People learn primarily through social interactions of one kind or another. We talk to people, we read, we listen and watch TV, movies, and the news. There really isn’t much variety to how people learn. We take in information in one form or another and that information has to come from somewhere.
Of course, it is possible that we learn by creating knowledge, either for ourselves without help or for the first time, but that is much more rare. That is essentially what academics do. They create knowledge through their research projects by analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting the data they collect, whether quantitative or qualitative. Assuming you aren’t an academic or some other knowledge creator, you probably learn from others through the methods mentioned above or possibly even direct imitation like a child or athlete does with their parents and coaches, respectively.
This begs the essential question: Who should we get our information from? Who should we listen to, believe, and regard as valid deliverers of knowledge?
The quality of technical knowledge comes in a huge variety of forms. Just like the quality of food we take in daily impacts our physical health and robustness, the quality of information and knowledge we absorb day to day impacts our intellectual health and robustness.
Dilettantes and Charlatans
One of the most important areas of knowledge in today’s world is technical knowledge. This is what we typically rely on experts to generate and disseminate and is considered the “bottleneck of all expertise”. Yet we often don’t get our knowledge from experts.
One example of this is demonstrated by using Amazon to search through books on various topics, something I enjoy doing on a regular basis to try and notice what books have the most reviews, which authors have the highest sales ranks, and what books are topping the bestseller lists in different categories.
For instance, Dan Harris, correspondent for ABC News and the co-anchor for the weekend edition of Good Morning America, has one of the most reviewed and top ranked books in the category of “happiness” on all of Amazon. It has over 2,200 reviews (an astounding number for Amazon) and as of this moment, ranks #9 on the bestseller list in this category.
While happiness might be considered a field that is accessible to anyone with an opinion and open for advice from all parties, there is in fact an entire field of empirical, and therefore non-anecdotal, research devoted to the topic. You would think that anybody serious about learning about happiness would take the time to investigate the preeminent researchers in that field (positive psychology) and begin their reading and learning with them. This is not to say that non-researchers have nothing valuable to say, just that the validity is immediately questionable until proven otherwise.
In continuing a search within the category of happiness by “most reviews” on Amazon, the very next page has a book titled The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology The Fuel Success and Performance at Work and is written by Shawn Anchor. This would appear to be a better start. After all, the title directly references the field of positive psychology that I just mentioned. His biography also includes working and lecturing at Harvard. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, we can find out that he worked as a dormitory Freshman Proctor at Harvard after receiving a master’s degree in divinity and helped lecture as a teaching assistant for a professor that taught a course on happiness. He is hardly the academic expert on the subject that first glance might convince us that he is.
Mystics and Pop Expertise
Continuing our search, we would stumble upon the The Art of Happiness a few pages deeper into the search results of Amazon. This has about 100 reviews less than Anchor’s book and about 1,500 reviews less than Harris’ book. It is co-written by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, the spiritual and former state leader of the Tibetan people and a psychiatrist respectively.
This is a much better starting place. The Dalai Lama has spent, quite literally, his entire life studying happiness through subjective introspection, argument, and experiential reflection. Cutler has a medical degree and has practiced for years as a psychiatrist, working with actual people who seek his help in becoming happier.
If you don’t like the idea of getting advice from a professed spiritual leader (always a murky area that contains a lot of nonsense and supernatural mysticism), but do like the idea of an MD or PhD who has spent their entire life rigorously studying the subject then the search would have to continue even further.
To get away from dilettantes like Harris, charlatans like Anchor, or spiritual mysticism like the Dalai Lama (someone I do greatly admire), you have to go all the way to the seventh page of search results on Amazon before you come across a book titled, coincidentally enough, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. This book has a little over 500 reviews on Amazon as of this writing and so would not necessarily show up as the first search result. However, it is written by a social psychologist who received his PhD from Princeton University and now works at Harvard where he does in fact research human happiness and has done so for the length of his career.
While popular psychology books like Gilbert’s are great, they are still written with sales in mind and try to package material in ways that are palatable to their general public audiences. This can be fine, but it can also put focus on topics that might not be as important as the field of research in general suppose them to be. An even stronger start would be to find a textbook on the subject, even if it is an undergraduate introductory text. This will contain the broadest survey of agreed upon facts, important researchers, and controversies within the research community of the given field and not be filtered through just one researcher’s and his or her publicist’s and publisher’s demands.
These types of books usually won’t even show up in the search results because they have such few reviews on platforms like Amazon. An example textbook, A Primer in Positive Psychology, which is very readable, has only 43 reviews - a far cry from the 2,200 for Harris. In fact, you wouldn’t find it just by searching through the most reviewed books on happiness because it isn’t even labeled under that category. It is labeled in the categories of “social psychology”, “reference”, and “education”.
This is where understanding how key word searches can fail you is important. Sometimes it is worth figuring out the field of research that studies the topic you’re interested in - in this case positive psychology is the field of research that studies the topic of happiness. Searching for just they key word of happiness may not get you to the best source of information as described immediately above.
So generally speaking, people interested in a field of technical knowledge should begin with either a popular book like Gilbert’s or an introductory textbook. Both of these have information that have been evaluated against the entire field of research by professionals who spend their entire careers immersed in the subject. This is a much stronger base than beginning with a book written by someone like Harris, who simply did some investigative journalism and regurgitated it into a book without having a background in the topic himself. It’s his media platform and minor celebrity that earned his reviews, not his credentials to talk about the subject.
Of course, no one is saying that you only have to read one book on a subject and it is always good practice to read multiple sources. However, if you were to read just one book, the textbook is recommended over the journalist every single time.
Another large area of knowledge is that of procedural knowledge. This is knowledge that requires practice and skill development. Things like learning to play a sport or instrument are good examples. This is the type of knowledge typically studied by the field of expertise under the topic of deliberate practice. Here the advice is much simpler and straightforward.
Find someone with the hat trick.
What’s the hat trick? The hat trick is when a person has three different and specific types of credentials: technical knowledge, personal experience, and coaching experience.
If one is going to spend the time to learn something, it is worth getting the best information possible. This often takes very little extra effort on one’s part. The above rules for doing so can help enormously.
For technical knowledge, find technical experts. Read their books. Watch their YouTube lectures. Take their classes. Enroll in their programs.
For procedural knowledge, find somebody with the hat trick. That is, find someone who has a degree of technical knowledge in the procedural knowledge you wish to attain, has personal experience with the procedural knowledge themselves, and has already gained success for others by applying their technical knowledge and personal experience.
The most important aspect in acquiring either of the two types of knowledge outlined in this article is knowing what you are after. Always take the time necessary to focus your goal(s) so that you know what you are really aiming for. If you don’t have a clear target, you’ll never be successful, regardless of the qualifications attached to the knowledge you gain.