The Learning Trap, or, how learning new stuff makes me act like a jerk.

I love learning. I want to know everything.

When I meet new people, I consider their curiosity as the biggest factor in whether or not I want to spend more time around them.

But there’s a catch.

New knowledge has an unintended side effect I can’t seem to shake: learning new things always turns me (temporarily, at least) into an asshole.

I call it The Learning Trap.

The Standard Learning Progression

First, some context. According to a theory developed by Noel Burch, there are four stages of learning:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence. We’re bad at a thing, but we don’t care because we don’t know the thing exists in the first place. This is what we often describe as the “ignorance is bliss” phase.
  2. Conscious Incompetence. We’re made aware that we are bad at the thing. Many of us stop here and adopt a this-is-stupid-and-anyone-who-disagrees-with-me-is-also-stupid attitude.1
  3. Conscious Competence. With lots of practice and high levels of concentration, we can do the thing at a fair-to-middling level. This is how I feel about folding long-sleeved shirts.
  4. Unconscious Competence. Also known as mastery. This is where where we can do the thing without thinking about it. For example, our native language typically doesn’t require any additional effort to use — we can just think or speak in it.

This is a generally-accepted representation of the learning process, as hashed out by people much smarter than me, based on years of research.

The Standard Learning Progression (As Experienced By Me, an Accidental Jerk)

The Learning Trap lurks inside a slightly different progression, however — one I’ve noticed by observing my own behavior while learning:

  1. Clueless and Happy. I have no idea that I don’t know a thing.2 Life is pretty good.
  2. Self-Conscious and Defensive. I am now aware that I have a knowledge gap, and I’m mad that you pointed it out. Thanks a lot, ya jerk.
  3. Marginally Capable and Wholly Condescending. (a.k.a. The Learning Trap.) I know exactly enough to fake like I know what I’m talking about. It is now my mission to — in a condescending, self-congratulatory manner — ensure everyone around me becomes Self-Conscious and Defensive about this subject.
  4. Experienced and Unconcerned. I know the topic well enough to realize there’s no need for (and, really, no benefit to) forcing my knowledge on anyone. As a result, I chill the eff out.

Over drinks with my friend Phil last year, I summed it up like this:

The Learning Trap: Travel Edition

In mid-2014 I knew nothing about world travel — full-on Clueless and Happy. I’d taken two short European vacations, during which I’d been to Ireland and the UK twice, plus a couple days spent in Amsterdam and Belgium.3

Outside of those two trips, my only travel outside the US had been a couple teenaged beer runs to Calgary.

Then I committed myself to spend a year outside the United States — and smashed into Self-Conscious and Defensive ego-first.

Naturally, I’d run my mouth off about the trip to almost everyone I knew. People asked questions, and I wanted to punch every curious friend in the throat for drawing attention to my lack of answers.

In the months between booking my ticket and boarding the plane, I read everything I could find by other travelers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I knew I’d need practical knowledge eventually, but I was happy to build a theoretical base in the meantime.

The Learning Trap.

The more I read, the more confident I became. I eased into Marginally Capable and Wholly Condescending like a comfortably broken-in pair of shoes.4

I was in The Learning Trap. Again.

Armed with unverified research and limitless zeal, I unleashed an awareness campaign on everyone unfortunate enough to fall within earshot.

Travel is cheaper than a lease,” I cried from my high horse. “It’s easier than ever to become location independent! Don’t you understand? Remote work is the future! You have to stop overworking or you’re going to die!”

And I didn’t care that most people don’t have any interest in selling everything they can’t carry and living like a nomadic hermit crab, because I was galvanized by how appallingly correct I was.5

Everything I Own Hermit Crab.

You know what’s fun? Carrying everything you own with you at all times!Credit:Roberto Verzo

For the record, I still believe all those things, and I’m still advocating them as much as possible. But now that I’ve clawed my way out of The Learning Trap again, I’m far less likely to harangue a stranger while waiting in line for coffee.

How dare you not know that thing I just learned a few minutes ago?

My pedagogical reign of terror was the primary symptom of The Learning Trap.

This happens when we 1) learn something, then 2) can’t believe how we possibly never knew it before, and 3) immediately judge others who don’t possess the knowledge we gained a few seconds earlier.

I hadn’t even boarded my first flight, but I already felt superior to everyone around me who didn’t know how great travel was.

Climbing Out of the Trap

It’s been a while since I wrapped my experiment with long-term travel; by the end, most of the glitter had washed off. I don’t look at travel as an indicator of whether or not someone is enlightened anymore — that’s something my embarrassingly elitist self from years back would think.

Instead, I look at travel the way I used to look at living in Portland vs. living in Montana: some people prefer cities because they want more and better restaurants, better walkability, or more nightlife; some people prefer small towns because they like knowing everyone they pass on the street by name, quiet nights with endless, starry skies, or having a forest in their back yard.

Some people find travel exciting and rewarding. Others find it stressful and draining.

Neither group is wrong.

There’s no such thing as an incorrect personal preference — what is wrong is trying to force a personal preferences down someone else’s throat.

When I was first getting excited about travel, I couldn’t imagine a world where someone wouldn’t be excited about it. And that excitement made me forceful with my opinions.

What I thought I was doing was sharing something amazing with people who may not have realized it yet.

What I was actually doing was evangelizing something that, honestly — if someone was interested — they’d’ve probably already Googled it.6

We Don’t Need Consensus

Travel was the latest in a long line of Learning Traps I’ve fallen into and dragged myself out of, dirty and ashamed. In high school I was convinced metal was the only real music,7 and people like Justin Timberlake were everything that was wrong with the world.8 I was once strongly in favor of robot government. For a while I went evangelical on my dad about coffee.

In the Marginally Informed and Wholly Condescending stage, it’s easy to start looking at our new ideas as necessary or non-negotiable. But that’s less because the idea is actually vital — after all, I lived twenty-nine years blissfully ignorant of the travel lifestyle before I started excoriating others for their ignorance — and more because we’re desperately trying to assure ourselves that this new obsession is a good thing.

I need you to buy into my travel obsession because I need group acceptance to make it okay for me to believe this. I don’t want to be weird.9

But with experience — reaching the Experienced and Unconcerned stage — I realized in every case that consensus of opinion just doesn’t matter. The thing I like works for me — whether or not anyone else agrees.

Short-Circuit the Cycle

I still don’t know how to skip the insufferable asshole part of learning something new. If you figure it out, let me know — after you’ve gotten over the insufferable asshole part of figuring it out, that is.

But I try to be more aware of what I’m doing now. I try to withhold my opinion in conversations until I’m asked for it. I try to notice and squash the smugness before it forms a smirk when someone doesn’t know something I’ve already learned. I try to remember that for every piece of information I have that someone else doesn’t, there are ten thousand things I don’t know.

It hasn’t cured me — I mean, shit, I was probably condescending within this post about trying not to be condescending — but the people who’ve known me longest have commented that I suck a little less to talk to these days.

And I’ll call that a win.

  1. “Rather than learn this thing, I shall publicly deride it and adopt an air of smug superiority to shame its participants, because I don’t want to do stuff and learning is hard.”

  2. This is the stage I’m currently in for roughly 99% of everything there is to know. It’s on my bucket list to get that number down to 98% before I die.

  3. Worth noting is that I avoided any country where English wasn’t more or less a first language.

  4. There’s some research supporting this. The Dunning–Kruger effect describes the overconfidence felt by people with low competence. If you’re borderline incompetent, you’re prone to overestimate your own skill. You’re also more likely to dismiss the expertise of others.

  5. How to solve all the world’s problems, by Jason Lengstorf:

    The breakdown in public discourse today — about politics, books, music, or whatever — happens because most of us spend the majority of our time permanently mired in the Marginally Capable and Wholly Condescending stage of learning.

    There’s just Too Much Stuff™ to know, so we comfort ourselves by knowing a little bit. And knowing a little bit is better than knowing nothing.

    Unless knowing a little bit somehow convinces us that we know everything and should be considered experts when the time for important decisions arises.

    Unfortunately, because we all know a little, we’re convinced of our Indisputable Rightness, and we either shout into an echo chamber of other people who have the same limited knowledge and who agree with us because they, too, are Indisputably Right; or we hit the brick wall of an opposing opinion that, like us, has (different) limited information and is similarly convinced of its Incontrovertible Correctness.

    The American media today is a great real-world example of what happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object: shit goes sideways.

    There are no experts anymore, because we burn them at the stake for questioning our Indisputable Rightness. Instead we sink to partially-informed mob justice because our tiny bit of knowledge convinces us that we, too, have Valuable Opinions, and since our Valuable Opinions stem from Indisputable Rightness, the experts are clearly in the pocket of Big Wrong and we can safely ignore them.

    There is no discourse anymore. There are only the Indisputably Right and the Incontrovertibly Correct, dunking on each other and high-fiving and getting very little done.

    Where public discourse would really benefit is if the semi-informed — which is you and me in roughly 99% of issues being discussed — would just shut the fuck up and listen to people who have dedicated their lives to learning the things being discussed.

    If we’re talking about software or travel or consulting, I have lots of fairly well-informed opinions. But I don’t know that I could even explain what macroeconomics is, let alone make informed choices about what’s best for global trade.

    (Macroeconomics has something to do with global trade, right? I’m making that assumption because “macro” means big, and global trade affects the economy and is also big. I refuse to look this up because I think it’s doing a pretty good job of demonstrating my point right now.)

    I want my opinion to matter. But sometimes it doesn’t. And as much as it pains me to admit it, sometimes I need to sit quietly and let someone more knowledgeable do what’s best — or start studying hard so I can make an informed contribution.

  6. And, as a result, they would most likely have the same information I had, because who clicks past the first page of Google results, anyways?

  7. “Seriously, bro, you haven’t heard true musical genius until you’ve heard Danny Filth wax romantic about disembowelment in a falsetto shriek.”

  8. I don’t feel that way anymore, JT. We should hang out.

  9. If I found out that rubbing honey on my feet made me happy, I would want everyone else to rub honey on their tootsies, too. I’d tell myself it was because I wanted them to be as happy as I was, but in reality I’d be trying to force other people to validate my non-standard application of honey.

    Because if they don’t, I’m not a visionary; I’m just a weirdo with sticky feet.

What to do next.

As adults, we’re supposed to build careers, build relationships, build futures, build happiness… It’s all pretty overwhelming. It’s easy to feel stuck — like we’re on autopilot, punching a clock, and buried in tasks we don’t really care about.

Wouldn’t it be nice to get some balance back? To have extra time every day to dedicate to the things that actually matter to you?

I want to help: I’ve compiled 5 Habits of the Unfuckwithably Productive, and I want to give it to you for free. These are time-tested habits that helped me break the cycle of overwork and exhaustion; this is how I spend less than 40 hours a week on the computer — while making a living and traveling the world.

Click here to get the free guide.