In the 21st century, technology is everywhere. We have access to all the information in the world at our fingertips. The internet. YouTube. Facebook. The ability to talk to people anywhere in the world instantly, and for free. Yet, I would argue that we are maybe the dumbest generation. Because everything is fed to us (and we don’t have to work to develop knowledge or skills for any purpose), we are extremely lazy about developing our minds.
In sum–people in the 21st century don’t THINK. They take in what is fed to them via their ears or their eyes on a screen, and they take that information as truth.
As a result, there is a growing debate on topics that should be settled long ago, such as whether the Earth is actually round or flat. REALLY? The Earth is flat? People actually believe that.
Responsible people of all ages need to put down their video games and remote controls, and start to use their brains.
Develop Your Knowledge Base with a Purpose
When you first embark on the journey to develop knowledge and skills, it is critical that you first take stock of where you are.
Think of developing knowledge and skills is like traveling. If you set off on a trip without a map and without a plan in mind, you might have some grand adventures on your way, but it is unlikely that you will make it to where you wanted to go.
Take some time and think. Make notes on paper or your phone or a laptop. What have you done so far in your life? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? For example, ask yourself, are you satisfied with your progress and achievements, or do you feel like you could and should do more?
After you have spent some time fully exploring where you are at in your life, and how you feel about where you are at, the next thing I would do is set out some really concrete and achievable goals.
What is it that you hope to accomplish by the end of your life? If you understand what it is that you hope to achieve, then you can put together a very solid plan to develop the knowledge and skills you will need to get there.
One thing I really like to do is to identify some leaders or influencers in the areas that you are interested. Who is the most accomplished person in your world? Think about why it is that you idolize him or her, and what about this person makes you admire them. As you think about what makes them amazing, make sure to take some time looking at their journey. Where did they come from and how did they get where they are today? What can you learn from their progression and experience that you can apply to your own?
Next, after you have identified some really specific goals of where you want to go, you need to identify what it is that you want and need to learn and develop. Do you need to acquire intellectual skills such as math, science, reading and comprehension? Or is it language or listening?
Do you want to be able to speak on topics at parties, or do you want to be able to publish articles for your business? Do you want to earn more money or do you want to compete for awards? Either way, any of these goals will need additional skills. Write down what it is that you hope to develop and what it is that you want to acquire. What is it that you want to have in your brain, whether it is information or abilities?
Once you know what it is you want to learn, going out and getting it isn’t that hard so long as you apply yourself.
Maybe you don’t have a goal in mind just yet to develop knowledge around
Let’s say that you don’t have a firm goal in mind, and you don’t have specific skills that you want to acquire. You just want to be a person who is more informed and more well-rounded. You want to be smarter, or at least you want people to think that you are. What can you do on a day-to-day basis to develop your knowledge?
In every case, you need to consume more information about the world, whether it is current events or history. This information can you come to you from a variety of sources. You can:
- Download and listen to audiobooks. If you can’t afford to purchase audiobooks, there are thousands of audiobooks available on YouTube for free. These creators have simply recorded themselves reading books that are no longer subject to copyright. Sometimes authors will read their own books so that you have a chance to be introduced to them through YouTube.
- Find lectures online, such as Ted Talks, that can teach you about science, business, math, personal growth, emotional intelligent, soft skills, hard skills, history, parenting, everything!
- Watching news shows on the radio or on television. While I recommend this, you need to make sure that you pay attention to where you get your news, and make sure to take turns between all the available networks, even the ones that you don’t like. Over time, you start to see patterns in their presentation, and realize how much of their work is about entertaining you and less about providing you with information you need to know.
- Read. Read anything and everything. Fiction. Non-fiction. History. Poetry. Plays. Children’s books. I would prefer that you not read grocery-store trashy novels, when there is so much high quality writing out there. But if the choice is between a trashy novel and a video game, I think you should read the trashy novel instead of playing video games 100% of the time. I think people should read at least one whole book a week. If you struggle to read quickly enough to finish a book in a week, you should just keep reading, and finish it when you finish it. Reading is a skill that is learned and earned the more that you do it. If you stick with the regimen of reading every day with the goal of finishing at least a book a week, over time your reading speed will improve. Can’t afford books? Go to the library. No library? See if you have friends who have books who can trade you. See what books are available for free online if you can’t find any physical books.
- Find affordable courses that you can take at community colleges, universities, senior centers, libraries, even online through platforms such as Skillshare or Udemy. (yeah, that is an affiliate link, I teach on Skillshare, and people I refer to Skillshare can get a few months of unlimited classes for free)
- Leave your house or your work and learn about where you live. Visit historical landmarks in your city, town, state, and country. Don’t just drive by and admire the view. Use that fancy smartphone of yours to look up the history surrounding the area. Find out WHO did WHAT and WHY.
- I can’t recommend that you travel enough. Traveling around where you live, and also leaving your country and going to other places. Leaving your comfort zone is the most valuable thing you can do to develop your knowledge. It’s one thing to read about something in the book or see it on a video on the internet, but it is another thing entirely to go to the country or something is currently happening and experience it. Talk to people while you were traveling, and don’t just hang out with people of your country, language, or appearance. If you do this, I can guarantee that you will return changed.
- Make friends with elderly people. That’s right! Go talk to old people! There are millions of people around the world who are ignored and marginalized, and treated as if they know nothing, because they don’t know how to use an iPhone. The aging generation used to be us, and in most cases, while their bodies have changed, their minds are still sharp. Old people know a lot, and while we might not agree on everything, they often have very useful thoughts to share with us young people. I have started volunteering to help elderly neighbors in my town in their yards or around the house, and chat with them while I do it. I try to get them to talk about what life was like before I was born, and I find their responses just fascinating.
Asking questions is an important part of developing critical thinking skills
A key component of developing your knowledge is to ask questions constantly. Ask questions of the waiter, your parents, the people you see on the street, merchants, and businessmen, as well as stylist and garbage men. All of these people have something worthwhile to add to your knowledge and your life. You may not know when it is that you will need but it is useful to have as an experience.
Questions may not come to you right away, in the beginning. You may not feel comfortable asking questions of a stranger, or culturally it may not be appropriate. The questions can be as simple as asking about what someone is doing, or when they first learned to do it. You can ask about materials, origins, and quality. Knowledgeable people are CURIOUS people. The people who are the best at developing their minds are the ones who are never satisfied to know ENOUGH. Every answer to every question inspires MORE questions.
How is that possible?
What do you mean?
Admit it when you don’t know the answers
People who develop their minds are not shy of admitting that they don’t know something. When you pretend that you already know something, you lose the opportunity to learn more. You close your brain off.
One of my favorite things to do when talking to someone is to stop them and admit that I don’t understand, and ask for clarification. When people use words that I don’t know, I ask them about the word, or tell them that I don’t know the word. I am happy to request clarification. What I find is that when I do, the ego of the person I am talking to puffs up a little bit, and they enjoy the opportunity of being the expert on the topic. Inevitably, they will give me MORE than they would have before, when they believed I knew as much as their did already.
I actually don’t even mind pretending that I don’t know the answers even when I do, because it again provides me with opportunities to learn things that I might not have.
Speak less when you are developing knowledge
Another thing that you will need to learn how to do is to listen. Close your mouth and turn on your ears. HEAR the things that people say. And not just hearing the sounds, but actually take in the words and comprehend them, understand them.
In our very tumultuous and conflicted world, most people only want to hear what they I want to hear.
People today in the 21st century struggle to engage in civil discourse, and anyone who says something that they don’t agree with, they stop listening.
Here’s the thing. When you listen to someone, it doesn’t automatically mean that you agree with them, that you support them, or that you want to enable them. When you stop and listen, and let the speaker know that you are actually listening to them, you encourage the speaker to relax a bit. They aren’t as ready to defend themselves against you, and feel like you understand what they are saying. This makes for a much more civil and intelligent conversation.
Employ active listening techniques. Look at their face and eyes when they speak. Nod your head. Don’t interrupt, and don’t speak until they come to a natural stopping point, even if you are excited to share your point of view. Instead of providing a rebuttal, ask good questions of them. You can make your point (and rebuttal) through questions, and as you do, you can both explore the topic in greater detail.
Turn Off Technology
Technology, as I said before, makes us dumber. We don’t have to use our brains to use it. It allows us to turn off the thinking, and we absorb instead. Active thinking versus passive experiencing. Our brains love to passively take in bright colors, pleasant sounds, mindless entertainment.
On the other hand, critical thinking is HARD work, and not as enjoyable for our brains, or at least brains that are not used to thinking. It may take some time before you enjoy reading a challenging book as much as you used to enjoy playing Call of Duty with your friends.
Do you find that reading or listening to complex topics makes you sleepy? Then get up! Read while standing up! Listen to an audiobook or a lecture while you walk.
Whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t get complacent. Keep learning every day, even if it is something small. Be curious. Explore. Pass on your love of learning to your spouse, children, family, and friends. To succeed in the 21st century, people need to think for themselves, and stop being told what to think by politicians, gurus, and social media influencers.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Emily is a full-time mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the screen when the kids are occupied. She can be reached through the Contact Us page.