers like Bach and Bartok and make their ideas into works of my own on the guitar. It’s exhilarating and FUN!

        • Learn from the masters. That’s a good way to do it. I’m not a musician, but I love classical music. They give me inspiration.

  5. This post gave me goosebumps, Steve, mainly because I’ve played with the idea before as well…

    The idea of learning everything is both inspiring and daunting, and for my own good health I prefer not to toy with the idea too often, the vast quantity of knowledge can be incredibly humbling.. That being said, I’ll still try and learn as much as I can within my time on earth, and I’m sure the points you mention will hold true!

    I wish you the best of diligence, perseverance and desire to learn. I’m sure the journey will be incredible, for I assume it’s perhaps all you’ll ever experience, but I don’t want to be pessimistic here.. Have a great day, Steve!

    • I’ll definitely need perseverance. The amount of information out there plus the complexity of it are two giant hurdles to learning everything.

      I see that as a sign of success in human progress. As we learn more, it should be more difficult to learn everything.

      There was a scholar in the 1600s named Athanasius Kircher who is sometimes noted as the last person who learned everything. It was back in a time when knowledge wasn’t as extensive as it is now. Someone could read and learn everything. It’s not as easy to do now.

  6. I love the whole idea of this post and especially that you made it your goal at such a young age. I was reading Danielle Steel and Stephen King in high school. (Sorry, Stephen. No offense. I loved Pet Sematary!) Books can make me cry, laugh, and even experience what I may not ever be able to in real life. I’ve been an avid reader for the last 15 years, and I wholeheartedly believe what you say about connections. Although it is small scale compared to bank credit and Old Neil, CJ and I have read and discussed over 40 books. Talking about books and applying them to real life is at the top of my list for moments in my life that make me feel truly alive!

    • Some of my friends were reading Stephen King in high school. I know many people start off reading him in high school, but for some reason, I never got into his works. The first thing I ever read from him is “On Writing” which I just read last year.

      I like to discuss books too. Whenever my wife and I travel, we get a book and take turns reading it on buses or planes. Then we discuss it when we’re both finished. It’s our thing to do in our down time.

  7. I have a love affair with reading also – and have SO many more books than I’ll probably ever be able to read. You are absolutely right, and being “well read” used to be an admirable trait, when you read a lot you are able to make connections that you never would have…as well as understand obscure references that go over others’ heads.

    • I have a lot of books I want to read too – probably way more than I’ll ever get to read. That’s why I try to read a little every day. I try to shoot for around 30-60 minutes a day of reading, but sometimes it’s only about ten.

  8. I. Love. This. Post. Steve, this is great stuff. I found myself saying “yes” “uh huh” “that’s true” and “absolutely” all the way through. Your list of reasons why to learn everything is spot-on.

    I will read just about anything (except Gregory Maguire’s Wicked – awful) and I am one of those people who love learning for the sake of knowledge. I fear we are a dying breed.

    Anyway…is it possible to learn everything? Maybe not. But maybe. How could anyone ever determine with any certainty what “everything” means? Benjamin Franklin had a very ambitious goal for himself – moral perfection. He laid out a very rational plan for achieving it and proceeded to work his way through. In the end, did he achieve moral perfection? No. And he admitted as much. Perhaps it is a seemingly unattainable goal, but the conclusion he arrived at was that even if he did not achieve moral perfection, he achieved a better version of himself than when he began. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

    So, learn everything? Sure, why not? And if we do not succeed in learning everything, at least we will have learned more than if we had not made the attempt. Nothing wrong with that, either.

    • It’s hard to pinpoint when you would be able to say you’ve learned everything. I’ve read some people in the 16th and 17th century who were said to have learned everything. But that was at a time when there were fewer books and you really could read most of them. There’s a lot more information out there now.

      I’ll read just about anything too, but I’m with you on awful books. If something is too boring or loses my interest too much, I’ll stop reading it. I’m not going to spend time on an awful book just to finish it.

  9. Steve, it seems we share a mutual goal – to learn as much as possible. I’ve often told my wife that the world would be such a better place if folks would simply give themselves to reading and learning. Can you imagine if books replaced Fox News? You’re an inspiring character, my friend!

    • It’s been awesome to see how many people share this goal. I think a little bit of learning would help the world too. Just trying to understand other cultures and viewpoints could bridge people together a little.

  10. Steve this is scary. I have never met anyone with the same goal as me. I actually have never told anyone because it seems like such a lofty and rediculous goal. These days’ i describe myslef as a life long learner just because people understand that and I agree, that the more you learn the more you understand the connections in life which in turn makes life more interesting.
    My first foray into learning something was when I picked up a copy of the new testament and was determined to read it and understand all the hidden meanings. The next was when I asked my father to break out his old collection of encyclopedias and I started studying a book a month. I should have been a forensic researcher or librarian i suppose.. LOL..

    Anyways, I really like the way you think..

    • I remember reading encyclopedias when I was young too. I would flip to a random page and just read about various entries. It was rather eye-opening to read about all these things I knew nothing about.

      I think I was lucky to have access to those when I was younger. My parents had encyclopedias prominently placed so I could easily pick one up. They had a lot of books lying around too. That might be why I have such a love affair with reading now.

  11. Dante’s Inferno – it’s still a scary book for me, and I’ve read it twice! You’ve inspired me to return to it and previously, I’ve read it and not really allowed the messages within it to sink in.

    To say the goal you set yourself is ambitious would be an understatement. How are you managing it all? Do you have categories or any other system in place to keep track/plan?

    – Razwana

    • If you’re interested in Dante’s Inferno, I recommend a movie about it I found on Netflix. All the characters are hand drawn paper puppets. It sounds weird, but they follow the book incredibly closely. Plus they modernize it with updated political and historical figures.

      I don’t have any particular plan or system in place to keep track of what I’m learning. I’m more casual about it. I pick a subject I’m interested in learning about and read/watch documentaries on it until I feel like I know it really well and then move on. I do try to find subjects I know both know little about and have a great interest in learning more about.

  12. My goals are not nearly as lofty as yours. I don’t want to learn everything. With limited amounts of time, I want to learn only those things that interest me, and then only until that interest fades. Years ago I decided that if it is not attached to a grade, I will not read a book that doesn’t hold my interest. I find it liberating to give myself permission to not torture myself with boring stuff!

    I have always been impressed, however, by those whose interests run both deep and broad, which appears to be the case with you.

    • I don’t waste time with things that don’t hold my interest either. I’ve stopped reading books and watching documentaries if I lose interest. It’s actually a good thing to stop if they don’t hold your interest; you won’t remember much. Usually you can find another book that’s better.

  13. I like it. For two reasons. One, learning is a key thing we need to do, fundamentally it is about growth. Two, everything is a great because you can never know what’s worth learning or not – if you put limits on it you could block some creative idea from another discipline that is just what you need to know.

    • You never know where creative ideas will come from. Sometimes putting two seemingly different ideas together is the source of creativity.

  14. Antaeus says:

    I have been like that since I was a kid. Its actually one of the reasons I went back and got my college degree(graduating this month). I love to read and learn. I actually sleep very little(3 to 4 hours most nights) because I feel like I can be learning instead of sleeping. Just this week I am learning to yoyo, flip a coin with my fingers and just decided now I am going to write a novel. My mind actually scares me sometimes because it doesn’t seem like it can be pleased. I am scared that I am going to eventually learn some stuff my mind won’t be able to handle. You ever feel like that?

    I always got a book to read while I am at work and it blows people’s mind for some reason. The conversation goes like “You enjoy reading don’t you?” “Nope” “Then why do you read?” ” I don’t like going to jog,coming to work,studying,working out,eating healthy but I do them anyway because I know it will help me improve myself in the long run.”

    • I’ve felt like that before too. I was going through a learning spree just reading and watching documentaries about everything. I’d always hate going to sleep because I felt like I could be doing more productive things.

      I got a lot of good habits from that time. Like you, I always have a book I’m reading. I’ll even take one with me when I’m out and about. You can fit quite a bit of reading time into little chunks throughout the day.

  15. Great post Steve,

    I must read some more biographies. I absolutely love learning, it’s truly amazing. One thing that greatly ticks me off is when people say I’m smart, in no way do I consider myself to be smart, it’s just I, like you – enjoy learning.

    Thanks!

    • I think I know what you mean. Some people think that smartness comes naturally or people are born smart. Most of it comes from just reading and learning a lot.

  16. I’m the same! As a sci-fi reader myself, I dream that a friendly singularity will occur during my lifetime and offer immortality. Just a dream, but when I mention it to some people, they think, “but won’t you get bored?”

    It’s hard to predict what I’d be like at age 10,000, but for as long as I continue to enjoy learning, I can’t imagine ever getting bored.

    • That’s definitely something a lover of sci-fi would think about. If it were to happen, I think it would take a long time for me to get bored. There’s always something to learn or discover.

  17. Helena Benson says:

    Reading more will not necessarily make you a better person, but certainly more knowledgeble and more understanding. I find it amazing that some people watch a film and have no idea that it has been based on a famous book e.g. The Great Gatsby or Anna Karenina or The DaVinci Code etc.

    • I find it amazing too how people don’t know that some movies are based on famous books or remakes of older movies. We’re in a time when more and more things are being remade.

  18. Great ideas to know about. Thanks a lot for sharing with the crowd Steve. And good luck. :)

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