I’m curious by nature. I love free-flowing information and learning about new ideas and concepts. (Fun fact: This can be attributed largely to a personality trait psychologists call Openness to Experience.)
This desire to learn new things is generally a good thing...except when it’s not.
I sometimes have a tendency to stuff my brain with too many ideas I’m not immediately using. In the past, this has led to mental fogginess, confusion, and information overwhelm.
Look, I’m all for learning. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger champion of education than me. But I’ve come to believe that sometimes, too much information can be counterproductive.
This is especially true in today’s world where we carry magical devices in our pockets that give us access to an obscene amount information at all times with the push of a button. As historian Yuval Noah Harari points out, “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.”
What's important is not the sheer quantity of information you consume but how much of it you retain and actually put to use.
Serious question: What’s the point of learning anything unless you are using it to improve your life or someone else’s? Constantly seeking new information without applying it is like chewing a nutritious meal but spitting it out before swallowing—you don't get any of the benefits.
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt reflects on this:
“We might already have encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives.”
Too Much of a Good Thing
You can take anything too far and learning is no exception. Here's an axiom I believe to be true: “A virtue carried to extremes becomes a vice.” In other words, anything in excess becomes its opposite:
Too much help becomes hindrance.
Too much medicine becomes poison.
Too much frugality becomes miserliness.
Too much politeness becomes insincerity.
Too much idealism (utopias) becomes oppression (dystopias).
Our current relationship with information demonstrates this principle well: Too much knowledge has become ignorance.
We live in an age of information abundance, yet we often find ourselves more confused about certain aspects of the world than previous generations.
(Note: Information abundance isn’t always a bad thing, as in the domain of science, for example. But even then you can make the case that we’ve gone too far in some ways.)
When it comes to personal development, many people are drowning in a sea of information yet still dying of thirst. They constantly seek the “next big idea” that will change their life.
I've been there, done that. It doesn't lead anywhere productive.
Less Is More
Here’s a solution I came up with for myself, although the implementation is still a work in progress:
If you're trying to improve some aspect of your life, focus on fully digesting one idea at a time rather than trying to master a bunch of different concepts simultaneously.
In other words, be less concerned with breadth and more concerned with depth.
Pay particular attention to those ideas, concepts, principles, and strategies that are relevant to your life right now. And then use them. Play with them. Mold them to your life. Snuggle up with them and make them yours. Using what you learn is a vital part of effective learning.
Let's say you only read one book a month and that you only get one really good idea from each book. But suppose you actually took the time to absorb each of those ideas, savored them, and applied them to your life in a meaningful way. That's 12 new, life-changing ideas per year!
How many good ideas do you need to change your life? My hypothesis: way less than you think. And I can prove this mathematically. Kind of.
The Mathematics of Self-Improvement
There's something called the Pareto distribution. It was originally developed by the economist Vilfredo Pareto to describe and predict wealth distribution in a society. It is colloquially referred to as the 80/20 principle because of the distribution ratio it describes. Tim Ferriss explains it well in The 4-Hour Work Week:
“Pareto’s Law can be summarized as follows: 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs. Alternative ways to phrase this, depending on the context, include:
80% of the consequences flow from 20% of the causes.
80% of the results come from 20% of the effort and time.
80% of the company profits come from 20% of the products and customers.
80% of all stock market gains are realized by 20% of the investors.”
As it turns out, this law accurately describes many natural phenomena and human activities across many different domains, including, science, sociology, geophysics, etc:
A few classical composers are responsible for most of the classical music that’s played.
A few salespeople in an organization are responsible for the majority of the sales.
A few stars contain most of the mass in a galaxy.
You get the idea.
Applying It To Your Life
What if just a few ideas could dramatically improve the majority of your life?
What if 80% of your life could be improved by 20% of the advice you encounter?
What if the ratio was even more skewed? In principle, all you really need is one good idea to radically transform your life:
One bit of wisdom that you take to heart and integrate into your life.
One core belief that helps you deal with challenges more effectively.
One framework that orients you more effectively in the world.
The point is, you don’t need to know every single personal development strategy or philosophy out there. You need to find the ones that resonate with you and use them.
Maybe more information isn't what you need. Maybe what you need is to dust off some of those old but perfectly viable ideas you've already encountered. Maybe you've already come across The One Idea that could change your life if only you had taken the time to master it and absorb it rather than hastily moving on to the next one.
Go find that idea and put it to work.
Ruben Chavez is a writer, personal development educator, and host of The Think Grow Podcast. He has created a community of over 3 million readers across his collective platforms, including his popular Instagram page ThinkGrowProsper. Along with this blog, these platforms are his way of inspiring and connecting with thoughtful, creative, and ambitious people just like you.