You Cannot Learn What You Think You Already Know

This week’s stoic quotation comes from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who had been born a slave and had his own teachings written down by one of his students.

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” -Epictetus, Discourses, Book II, ch. 17

Another translation:

“What is the first business of one who practices philosophy? To get rid of self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” -Epictetus, Discourses, Book II, ch. 17


What it means

However, you can’t learn if you believe there’s nothing left for you to learn. What if what you know is just one of several possibilities, and a few are better than others? What if what you know may be further improved by what others understand? What if everything you know is really wrong?

If you don’t show humility and strategy all things as an empty, ready vessel, you won’t grow. Never assume that your mind is full, or that what you understand overpowers what others understand. After all, how could progress be made in almost any area if everyone assumed they knew what whenever they heard something? It is arrogant and absurd, even for people who are on top of the field.

What to Take From It

Choose to always have a beginner’s mind, always searching for another angle. Get comfy with being wrong, and enjoy it when it occurs. It is okay to be wrong so long as you make it a lesson. Do not be afraid to ask questions and look to be an amateur. An open mind can be your best asset if you allow it.

We’re stubborn creatures who want to assume we are smarter or more capable than others, but hoping you are superior makes you poor. Ditch the self and accept your place as an eternal student. In any case, nobody likes a know-it-all, and accurate “experts” are people who will admit if they do not know something. Why? Because they’d love to learn it.

You can read the entirety of Epictetus’ Discourses for free here.