03/17/2012 12:04 EDT | Updated 05/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Knowledge Is Knowledge: Lessons to Take From the Encyclopaedia


The most exciting part of any elementary school research project was when I looked things up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I could never resist skimming over a few passages before getting to an exhaustive list of my country's imports and exports.

While the books are traditionally thought of as pure factual resources, the truth is, if you read enough, you can learn quite a few life lessons from them too. I myself have not read enough; but A.J. Jacobs has. In honour of Britannica's ending its monumental print version, and distilled through Jacobs' The Know it All, here are my top four lessons to take from reading the encyclopedia.

1. Contentment must come from within.

Kafka didn't believe his work was good enough for public viewing. In fact, the only reason we know much of his work is because a friend defied his orders to have all manuscripts burned upon his death. Kierkegaard suffered from self-loathing, depression, and guilt. Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, and a multitude of other writers, artists and thinkers successfully or unsuccessfully attempted to take their own lives.

It seems that talent, success, wealth, even your own entry in the Britannica, will not make you believe in your own self-worth, and they certainly don't get you happiness. How then to inspire that inner contentment? An eternal question, but perhaps at least acknowledging the disconnect between external attainment and internal contentment is a start.

2. Give credit to chance but take advantage of opportunity.

What is very clear in reading the encyclopedia (or rather, The Know it All), is that history, invention, and discovery are hugely influenced by chance. At the same time though, there has to be a person on the other side of chance to transform accident into meaning.

Francis Ford Coppola gave us hugely important films after developing his interest after entertaining himself with puppet shows while housebound with polio. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was a mediocre writer until a near-death head injury somehow "freed in him the deepest forces of creation." Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, and Jean Renoir all discovered their talents while recuperating from disease and injury. Coffee, that multi-billion industry, was discovered after a goat herder noticed his goats acting funny.

Yes, chance discovery and accident sometimes lead to great outcomes, but only by those who take advantage of those accidents. Had Kahlo moped in front of the TV all day after her horrible accident, we would likely not know her name today.

3. To give up on yourself is to never attain greatness.

These people of the Encyclopaedia, these figures who have contributed in ways meaningful enough to be immortalized in the most respected of resources, did not listen to their peers. They did not stop when they were told to go home; told that they weren't good, sane, talented, or capable.

Chang and Eng were Siamese twins. After touring and amassing some wealth, they became farmers. They both married, maintained households a mile and a half apart, and fathered children. They also became great marksmen, runners, and swimmers, all while attached at the waist.

Bernard Shaw was a failed writer in his 20s. The inventor of Xerox was rejected by over 20 companies before landing his first sale. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring caused uproar (literally) upon debut for its "scandalous dissonances." Emile Zola was a starving writer who ate sparrows trapped outside his window. Greek orator and statesman Demosthenes suffered from a speech defect, and John Fielding, a founder of the London police, was a very successful blind detective.

The list of things accomplished by people with the thickest of skins and strongest resolve is long. The list of things that could have been accomplished with people of thinner skin is nonexistent.

4. You can always find good in the bad, and bad in the good.

Particularly in the internet era, when people and issues become ever more polarized, a lot of grey is lost. Things are often "evil," or models of perfection. Because the most important contribution is all there is time for, a lot detail is lost.

First, there is no point in jealousy or idolization; you never really know what's going on. Nathaniel Hawthorne was satirized by his one-time friend Herman Melville, was depressed after being fired from his job, and led a fairly sad life. Both playright Ben Jonson and Renaissance painter Caravaggio were murderers. Chaucer beat up a priest. Thomas Jefferson justified slavery and paid reporters to libel John Adams. Newton is said to have had "pronounced psychotic tendencies" and to have been extremely angry and antisocial.

On the flip side, the darkest of characters may have unexpected qualities. Attila the Hun, for example, ate simple meals while leaving the finest meals and adornments to his lieutenants. Gengis Khan was a tyrant but he did end up spreading civilization far and wide. Max Schmeling, Hitler's champion boxer, actually refused to disassociate from Jewish friends, and protected two Jewish boys in his apartment, risking his own life. British colonialists in India ended the practice of widow burning.

Such mundane niceties do not counteract the terror, but they do show that if even the worst in humankind is capable of compassion, integrity, or wisdom in some realm, your boss may be capable some too.