What I Learned From Reading Thousands of Books

by Don Smith

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I consider myself a lifelong learner. I've read thousands if not tens of thousands of books at this point, including at one point the entire thirty volume Encyclopædia Britannica set from cover to cover (don't judge me, I was a bored kid who grew up without a TV and that was before the Internet).

Know what I learned from all of that?

I Learned I Know Very Little

I learned that I know only an infinitesimally small amount compared to the vast stores of human knowledge. The more I know, the more I realize I don't know much of anything.

Look at the Wikipedias for example. At the time of this writing, the English Wikipedia alone has over 5,926,178 articles of any length, and the combined Wikipedias for all other languages greatly exceed the English Wikipedia in size, with more than 27 billion words in 40 million articles in 293 languages.[2]

Twenty-seven BILLION words. If you read at an average adult speed of 300 words per minute (and for giggles let's assume you know and read 293 languages at the same level of proficiency), that'll only take you about 514 years to read if you read 8 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And that's just Wikipedia, and we're completely ignoring the fact that there is an average of 1.8 edits to it PER SECOND.

Library - What I Learned from reading thousands of books
We Won't Talk About Libraries Like This One

In layman's terms, that's a ton of information, more than any human can consume, much less understand.

Many “Facts” are Merely Opinions or Cultural Norms

On top of that, you can easily find contradictions for most “factual” information even inside encyclopedias, so you'll be hard-pressed to figure out what information is “correct,” if there is such a thing.

If you have traveled or read much at all, you'll realize that what is perfectly normal and considered to be the “truth” in one culture is often regarded as abnormal and even weird in another. Most “truths” are not self-evident; even when they seem apparent to a large group of people or are written down in impressive “authoritative” books.

In a study done on twelve middle school science textbooks, researchers logged an impressive 500 pages worth of errors, so even our best works are often riddled with errors. That's when people are TRYING to be factual and not intentionally misleading others in order to sell something or accomplish some other ulterior motive which unfortunately is far too common these days.

Some Things are Not Worth Arguing

It's useless to question everything though, so some “facts” we need to take at face value and move on. 1+1=2 is a good example. We could argue that point, but what practical purpose would it serve (beyond maybe entertaining you and pissing someone off)?

One lesson I've learned is that “good enough” is usually good enough. You could spend decades of your life trying to make something perfect or proving something is a fact beyond any shadow of doubt, but eventually, you have to say it's good enough and move on. Another is that it is often better to be HAPPY than it is to be RIGHT. If it's not worth arguing over or spending a lot of time on, move on down the road and save yourself some time and grief.

We Haven't Began to Scratch the Surface of all Knowledge

The biggest thing that I've learned is that no one person has even begun to scratch the surface of all knowledge. Did you know that Einstein reportedly didn't ever learn how to drive or swim?

Socrates, one of the most famous philosophers of all time and the teacher of Plato and Aristotle, once said, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” -Socrates

It is simply not possible for one person to know or be good at everything. To think otherwise is merely our ignorance and arrogance talking. That's partly why John Maxwell, often cited as one of the top leadership trainers in the country, wrote a book called “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.”

When we finally understand that we know very little and stop being so arrogant as to believe that we know much, suddenly we are free to ask questions and can begin to learn. To those who begin to learn martial arts, for example, a black belt is often seen as the pinnacle of success. To the masters, they know a black belt is but the beginning of a lifelong journey toward mastery.

Here's a little video clip which might expand your mind a little. If this is what we can see so far, what can't we see yet, much less understand?

The Universe We Can See

A Little of What I Did Learn

Obviously, I have learned some other things by reading all those books. If you were looking for some answers beyond “I don't know,” check out my list of personal and professional development book recommendations. I send out another book suggestion each month and share little tidbits that I've learned with subscribers.

Focus & Take Action

I also learned the importance of focus and getting started. While I love learning, if I want anything to come from that, I have to take action. There will always be more to learn; the key to success is making a choice and acting on what you already know.

I can acquire knowledge for the rest of my life, but if I never DO anything with it, it is useless.

“Knowledge without action, is like having no knowledge at all!” -Ted Nicholas

My challenge to you is to DO something with what you already know today. If you want to contribute what you've learned to this personal and professional development blog, click here to find out how to submit a guest post.

About the Author 

Don Smith

Happily married with five kids, Smith owns a technology company, is the founder of this site, has served on the board of directors for multiple companies, and loves playing soccer, hiking, and mentoring.

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