The One Thing All Great Learners Know

A lesson from the pope (sort of) that taught me how to understand everything better

I was working at Esquire magazine a little over a decade ago when I received an incredibly valuable lesson about learning and research. A senior editor gave us interns an assignment to find out how much money the pope makes. We interviewed some Catholic academics and historians at big-name universities who gave us their best estimates, and then submitted our research file.

Our editor took one look at the file and pulled us all into the conference room. “Guys, no,” he said, shaking his head. “You call the fucking Vatican.”

“Call the fucking Vatican.” In the years since, it’s become shorthand in my mind for going right to the source. And it’s a rule of thumb we should all follow any time we want to understand something deeply.

Spending so much of our days behind a screen has made it increasingly easy to ignore that rule. We have fewer conversations and experiences on the ground. Books that reinterpret and regurgitate ancient philosophical wisdom sell more copies than translations of the ancient texts themselves. Ill-informed hot takes are rampant.

Research consistently shows that humans are hardwired to dismiss information that doesn’t fit our worldview and select for information that does. Psychologists call this well-established phenomenon “motivated reasoning.” What’s more, we’re constantly misremembering and misinterpreting details about even the most important information, especially as information travels.

Deeper, more accurate understanding, then, is most likely to happen when facts come straight from the source. Want to know what something looks or feels like? See it or do it. Curious about what someone believes? Ask them, or if that’s not possible, find an explanation in their own words. Trying to make sense of a research finding? Read the study or report and email the researcher a question or two.

This method takes more time and effort, be judicious with it. Use it for the information that matters to you most. For example, I applied it while writing my forthcoming book, The Comfort Crisis. I could have probably done most of my research from behind a screen. Instead I spent 33 days in the Arctic backcountry, traveled thousands of miles around the world, visited with scores of experts, and read more than 1,000 studies. The approach cost more in every way . But I needed to bring the book the closest to the capital-T truth that I could. Going directly to the source removes a filter that often traps valuable information. It gets us closer to the truth, every time.

The Pope, by the way, doesn’t draw a fucking salary.

Author of The Comfort Crisis // Professor // Writing about physical + mental health, psychology, and living better 1x week //

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