Apply What You Learn

Fill your life with useful habits, not your mind with useless facts

Jan 10, 2023

A few weeks ago in Sunday School we were discussing Malachi chapter 1 where the Israelites are being chastised for bringing the Lord polluted sacrifices. Back in Old Testament times the Israelites were commanded to sacrifice the firstborn and most healthy of their flocks to the Lord but during this time they were cheating the system by sacrificing their less desirable animals so the Lord was angry with them. Of course we are not commanded to practice the law of sacrifice like they were but there are still things which we are commanded to sacrifice to the Lord so our teacher asked us, "What are things that pollute our sacrifices?"

A few people raised their hands and gave nebulous answers like pride, or fear, or laziness along with an obvious description of those things and all those answers were correct but they were also too broad and inoffensive to really be of much value. After being a bit tired of hearing these sort of responses I looked around, saw that at least a third of the room was on their phone not paying attention and raised my hand to say, "Being on our phone in church is a way that we pollute our sacrifice to the Lord."

Everyone knows that they shouldn't be prideful, or fearful, or lazy, but when you just talk about pride as a general concept you're not helping people realize when and how they are being prideful you're not really helping them conquer the issue of pride, you're just boring them to death by telling them something they already know. Everyone should also know that they shouldn't be on their phone at church but they do it anyways and by bringing something specific like that up in a discussion about polluted sacrifices it causes people to look inward and give them an opportunity to correct that bad behavior that they've let slip into their life. I feel like that discussion would have been much more interesting and impactful if we had spent time talking about specific issues like being on your phone at church, paying tithing late, listening to scriptures vs reading them, and doing work on the Sabbath, rather than general concepts like pride, fear, and laziness. If somebody walks out of a class without at least one specific thing that they can apply to benefit themself or their work was the class (or anything else meant to be instructional) worth their time?

I recently went to a class about setting and achieving goals, I was of course hoping to walk out of that class with some new strategies on goals and to be able to share my insights with other people to help them with their goals. In the beginning of the class we talked about reasons that setting and achieving goals is hard and the teacher wrote a big list of the struggles people in the class had on the board, then we talked about areas of our lives where we should set goals and by the time that discussion was done we were almost out of time. We never looked back at that list of obstacles that was written on the board to discuss strategies to overcome them. I left that class empty because the only things we talked about were the facts that goals are hard and we should set goals, things I and every other person in that class already knew. The class would have been much better had we taken a look at some of the obstacles, for example not holding yourself accountable to your goals, then talked about solutions, like keeping a journal where you write about your progress on your goals.

It is easy to talk about things in the abstract because it shields us from accusing someone of being wrong, or worse confronting the reality that we aren't perfect. It is also easy to vent about problems without brainstorming solutions because it validates our choice to not take action in solving them. Both of these things are symptoms of the same disease in today's culture: an inability to apply things to our own lives.

I partially blame the education system for this issue. I'm sure everyone who has ever sat in a math class and heard someone ask the teacher, "When are we going to use this in our life?" Maybe you were even the one who asked it all the time, and while learning basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry the teacher could usually come up with a real world example of a time when whatever concept the student was struggling with may apply what was being taught. But in more advanced classes there will inevitably come a point where the teacher is looking into the face of some student whose dream is to be a choir teacher and the only truthful answer to the question of when they'd need trigonometry in their life is never. At that moment the student realizes (assuming they hadn't already) that what they're being taught is useless to them and they can dump whatever they are being taught as soon as the semester is over. As students become accustomed to learning things they know they'll never have to apply to their own lives they loose the ability to apply the things they learn which they should to their lives.

This only gets worse when someone goes to college having decided on a major. I "studied" computer science in college but a considerable chunk of my academic efforts were spent elsewhere because every university has a certain set of classes that they want all of their students to take regardless of what the student plans to do with their life. I had to waste time in various humanities and science classes that I knew I would never actually need to apply to my career rather than spending time becoming more expert in my chosen field. Sure, I enjoyed some of these classes, but if given the choice I would have replaced them with a more relevant experience any day of the week. Every student feels this way, you'll never find a business major excited to be in a biology class of a psychology major who walks into a calculus class with a smile on their face and yet you'll still find them in those classes and you'll see them a month after the semester ends having forgotten everything taught in that class. Forcing people to learn things which they plan to forget only makes them more practiced when it comes to forgetting things which they mean to remember. I honestly think college made me stupider.

Political correctness is another thing that prevents people from applying various concepts to their lives or helping others do the same. We live in a culture where there are certain lifestyles which are not allowed to be criticized even though many of those lifestyles are dangerous and wrong. Take the body positivity movement as an example, many people involved in and sympathetic to the movement claim that sharing facts and advice about health is offensive, this causes a certain subset of the population reluctant to learn and apply such "problematic" concepts, and it makes all but the brave reluctant to bring up these kind of things in a classroom (or similar setting) where people are there because they supposedly want to learn useful things to apply to their lives.

But of course the biggest cause of this problem is also the root cause of political correctness, pride. Before you have to apply a new concept to your life in a beneficial way one first has to admit to themself that they are not perfect. Of course in theory everyone knows that they aren't perfect but in practice they don't. If people where people truly acted as if they understood they weren't perfect we'd see a lot more people actively trying to make changes in their lives to become better. Instead we live in a world where people are filled with self righteousness while engaging in things as relatively harmless as spending all day watching Netflix to committing sins against other people. People hate having to admit that they are wrong about something.

For a vegan to take the knowledge that every healthy culture in the history of mankind had meat in their diet and apply it to their life they'd first have to admit to themself that their worldview is flawed, nobody wants to do that. For an environmentalist to take the knowledge that lithium, cobalt, and mercury are essential components to electric car batteries but are also extremely destructive to the environment to mine and apply it to their life they'd first have to admit to themself that their worldview is flawed, nobody wants to do that. For an abortion activist to take the knowledge that life begins at conception and apply it to their life they'd first have to admit that their worldview is wrong, nobody wants to do that. Pride is what is preventing these people from applying these things.

But of course these are rather extreme examples. What knowledge and wisdom is your pride preventing you from applying to your life? Learning is a truly rewarding activity that we should seek to be doing as much as we can throughout our lives, but if we are not seeking to apply the things we learn to our lives then we aren't getting the most out of it and we may have to ask ourselves if the effort spent learning things was really worth our time. Don't fill your brain with useless facts, fill your life with useful habits.