leadership Lessons from Confucius: learning without thinking

learning without thinking

子曰:「學而不思則罔,思而不學則殆。」
The Master said: “Learning without thinking leads to perplexity. Thinking without learning leads to trouble.”

We live at a time when knowledge has never been more abundant or accessible to everyone. With a few taps on the screen of our phone or a few clicks of our mouse, we can find out just about any information that we require.

As technologies like AI, AR, and VR rapidly mature, learning will become even easier and more engaging in the future. Rather than just reading text or looking at pictures or videos to learn what life was like in Confucius’s lifetime, we will be able explore immersive worlds that take us deeper and deeper into the history, society, philosophy, and geography of Warring-States China.

However, the more information we consume, the more we need to be able to build up the ability not only to understand it but also to distinguish whether it is real or fake and sort out the wheat from the chaff.

In other words, as Confucius points out here, a balance between learning and thinking is required. Rather than keeping our eyes glued to our screens all day because we’re afraid of missing something important, we have to take time out to reflect on all the information that is flooding into our brains and place it in a relevant context so that we can apply it to the work we are doing.

There’s no magical formula for achieving this balance. It requires being very strict with yourself about how you allocate your time and what you focus your energies and attention on. Perhaps the best place to start is to track how you actually spend your days (as opposed to how you think you spend them) and then draw out a schedule in which you carve out various blocks for your most critical tasks – including of course for thinking.

Another idea is simply to turn your phone off for a few hours in the evening before you go to bed so that you can rest your head from the constant bombardment of information. Easier said than done I know, but at the very least you’ll get a much better night’s sleep and wake up more refreshed in the morning.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 2 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

Another image of the Temple of Yan Hui in Qufu. I can’t recommend this place enough. You can read more about it here.

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