"To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge." - Confucius
The book Walden, written in the mid-1800s by the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1), is a masterpiece. Beneath its elementary recollections this book proffers many thought-provoking intonations about how to live.
On the surface, Walden recounts the simple story of Thoreau's experiences during his two year, two month, and two day retreat into the woods of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. He builds a cabin, and he lives in it. During this time, he derives immense satisfaction from activities that would normally be considered mundane or even troublesome, things like cleaning out his cabin or listening to the sound of a mosquito - for Thoreau, cleaning out the cabin morphs into a cherished ritual and the sound of a mosquito transforms into a revered symphony. Time seems to slow down, or cease existing altogether, as he lives day after day in reflective isolation.
Beneath its descriptive surface, Walden constantly alludes to mid-1800s society and Thoreau's reasons for forsaking it. He sees hypocrisy, that "there are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers." He sees baseness, that "most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." He sees conformation, that "the luxurious and dissipated set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow." Perhaps beyond all of this, Thoreau remonstrates that "our life is frittered away by detail" by which he means that too many people have too many things happening in their lives, so many things happening that "we live meanly, like ants," never able to slow down and absorb the simplicity that life offers us every day, if we would just accept it.
No doubt there are those who would disagree with Thoreau's decision to seek isolation - those who would say that he was just being reclusive or perhaps giving up on life. Yet this is to gravely miss the point of Walden, and Thoreau counters such assertions by stating that "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, discover that I had not lived." Rather than retreating from life, he was confronting it squarely, by hacking away at the inessentials until only the necessary remained.
Living deliberately, not allowing life to be frittered away by detail - that is what Walden is really all about.
A book that was published over 160 years ago.
What would Thoreau say about today?
The dictionary defines ignorance as a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education (2). Generally, ignorance is seen as a bad thing. However, in the relatively recent information era healthy doses of ignorance can be a good thing - indeed, a very good thing. Let me explain.
People in the modern world are faced with an information onslaught. Some of this information is positive and relevant, yet most of it is negative and irrelevant, a constant barrage from mass media in the form of magazines, newspapers, radio, television, email, facebook, and more. This information onslaught excels at sowing discontent and confusion. Really, how often is it that you read a newspaper, watch the news, or check facebook status updates and feel better about your life? Do you leave these things feeling refreshed and invigorated, or melancholy and sometimes shaking your head at the absurdity of what you have learned? Moreover, how much of what you read in a newspaper, see on the news, or catch over the facebook news feed is actually relevant to your goals? Does knowledge of these things even slightly affect what you will do that day, that week, or even that year? I challenge anyone to answer these questions in an honest light.
There is so much negative, irrelevant information out there that it has pervaded society en masse. Countless people are cranky at something they read or heard about on mass media and yet the truth is that almost all of this information is neither positive nor relevant to the lives of the individuals learning it. Knowing about the latest political squabble, mass shooting, or regime change in some country on the other side of the planet is negative, irrelevant information compared to the more critical issues of how a person can make that day a great day in the pursuit of improving their own life as well as the lives of the people around them, in that part of the world that actually exists within that person's sphere of influence.
With all this negative, irrelevant information out there, it is therefore best to be selectively ignorant, focusing on a few pieces of positive, relevant information to one's life and sphere of influence while ignoring the rest of the information onslaught. Instead of waking up in the morning and dedicating valuable time to the newspaper, television, or facebook it is better to selectively ignore these negative, irrelevant things and instead sit down and plan the one or two things you will do that day that will ensure that it contributes in a positive way to your own life and the part of the world that exists within your sphere of influence.
Applying Selective Ignorance
In The 4-Hour Work Week, author Timothy Ferriss discusses how to use selective ignorance to remove the information clutter from a person's life so that it is not "frittered away by detail" (3). His method involves utilizing the Pareto Principle, named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, which states that in any system or event 20% of the inputs produce 80% of the outputs (4). Pareto showed this principle to be true for many things - that approximately 20% of a country's population produces 80% of the wealth, that about 20% of a country's population owns 80% of the land, and even that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced about 80% of the peas.
By using the Pareto Principle, Ferriss devises a step-by-step template to help identify a person's priorities in life. The things that ought to be selectively ignored, and the things that ought to be given extra attention. He boils it down to two essential questions, both of which are worth taking a few minutes to answer right now:
(1) What 20% of sources result in 80% of your problems and unhappiness? (2) What 20% of sources result in 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness?
The sources do not have to be mass media sources, they can also include other people that you interact with, or daily activities. Have you made your list? The implication here is that you ought to scrap everything you listed for the first question and channel most of your energy into everything you listed for the second question.
Seriously, most "news" is just gossip. To escape the information onslaught, there are two options. The first, more extreme approach is to go and live in the woods. The second, more tempered approach is to practice selective ignorance. Being selectively ignorant is actually a wise thing to do, for learning to ignore certain things is one of the great paths to inner peace (5).
References (1) Thoreau HD. 1854. Walden. Ticknor and Fields. (2) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ignorance. (3) Ferriss T. 2011. The 4-Hour Work Week. Ebury Digital. (4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle. (5) Sawyer R. 2000. Calculating God. Tor Books.