How to Get Smarter Without Knowing Anything

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I often find that when people discuss "intelligence", they are actually talking about "knowledge". Confusion of these terms is responsible for awful things like, standardized testing and whiteboard interviews, which only prove what you know, and not how well you learn.

For most of human history, there was definitely no Wikipedia or "Internet", and in most cases, people didn't even know how to read. In those days, information was THE scarce resource, which in turn, made knowledge a dominating portion of the "perceived intelligence" equation.

It's Not 1429 Anymore


No longer is information a bottleneck in the "perceived intelligence" equation. The Internet provides a nearly always-reliable method of quickly retrieving the exact information you need, anywhere you need it. Additionally, knowing things doesn't scale. The smartest person who ever lived only knew


of all there is to know. If you spent every second of your life learning about a specific niche (say Java programming), you would still know NOTHING. There's just too much information.


How to Get Smarter Without Knowing Anything

You have to stop optimizing for storing knowledge and instead optimize for retrieving knowledge. As long as you have a smart phone, you have the Internet in your pocket, and therefore all the "knowledge" in the world. The question is, how do you make sure you can find it AND understand it?

It was a bit of an exaggeration to say you don't need to know anything. In reality, you need to optimize your "bootstrap knowledge" while minimizing elsewhere. Bootstrap knowledge describes the set of knowledge needed to find information quickly, and subsequently learn that information quickly.

Finding Information Quickly

Finding information quickly is the core foundation of the "know nothing" strategy. Obviously there are countless methods to improve your ability to find "things" on the Internet. But there are a few that are incredibly crucial.

  1. Learn How to Use Google

    Most people use Google every single day never touch any of its advanced features. Did you know you can use the wildcard * character in Google search? What about basic Boolean operators liked AND, OR, NOT? There are seriously hundreds of ways to improve your ability to search. Google is the root node in our findability graph, so you should do everything you can to increase your accuracy.

  2. Learn to See Through Bullshit

    People constantly lie on the Internet. Gasp! Most of the time they lie very poorly, sometimes they lie decently, and very rarely they lie well. You don't care about identifying good liars, there are too few and your chances are too low. Instead filter out the 99%, by learning common logical fallacies and erroneous arguments. It's important to understand that a poorly structured argument that you agree with, is just as dangerous as one you don't agree with. The number one enemy of "know nothing" is disinformation.

  3. Optimize for a Specific Source

    It's absolutely critical that you attempt to find a uniform and consistent presentation for the information you consume. The more each source varies from the last, the less your brain can optimize away. I personally favor Reddit, because the inherent separation of information (subreddits) can save a lot of time in finding things. It doesn't have to be Reddit, but it definitely needs to be a site offering diverse opinions (so probably not anything from China). For those unsure of what optimizing for a specific source looks like in practice, imagine that every time you Google a question, you instead Google:

    affordable bike buy site:reddit

    It's important to stay up to date with the trends and etiquette of your chosen source. The more sure you can be of the accuracy and intent of users on the platform, the faster you can find the RIGHT information.

  4. Don't Get Locked Into a Specific Source

    Just as much as it's important to use one source the majority of the time, it's incredibly crucial to be comfortable going outside that source when needed. Even with a site as popular as Reddit, there will always be gaps in available information. For this reason alone it's incredibly important to be comfortable with multiple sources. There will also be times where you realize the information from your source is wrong. Feeling comfortable consuming content from another source gives you a real choice in terms of the information that controls your decisions.

Sidenote: Why do I prefer Reddit?

Making decisions doesn't scale. In life you're constantly going to need to make decisions and there's no way to make every decision yourself and maintain quality. Instead I prefer to "delegate my decisions".

To properly delegate decisions you'll need to find a community that you believe aligns with your core values. Then, based on a set of criteria, allow small decisions to be determined by the community instead of yourself. This way, you can allow yourself to only spend time on critical decisions and offload the smaller stuff to a group who most likely will choose what you would have anyway. I plan to write another post in the future that goes in depth about how and why I use Reddit.

Learning Information Quickly

Learning information quickly is the only way to scale with the process of finding information quickly. I believe, the rate you learn new information is defined by the following equation

learning rate = 
  relatability factor * base learning rate

The base learning rate is derived from a mixture of retention rate, reading comprehension, vocabulary, ability to decipher good information from bad information etc. relatability factor describes the relationship between the new information you want to learn and the closest thing it relates to, that you already know. In other words, the relatability factor of new information is an expression of how "new" it truly is.

How to Improve Your Base Learning Rate

Improving your base learning rate is pretty straightforward. Read more, a lot more. Reading is the quickest way to both improve reading comprehension (duhhh) and general vocabulary. Make sure to push the boundaries of what you read constantly. If you stay in one genre or niche too long, the improvements to your vocabulary will slow drastically.

Honestly, the best way to improve base learning rate is to just be healthier. Most people don't sleep enough, drink enough water, consume a healthy diet, exercise daily and meditate. Each of those things will do more for your ability to learn (and general mental health) than anything direct.

How to Improve Your Relatability Factor

Improving your relability factor is a bit of an optimization problem. As previously stated, it's impossible to know anything. The goal with relability is to optimize for pieces of knowledge that are heavily relatable and highly separated. After all, anything is a combination of other things. So you want to know the building blocks of as many things as possible. Make sure some % of what you read comes from sources that challenge your existing viewpoints, otherwise you might develop stronger biases.

Math is a perfect example of a relatability building block. Understanding core mathematics such as calculus or even simple algebra will enable you to understand a huge amount information that would be unavailable otherwise.

Teaching yourself a new language is also an amazing way to improve your relability score. Learning common tropes, memes and cultural references can also be helpful in moderation.

Remember, your goal is to learn as many novel pieces of heavily used information as possible. This will ensure that any random new piece of information encountered is likely to be close enough to something you already know to be relatable. Being able to relate to something new will drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to learn it. This way, instead of having to know "everything" you just know how to find and learn the things you need when you need them.


Focus on improving your ability to find and learn information instead of trying to learn by collecting information. We live in an age where you can trust the knowledge infrastructure, allowing you to decouple your intellect from how much you know.