Sometimes a writer's job is to say what people are thinking, but say it better than they are thinking it. Watch me do that now.


Have you ever wondered who you are? You're not your body, because living cells come and go and are generally outside of your control. You're not your location, because that can change. You aren't your DNA because that simply defines the boundaries of your playing field. You aren't your upbringing because siblings routinely go in different directions no matter how similar their start. My best answer to my own question is this:

You are what you learn.

If all you know is how to be a gang member, that's what you'll be, at least until you learn something else. If you become a marine, you'll learn to control fear. If you go to law school, you'll see the world as a competition. If you study engineering, you'll start to see the world as a complicated machine that needs tweaking.

I'm fascinated by the way a person changes at a fundamental level as he or she merges with a particular field of knowledge. People who study economics come out the other side thinking a different way from people who study nursing. And learning becomes a fairly permanent part of a person even as the cells in the body come and go and the circumstances of life change.

You can easily nitpick my definition of self by arguing that you are actually many things, including your DNA, your body, your mind, you environment and more. By that view, you're more of a soup than a single ingredient. I'll grant you the validity of that view. But I'll argue that the most powerful point of view is that you are what you learn.

It's easy to feel trapped in your own life. Circumstances can sometimes feel as if they form a jail around you. But there's almost nothing you can't learn your way out of. If you don't like who you are, you have the option of learning until you become someone else. Life is like a jail with an unlocked, heavy door. You're free the minute you realize the door will open if you simply lean into it.

Suppose you don't like your social life. You can learn how to be the sort of person that attracts better friends. Don't like your body? You can learn how to eat right and exercise until you have a new one. You can even learn how to dress better and speak in more interesting ways.

I credit my late mother for my view of learning. She raised me to believe I could become whatever I bothered to learn. No single idea has served me better.


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Oct 20, 2011
now THIS is why I read this blog. Something the makee you think outside of the box.
Oct 19, 2011
kingdinosaur. I addressed that counterargument with the chicken/egg analogy.

What you do is who you are, and while you often do what you learn to do, you sometimes try things that you didn't learn. While you then learn from that experience, the learning comes afterwards. The doing has primacy, and in any event, even if you can learn without doing anything, that learning doesn't become part of you unless you put it into action.

A great basketball player is one how has played a lot of basketball and improved over time, not one who has read a "how-to" book.

A great scholar is one who has studied, not one who has been taught by his parents that studying is important.

Education, DNA, upbringing, etc, are all important, but only if you put them into action. It is the action that defines you. If you and I are both taught that we should help people in need and we both believe it, and we both see someone in need who we can help, but only you do it, then you are the generous person. That we both have the same education, upbringing, or whatever else does not matter one bit. What you learn influences who you are, but it is not who you are. Only your actions can define you.
Oct 19, 2011
I think this might be true of some people but I've found other people are governed by their hard wired emotions. What they learn can be countered by what they feel. I think it's important to consider that the strength of emotional reactions changes between participants.
Oct 19, 2011
I have a small tweak for your statement (I'm in engineering). "You are what you can learn". I myself could never be a professional football player no matter how much I learned, I do not have the physical tools (genetics) to succeed at this endeavor. I found mathmatics easy to learn and have always had a decent grasp of the 3D spatial world. These ablilties where apparent at an early age and led to the career I have now. One may choose to learn something, but if you have to work very hard just to be mediocre at it, most will gravitate to something more in tune with their innate skills.
Oct 19, 2011
kludow, a counter argument is that you do what you've learned to do. Plus as Scott said, you can learn to do other things.

I'm guessing there's a half nature, half nurture thing going on which effects learning. You remember the previous post about random reinforcement? Well how you respond to that reinforcement is probably based on both biological factors and the past things you've experienced.
Oct 19, 2011
In 1984, they would inflict pain if you tried to open the door.
In Brave New World, they would distract you so you didn't even know there was a door.

TV says that Brave New World beat 1984... I wonder who's on next.

So if we have a educational system designed to teach people nothing about being useful idiots, that's all we are getting. As an aside, today I learned that nearly half of kids in foster care (not with a foster family I supposed) end up homeless because the system never teaches them the things they'd learn if they had a family. So the right system in place makes all the difference I suppose.

I remember one part about reading rich dad, poor dad. The poor dad was smart (a principle or something like that) but didn't know much about money. Rich dad knew about money and made sure he taught his son, and the son's friend (the author).

You teach people how to protect and grow your money, you get more rich people. You teach people religion, morals, and ethics, you get more ethical people. You teach people that crying is ok, you get Glenn Beck.
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 19, 2011
Who am I? I'm a child of God. What a silly question.
Oct 19, 2011
Are you "golfer" yet? Just asking since you started taking those lessons
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 19, 2011
So if this is true, then what exactly is wrong with people who don't learn, who don't change, who are not succesfull, not happy, etc, etc, etc. This is a serious question.

Are they too lazy? If so, then why is one person lazy and another one in the same situation not? I wouls suggest that that is a matter of DNA.

Are they too afraid and lack the courage to start something new? Same answer.

Is it just a matter of insight? If these people would have been raised by someone like your mother, would they have come out different? If someone reads this blog can he all of a sudden say "aha" and start working on himself? That may be true if all the other components are in place.
Oct 19, 2011
I disagree. You are what you do.

While what you learn is a big contributor to that, how often do you see somebody fail to put knowledge into action? Your DNA is a big contributor, but identical twins don't always do the same things. Your upbringing is a big contributor because it shapes how you initially see the world and gives you your first learning opportunities, but siblings go very different ways despite their upbringing. In fact, it's often that people who have learned similar things, been taught similar things, and have similar DNA try different things. As they do these different things, they can change the course of their lives and become a better or worse person.

You can argue that action is important because it is how you learn (try something and see how it goes), but I would argue that action is the cause, and learning is the consequence. It's like the chicken and the egg problem. Yes they lead into each other, but the egg came first (unless you don't believe in evolution, in which case go away, your opinion is not valid).
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 19, 2011
Brilliant piece, Scott. This alone is one for the ages, hope you didn't pilfer it: 'Life is like a jail with an unlocked, heavy door. You're free the minute you realize the door will open if you simply lean into it.'
Oct 19, 2011
I'm really surprised that you didn't conclude, "You are a moist robot." With the caveat that you can become a different moist robot by changing your (chemical) programming through a process called "learning."

Of course, this is the old "nature vs. nurture" argument. The answer is that it's the combination of nature and nurture. It's not just learning - it's what you're willing and able to learn. Your nature shapes your desire.
Oct 19, 2011
What does it matter if I'm a moist robot anyway?
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 19, 2011
Excellent! I agree with much of this premise. However, the "door" can be hard to recognize. I am frequently confronted with choices to make regarding "what to learn". My life on earth will be time limited (as well as physical energy limited). So, do I spend that precious time learning about atoms, molecules and mathematics - or about psychology, so I may be more effective in my personal dealings? Should I invest months and hours into perfecting my drumming, or take up guitar and Spanish? These are important choices. However, one thing that I know is that my life has extended periods when I am NOT actively engaged in learning/growing (read:commuting) so I attempt to fill it with "Books on Tape" (versus repetitious news/opinion casts) and at least invest the time better. Simply seething about the state of the government hasn't done much good.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 19, 2011

Logical fallacy in the example of unlocked, heavy doors. People who live in cubicles cannot have an open door policy. There are no doors to open.

Dilbert is trapped by his knowing. Wally is trapped by his coffee. Our pointy haired boss is trapped in the mesosphere.

Oct 19, 2011
If you replied positively to this blog post, you are still open to learning.

If you replied negatively, you are not likely to benefit from it's wisdom...

Excellent post! I'm now contemplating becoming a cartoonist, satirist or hypnotist.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 19, 2011

Very smart. You tricked me into thinking about the subject by beginning with a pause and a question.

And then gave such obvious answers that only a bankrupt prosecution lawyer would challenge them.

Following is an extract from my own book, "The Creator's Testimony", published this year, from London:

'Who are you?'

'That's "who" I am.'

It is a question and an answer that occurs first time in the recorded history of human civilisations over a 1000 years BCE. Since then, it has appeared in various ways in practically every philosophical treatise.

I have spent so much precious time in trying to find out what this is all about that I am now merely what I know about all this.

This hurts.

I was myself when I decided to learn. But now I am what I have learned. My knowing has hijacked me thus. Shall I free myself of this knowing? What shall remain of me then?

Who am I if I am not 'who'?

No. I am not this.

I am the one who engages, and I am the one who is engaged.

Ch. II. "The Creator's Testimony" by Sudhir R. Kulkarni (Thats me), ISBN 978-1-4567-7744-9

I call myself DNA too, but only to Keep It Simple & Stupid... :)

Oct 19, 2011
What about being battered around by the Brownian motion of the society around you? Your learning is preordained by your parents and your surroundings. The child who suffers abuse and neglect is unlikely to be able to distinguish that the door is even partially open or even unlocked but simply a barrier to a different life that can never be opened. Even if someone shows them the open door, they return to the world they know and the cycle of abuse continues.
Oct 19, 2011
No argument here. It explains why I am attracted to women who have certain professions, like nurse or teacher, and probably why they have their favorites, too.

I figured this stuff out on my own but when I look at the prison door and feel how heavy it is, I just keep thinking, "Nah. Too much effort."
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 19, 2011
There is a lot of truth to that, but as others have mentioned learning is only part of it. If we are going to make an argument that tries to sum up the human condition in to a single concept, then I think that would have to be "life is perception" or "we are a combination of how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us".

I could be a great medical doctor, but if I happen to be a black person in 1940's America then chances are good that I am an uppity !$%*!$%
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