The vacuum of our minds.

When I read it, I realised my education had failed me. Or I had failed my education. I haven’t decided which way round it is.

I’m talking about Farnam Street’s Mental Models page. My education didn’t give me the big ideas. Incorporating these big, universal ideas into your arsenal is one of the best protective measures in a world with big risk and a huge amount of uncertainty. I understand this now.

Whilst flicking through E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, I came across this passage.

“The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic. It is difficult to bear the resultant feeling of emptiness, and the vacuum of our minds may only too easily be filled by some big, fantastic notion – political or otherwise – which suddenly seems to illuminate everything and to give meaning and purpose to our existence. It needs no emphasis that herein lies one of the great dangers of our time.”

How accurately that described my first years out of formal education cannot be overstated. And I don’t think I’m alone. Molly, who has just finished university, told me the other day that she thought her brain was turning to mush because she wasn’t reading or learning. Isn’t that what happens to everyone who hops off the educational conveyor belt? They stop learning, reading, listening, paying attention, and obediently wait for “some big, fantastic notion” to fill the void that is suddenly a big part of their life.

If we’re not proactive, this is how religious and ideological dogma first infiltrates our mind. We stop learning, realise how inadequate our education is in the face of the chaos of the world and search around for something bigger than ourselves to cling to.

“If the mind cannot bring to the world a set – or, shall we say, a tool-box – of powerful ideas, the world must appear to it as a chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena, of meaningless events.”

The human response to chaos is to impose an order upon it. This is fine when we have “a set of powerful ideas.” When we have these ideas, we don’t need a map. When we have these big rocks, these foundation stones of the universe in our mind, we can navigate through the storm.

But when we are let loose into the world, we are given a map. After education you transition to meaningful work and spend the rest of your life contributing to society. Doing good. For most, this proves to be bullshit. Maps are abstractions of reality. They have to simplify the terrain they represent. The map we have of our life is often inaccurate.

“A man who uses an imaginary map, thinking it a true one, is likely to be worse off than someone with no map at all; for he will fail to inquire wherever he can, to observe every detail on his way, and to search continuously with all his senses and all his intelligence for indications of where he should go.”

The shift from education to meaningful work takes a lot longer. In this gap, we must become familiar with the big ideas, toss the map away, and set off in search of our own purpose. In the gap between formal education and meaningful work, all we can do is pay attention. All we can do is begin to piece together an arsenal of powerful ideas that will serve us for the rest of our lives. We must fill our mind with truth and knowledge.

Fail to do so, and intellectual stagnation becomes a dangerous possibility.