If there is one thing we can conclusively say about Isaac Asimov, it’s that he could write.1
His body of work extends to over 500 books, many that he edited and quite a few that he penned. To add to that, he was never bound to a specific domain. Although most famous as a science fiction writer, he also published on religion, history, and many more topics.
It was his insatiable curiosity and his unrelenting drive to push himself that took him from a young Russian immigrant to maybe one of the most beloved US authors of the 20th-century.
The signs were always there, of course. As a young kid, he spent his days lost in his mind asking questions and creating imaginary worlds. He read books, and he loved knowledge.
If anyone in his general vicinity had a question they needed an answer to, you could reliably bet that Asimov would have an answer or at the very least point you in the right direction.
Part of this related to his gifted mind, but a bigger part was that he was simply well-educated.
Many tend to think of being educated as something that has to do with the number of years of schooling we have or the degrees we earn. Asimov did indeed meet those criteria, but his real education was broader than that. It was deeper than what he learned from instruction.2
In fact, this real education is what added to the subtle depth of his fiction, and perhaps more importantly, it’s what allowed him to reliably write about so many diverse, interesting topics. Fortunately, exploring his story, we can dissect precisely how he did that by:
• Expanding the boundaries of the imagination
• Learning at the edge of his knowledge
• Respecting the importance of self-education
Becoming educated is a gift of the modern times we live in. And it’s a gift anyone can earn.
Expand the Boundaries of the Imagination
One of the things that many polymaths, like Asimov, naturally do is explore a broad range of non-fiction topics. They are quick to read widely about history and science and philosophy.
But something they tend to overlook is the extent of knowledge they can extract from fiction. Many see non-fiction as tangible knowledge, whereas fiction is a game of the imagination.
On the contrary, it’s precisely the fact that fiction is a game of the imagination that they shouldn’t underestimate its value in educating a person, because a fictional world is where all of the different non-fiction components of reality come together to interact with each other.
If you look close enough, you will realize that books like Tolstoy’s War and Peace tell you more about history than most history books. Likewise, you can better understand human psychology reading Dostoevsky’s masterpieces than you can pop-psychology best-sellers.
Great fiction puts our hard, tangible knowledge into the real, cultural world. They show us how it mingles and interacts with reality beyond the rigid confines of one-dimensional facts.
Before Asimov fell in love with science, he was already entranced by fiction. It was his love of Greek mythology and his reading of 18th and 19th-century classics that sparked his mind.
It led him to big questions, and it showed him possibilities that would have been far too nuanced to be picked up from just having read the non-fiction books he later embraced.
Reading fiction opens up the gates of the imagination that confine the thinking of a person who has only read non-fiction. It exposes a broader, richer world for the mind to inhabit.
You may learn critical knowledge and key reasoning skills from books filled with facts, but this knowledge and reasoning will be limited in their scope without a broad imagination.
Education is about the possibility of the mind, one that is narrow without the life of stories.
Learn at the Edge of Your Knowledge
One thing that many people don’t know about Isaac Asimov is that he actually wasn’t a full-time writer for most of his life. By personal choice, his day-job was as a chemist.
The problem, however, was that he wasn’t a very good chemist. He loved his job, and he loved learning, but when it came to the research components of his work, he was lousy.
Fortunately, he managed to get out of the lab and move on to lecturing. And this is where he shone. His faculty members would be baffled every time they walked by a classroom with Asimov in it. Sounds of joy and awe and laughter would make their way out.
The reason that he had so much better luck in the classroom was that it allowed him to do what he did best: learn at the edge of his knowledge by making something difficult simple.
Great teachers have to think with a profound level of clarity. They have to strip away the crutches of big words and existing frameworks to break something down to a level at which it becomes obvious; simple, even. It’s at this level that knowledge is truly understood.
Even when writing his books, he would nudge the topic just outside the peripheries of his existing understanding of the world. From there, he would be incentivized to learn as much about it and to think as clearly about it as he could before getting a start on the project.
It’s often said that the best way to learn or to be educated is to teach, and there is a truth to that because teaching forces you to dig down to a core understanding that many neglect.
It’s the clarity that comes from being at the edge of knowledge that truly defines how well you can contextualize and apply what it is that you know to a wide array of situations.
To push the boundaries of what we know, we have to first get to the end of what we know.
Respect the Importance of Self-Education
The belief that the purpose of school and teachers is to disseminate knowledge is exactly backward. Nobody learns by passive consumption. They learn when they want to learn.
They greatest curriculums and the greatest educators aren’t those that can fill your brain with the highest number of facts. It goes deeper than that. The best of the best only have one job: to evoke a sense of curiosity in you and to teach you to enjoy learning for its own sake.
There is no such thing as an education passing on knowledge. There is only self-education, which means that once a seed is planted in front of you, you will want to water it yourself.
In his autobiography It’s Been a Good Life, Asimov tells a story about an encounter he had as a child when his father, after looking through his son’s books, asked him a question:
“How did you learn all this, Isaac?”
“From you, Pappa,” Asimov said.
“From me? I don’t know any of this.”
“You didn’t have to, Pappa,” He said. “You valued learning and you taught me to value it. Once I learned to value it, the rest came without trouble.”
The mark of an educated mind has nothing to do with what they know or how much they know. It has everything to do with the way they know and the way they go about knowing.
Very few people can recall the details of what they learned in school, but everybody can tell you their favorite part of a gripping story or the first time they picked up a great non-fiction.
The mind works best when it’s open to an experience because it wants to be open. That’s only possible if you internalize the fading boundary between education and self-education.
Learning should never be a chore. It should be an adventure, one that asks more of you.
All You Need to Know
Every experience we have and every lesson we learn is another information point that leads to a form of education. But there are also ways to enhance this education more deliberately.
Isaac Asimov lived a life that placed a high value on learning, and in the process, he showed us what it means to become educated and the steps worth taking to get there.
Here are three key things we learn from his story:
I. Expand the boundaries of the imagination. We associate knowledge with non-fiction, but great fiction is perhaps an even greater container of wisdom. It shows us how the one-dimensional facts that we learn from history and science and philosophy blend together to operate in real life. Knowledge may give us a foundation and teach us to reason well, but it’s only the imagination that defines the boundaries of possibility.
II. Learn at the edge of your knowledge. To truly understand something, we have to throw away the crutches of jargon that often hold our knowledge up. The mark of an effective mind is clarity, and this kind of clarity takes a lot of work to get to. By teaching and playing at the peripheries of our understanding, we work our way closer.
III. Respect the importance of self-education. There is no difference between becoming educated and self-educating. The former is always a product of the latter. Great teachers don’t give us facts to memorize. They instill a curiosity, a respect for learning, that ensures that whatever it is that is being taught gets absorbed naturally.
We live in a world with increasing complexity and increasing information. It has never been more important to be truly educated – to understand things in a clear and fundamental way.
The human mind is an unparalleled pattern-recognition machine. It’s our job to feed it well.
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