13 min read

Are We Really Learning In the Information Age?

Are We Really Learning In the Information Age?
Photo by Cristina Gottardi / Unsplash

We've all heard it. The information age has connected us in these ways, disconnected us in those ways, blah blah...

I don't hear anyone pointing out one of the biggest impacts it's had:

To become such effective consumers, we've stopped being effective learners.

And man, does it show.

Make no mistake, I think consuming is here for some real and necessary reasons.

When information and opinions are weaponized the way they are, with things like cancel culture, shaming, and social exile at the forefront - it makes total sense that we cope by consuming and sharing them strategically. 

Looking for things we agree with and sharing them with people who agree with us reinforces this concept of "rightness" that tells us we're safe. 

It's safe to be "right". Dangerous to be "wrong". This is the culture we've built.

Our nervous systems know it even if we don't say it out loud.

So consumption makes sense and it serves a purpose. The issue is that consumption itself is not solving the problem that made us have to cope this way, to begin with. 

To do that, we actually have to learn something new. 

Even more concerning is how a lot of us mean to be learning when we're actually consuming. How often we think we're learning. We assume we're learning. Myself included a lot of the time.

No one is immune to this. 

And I'll level with you further. If you define learning as "taking in new information, comprehending it at face value, then recalling it later when necessary"...

Then by that definition, maybe we're learning a lot. In which case I'd point out the bar is on the floor.

Do we really want to say that taking in, internalizing, and spreading the talking points we react to is learning?

No. I don't think we do. 

I think it's hurting far more than it helps. And I think we all do it, so it would be nice if we were all aware of this and, well, learning from it.

Learning about the difference between consuming, and learning. Because in my opinion, this could be really helpful to know.

I'll make this quick. Promise. 

What it Means to Consume

Consumption, at its core, is like Tinder. 

Here for a cheap thrill.

Swipe right. Swipe left. 

"I agree", or "I disagree". 

If I agree, I may give the post some engagement and share to express my agreement. 

If I disagree, I may comment or share to express my disagreement. 

Some new ideas may come to mind for a second. But mostly, I keep scrolling. Onto the next thing to consume. I probably won't ever think about it again. 

If I do, it'll be random, in conversation. I'll bring it up, and tell someone this new fact I "learned" and agree with. Or what so and so said to spread misinformation that I disagree with.

This person will validate my reaction or invalidate it and my nervous system will feel some type of way either way. 

In the end, this information has made no noticeable, sustainable, positive impact on my beliefs or level of resourcing. If it had, I would see that impact demonstrated in my lived experience. 

But there's a very high likelihood that it did impact the state of my nervous system in the short-term, and perhaps reinforced it a smidge in the long-term.

This, in a nutshell, is why I keep doing it. Not to learn. To feel more of things I like, and to "defend" against the shit I want to feel less of. Even though it hasn't led to any of us feeling less of it. The pressure just compounds over time.

If I'm consuming a lot of information that I feel defeated by, perhaps my worldview becomes darker. 

This is not learning. This is being defeated out of believing there's anything to learn that could possibly be enough to ease my suffering. 

Or, the best, and I mean absolute best-case scenario for consumption - is that my worldview hasn't changed at all.

What I've just described is about 80% of our interaction with information on the internet. That doesn't even touch the books we read, the television we consume, and the conversations we partake in. 

Because this coping mechanism is like the content itself, repurposed across the platforms of our lived experience. 

Not learning. Consuming. 

Swipe right. Swipe left. Regurgitate. Piggyback. Fight back.

Learn nothing. 

So I'll say it again, we all do it. It has a place. We need to be able to cope and connect, and this is a way we do that.

Where it becomes a problem is in the moments we forget that there is consuming to connect, and there is learning to grow. 

Where we forget that in a world that's evolved to treat them both the same, we need to learn, intentionally. 

What it Means to Learn

True learning is a completely different story than consumption. 

Where consuming banks off of assumptions, hasty conclusions, and the lack of any practical application...

Learning requires us to stop assuming. To take time to ask questionsthink critically, problem solve, and - most importantly - make use of practical application, all before coming to a final conclusion.

Because here's the thing:

Just like new water cannot pour into closed bottles, learning cannot happen in the landscape of an already convinced mind.

The mind has closed at that point. 

And because we so often feel it safer to be "right", many of us have a hard time opening our minds back up once we do close them. To do that would threaten our rightness. Our safety. Our identity, in some cases.

Even though literally none of us are always right. It feels threatening to most people to admit the moments we're wrong.

And when we feel ourselves wanting to agree or disagree with something, we're inviting confirmation bias into the room. Because that's what that "wanting" is, bias.  

Learning cannot exist in these spaces. Because real learning literally exists to bring about transformation. Specifically, personal evolution. 

We must be open to evolving in order to do so.

Then, our job is to take what we learn as individuals, and use it to collaborate with others & what they've learned. This brings about the evolution of a species. Or what's more commonly referred to now as innovation. 

It happens in community.

We cannot evolve or grow, as species or individuals, without being open to facing our own ignorance. Because we so often are.

Which means being wrong needs to be a safe thing to do, to own, and to admit. 

Furthermore, real learning isn't about knowledge, it's about wisdom. 

You know how when someone does something foolish we like to assume they "knew better". 

They didn't know better. 

They may have heard, read, or seen better. They may think better. They may be aware of how others explain what's "better". And they may understand the steps to take to get them "better" outcomes.

None of that means they knew better. We tend to abide by the lessons we internalize. If we aren't acting aligned with the lesson, it's because some part of us isn't. Part of us really doesn't know better. Not yet.

So they knew better they wouldn't have done it.

This concept shows us something: knowing doesn't come from knowledge. It's a misnomer. 

Thinking comes from knowledge. Facts, data, information, and education give us materials with which to think better. To act better.

But when you really know some shit, that's different. There is no inner conflict. There's nothing moving you off track of the lesson. You internalize it. It all clicks.

This is because a sense of true knowing is deeper than knowledge. It is the fruit of gained wisdom.  And wisdom isn't held in the mind alone. You don't get it from facts in a book or social media. 

You gain wisdom from lived experience + conscious reflection + practical application.

True learning.

Wisdom this is where mind, body, and spirit can get on the same page. Where the whole of you learns the whole lesson together, and brings it into alignment.

Wisdom is what happens when we finally do more than see, hear, and think better. Wisdom happens when we finally learn better. 

And when we finally learn better, we do better, because NOW we know better.

Read that over again as many times as you need to. But no, learning is not found in consuming. It's not about knowledge, facts, or information. 

Learning is about acquiring wisdom. 

Nobody teaches us that though. It's not as profitable for the system. But it is deeply, deeply fruitful for the individual.

Because when we take time to dig deeper, to stay open, curious, and commit to reflecting. When we step outside of our pre-drawn conclusions and assumptions for a minute...

That's where new wisdom actually can emerge. 

Most of us don't though. We resist this. Then the Universe slaps us in the face with what it's been trying to teach us. Wrecking our shit.

We say "why".

It says "you weren't hearing me. I've been trying to get your attention for a while."

The Universe doesn't give a shit about a history book. It's here for wisdom.

Because wisdom is where our worldview gets lighter. Where we get back on our feet and step out of the wreckage. Where we find the light at the end of the tunnel. Where we give ourselves a fresh take. More choices. More hope. More chances.  

Wisdom is healing. Coping is not. The key is learning, not consuming.

How to Practice Learning Intentionally:

First, the mindset:

If I can learn from the worst experiences of my life that should've have happened to me, I can learn from anything.

Anyone. Whether I agree with it or not, because learning isn't about liking some shit and it's not about agreeing with the information (which I'll get to in a second). I can learn from my enemies and my friends. Social media, books, television. Doesn't matter. 

I can learn within the walls of solitary confinement if I need to. Staring at lines on the wall. Listening to guard gossip.

If wisdom is power, learning is the work that actually pays. And it's available everywhere. In everything.

The Practice:

We won't be so dramatic. We will use books to illustrate how to learn lol.

First off, if I'm reading to consume, it's just me and the book. I'm here for a dramatic time and this book and I are having one. Love that for us.

If I'm reading to learn, I grab a bunch of highlighters and a pen. These tools aren't required. But what I do with them is, so pay attention:

  • If I resonate with a line deeply because it reflects where I'm currently at, I highlight it for reference.
  • If I resonate with a line deeply and want more of that in my life, I highlight it and write "meditate" in the margin.
  • If I have a strong dislike of a line, I highlight it and write "meditate" in the margin.
  • If I feel confused, uncertain, or undecided about a line, I highlight it and write "meditate" in the margin.

Like so:

I immediately wanted to reject this line. It stirred up a touch of frustration in me. Anyone who's known me for so much as an hour learns pretty quickly I disagree with using language in a shame-based manner. So naturally, instead of closing the book and leaving a shitty review, I highlighted it. And I wrote a reminder to meditate on it.

After (and this is important)

meditate and/or reflect on the concepts I highlighted. One by one, I ask myself questions.

Sticking with the above example, some questions I can ask myself about that passage are:

  • Is there wisdom beneath his judgment?
  • Where do I see his sentiments reflected in the world? In my experience?
  • If there is wisdom beneath his judgment, how can I reword this to better accommodate and account for my own values?
  • Was I reacting from a personal place? Is there a trigger under there? (I'm literally safe in bed, reading a book by an author I've never met. Who tf am I defending from this position?)
  • If I am being triggered, what wound is it pointing me to? And how can I heal that?

If I catch Ryan (the author) in a coffee shop I'll happily share with him my opinions on his work. The good and the critical. He's a brilliant author. He shares a lot of wisdom. And the oppressive language peppered throughout his work doesn't do it any justice at all. Nor does it help his readers. I'll share about how shame-based content and practices fuel every level of oppression in our society. I'll go into the nuances of that if he'll listen.

I wouldn't be having the conversation to argue. That's what knowledge does. Fight facts with facts. I imagine Ryan, a Stoic, might know this. He probably wouldn't care for it.

So no. No arguing. He gave me some wisdom to reflect on. My energy would be in returning the favor. Then, perhaps, he would learn something. And learning evolves us. It transforms us, and the ripple effect of our impact.

But if I got angry at reading this point, shut the book, left that scathing review and never picked it up again, who am I robbing? He's already got my money. His readership. His success. I'd only be robbing myself.

Because remember: the point of reading the book wasn't to be pleased with what I saw. It was to learn from it. And wisdom has shown me time and again that that is my choice to make.

Continuing on...

In general questions to reflect on material can look like:

  •  Why did this line get such a strong reaction out of me either way?
  • How am I seeing this show up in the world around me?
  • How might this thing I'm reacting to mirror or show me something within myself?
  • What do I want to take from this (either way, I want to take something) 
  • How do I want to apply this to my life in a practical way 

I might even just sit with the line in mind, move to focusing on my breath, and notice what comes up

It's always something interesting.

So step 1 is to highlight or note down what I have a reaction to, and step 2 is to reflect on it with an open mind. Peer around it. See what different angles you can find to explore it from. Notice what comes up, and stay curious.

If you're learning, you're safe. Because learning can only happen in safe spaces.

But we're not done. Here's the last Step:

I take the concept I'm exploring and live with it in mind. I explore it in day-to-day life in real-time, on purpose.

There's a specific practice for this in certain Buddhist lineages, called a Koan practice.

Where you take a little Koan (super short story) or its capping verse (basically the proverb or short poem from the story) and explore it. Not just in meditation, but in life. Whatever your initial impression of it will naturally change and evolve over time. 

A sign that you are learning. Gaining wisdom. 


"No thing ever falls short of its own completeness.
It always manages to cover the ground upon which it stands."

Note your initial impression. Write it down.

Then go the week thinking about it. Think about it as you watch your kids play. Then again the next time your boss pisses you off. Then again the next time your kids fight and your boss makes you happy. Think about it when you look at a tree, and notice the shadow on the ground in front of it. And when you consider the state of the world.

Think about it as you reread this article and notice things you didn't notice the first time. Different things to like. Different things to hate.

Walk around with it for a week, a month, a year. If you meditate, let it come up again and again.

And then come back and find the note with your initial impression.

Notice how much you'll have learned about this one thing. Notice how much wisdom you'll have gained by taking the time to explore these words.

Notice how it's transformed some part of you and the way you experience the world.

Notice how your knowing has evolved.

This is the practice of gaining wisdom. This is learning.

Regardless of all this very romantic stuff, my main point is that learning is not just about jotting down interesting bits and it's not about taking other peoples' knowledge on as our own. 

It's about reflecting long enough to carve our own lines into the conversation.

So that's what I do. That's how I learn.

I sit and wonder why certain ideas strike a chord with me and why others trigger disagreement, and dig more deeply from there.

Knowing whether they do or don't bring up something within me is not the heart of the matter. Of course things do. I'm human. So the knowledge of that fact is not what I'm here for.

That is not the wisdom where I will find my resolution either way. I have to give myself space to feel what I feel, think what I think - yes. Then, I have to continue to dig.

By doing so, I end up with a deeper grasp of four things: 

  • The material 
  • My own reactions to the material 
  • What I want to do about it (if anything at all. Oftentimes the wisdom is, "I can let this go, now")
  • How I experience life in full

This transforms my reading, and general experience of life, from a passive act of consumption into an active journey of learning.

It makes life full. I love learning for the sake of it honestly. But it also helps me solve a lot of problems in new and refreshing ways. Especially the painful ones. And I'm really grateful for that.

So look, it's easy to confuse learning with consumption. Few people are talking about the difference. But they are not the same. 

When we approach how we experience this onslaught of information with mindfulness and intention, we get a hell of a lot more out of it. 

Feel free to get your highlighters out & start with this post. Even if you hate it, chances are it can open up something for you.

Rooting for You, 


P.S. If you like this article, share it. This work only thrives on your support. <3