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Are You a Learner or a Knower?

We can be both open and discerning, curious and conscientious.

There are so many people eager and willing to give us answers about pretty much everything. For a long time I accepted other people’s answers as my own. They came from people I believed to be wiser and more knowledgeable than me. Who was I to question?

But that was the problem. Once I had answers, I didn’t feel free to question. I internalized the belief that answers were to be defended. Any questioning or exploration seemed like weakness or rebellion.

Having so many answers handed to me seems like it would make me feel well-equipped and secure, but it didn’t.

It made my world feel small and fragile. If any of those tidy answers could be called into doubt, would everything I thought I knew crumble around me?

It made me feel scared and inadequate. If I couldn’t correctly defend those answers, it would be my own fault when my world came crashing down.

A big piece of my journey the past few years has been learning to loosen my grip on my answers and ask better questions. This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions or beliefs. It’s not an excuse for trivializing or bypassing the hard things that don’t make sense. It is more about learning to live in the tension between pursuing truth and letting go of the need to arrive at a final answer.

I want to deepen my understanding and my convictions. I want to develop my ability to articulate my opinions and beliefs. But I also want to stay aware that there is so much I still don’t know. I want to be able to hold my answers with open hands—giving them space to grow as I continue to learn.

This brings me to a question I’ve been asking myself and would like to ask you. Are you a learner or a knower? I think we are all varying amounts of both at different times and in different contexts. For me, that makes this a question worth asking again and again.

I want to be aware of the places where I am more concerned with keeping anything from challenging what I think I know than I am with expanding my understanding. I want to see where my attempts to maintain an illusion of perfection is keeping me too afraid to ask real questions.

I want to be willing to admit what I don’t know. I’m learning that not knowing doesn’t necessarily mean I’m stupid, weak, or indecisive. There is a difference between hedging our answers in an attempt to avoid rejection and being honest about the times when we don’t know how to wrap all the complexity and nuance of a question into a tidy answer.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but it also opens up space for mystery, possibility, and wonder. There is hope in believing my understanding will grow. There is relief in knowing it’s not my responsibility to know everything.

It can be tricky at times to tell whether we are being more of a learner or a knower. Let’s ask a few more questions to dig deeper.

Do alternative answers feel more threatening or interesting?

When you encounter an idea that seems to challenge something you think you know, do you feel more defensive or curious? Is your first response to try to prove it wrong or to see what you can learn?

We are often likely to cling to knowing when we’re basing our answers on what we were told is right instead of on our own values and priorities. It’s scary to think someone might be able to convince us of an answer that’s wrong as easily as one that is right.

Do you seek out people and resources that reinforce what you already think or do you welcome those that might push you to see a topic in a new way? Do all the people around you tend to have the same answers?

How do you view those who think differently than you?

It can be easy to divide people into categories of those who are like us and those who are not. Then it can be a short step to dismissing everyone in the other category as stupid, illogical, weak, selfish, rebellious, lost, corrupt, etc. How often do you view someone who disagrees with you as an enemy? Do you feel a need to convince them of your way of thinking?

On the other hand, listening to other perspectives has the potential to strengthen our connections to those around us, even those we don’t always agree with. If we are willing to learn from someone’s experience, we can deepen our understanding of humanity in general and that person in particular. (An important note…I’m not saying you should engage with everyone. Please take care of yourself and prioritize healthy boundaries in your interactions.)

Are you willing to change your mind?

What would it mean about you if you changed your mind? I sometimes struggle to share opinions here with you. As I learn and grow, I’ll likely change my mind about some things. I don’t want you to think I’m wishy-washy or untrustworthy if you see me writing something different. I am afraid of being defined by what I thought before I knew better.

At the same time, when I think of the people I admire most, they are the ones continuing to grow and learn. They are the ones brave enough to let their answers be challenged. They are the ones willing to change their minds when their answers can no longer hold everything they’ve learned to be true. Those unwilling to ever change their minds tend to stagnate because we can’t both grow and stay the same.

I think for many of us it feels safer to be a knower. A big part of developing the learner inside us is building our self-trust. It’s about practicing discernment and learning to hear the sound of our own voice.

We can’t really learn when we’re afraid we’ll be easily lead astray. Being open to learning something new and letting our answers be challenged doesn’t mean we will change our mind every time we hear a compelling story or convincing argument.

We can be both open and discerning, curious and conscientious. It is a good thing to know what we think and believe. It is also a good thing to keep learning, even at the risk of upending what we currently know.

I’d love to hear from you… Do you tend to be more of a knower or a learner? Does that tendency vary across different aspects of life? This week, how can you learn something new about one thing you know? Leave a comment below or send me an email to share your thoughts.