Personal Growth and Intellectual Junk Food

When we are fearful or stressed, we tend to want easy to digest content that plays into our own confirmation bias. It's human nature. I call this "intellectual junk food."

Personal Growth and Intellectual Junk Food

When we are fearful or stressed, we tend to want easy to digest content that plays into our own confirmation bias. It's human nature. I call this "intellectual junk food."

I believe that learning in public can be a powerful way to achieve frictionless career networking and create opportunities for yourself. Writing, creating, and thinking in a public space creates a feedback loop that cannot be replicated with typical in-person networking events. Since we are in a pandemic and I'm an introvert, this form of networking works particularly well.

One of the fundamental building blocks for personal growth is to routinely challenge your values. One of the best ways to test my values is to write for the public. It provides a natural feedback loop that can combat confirmation bias and solidify my thought process over time.

The problem is fear. As an introvert, I can tell you that self-doubt is a daily occurrence. Sometimes the doubt comes from truly not appreciating my early work as a stepping stone to more interesting projects.

Sometimes the doubt comes from a healthy dose of impostor syndrome. I will think that surely, someday, someone will find out that I'm a fraud. Maybe it will happen today after you read this.

So, what is an introvert to do? I have found that one of the best ways to eliminate fear is to gain confidence through reading. However, for this to work, the reading must be intentional.

Intellectual Junk Food

Your mind is trained through your experiences and through what you read. Even if you cannot recall the content that you are reading, the experience of reading, along with the mental models that are formed from it, stay in your mind. It is the creation of mental models that builds confidence. If you have rock-solid mental models that you rely on daily, your confidence will soar. You may forget the content, but you likely won't forget the intent of what you read.

When we are fearful or stressed, we tend to want easy to digest content that plays into our own confirmation bias. It's human nature. I call this "intellectual junk food." It's the snack that you reach for when you need comfort. It's also a personal growth blocker.

Conspiracy Theories

A steady diet of "intellectual junk food" may cause you to stagnate, but it can be dangerous when it becomes the norm for an aggregate population. I'm talking about a form of "intellectual junk food" called conspiracy theories. They are seductive, their points are easily repeatable, and 2020 seems to have been the year of disinformation.

In an article that Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times wrote, he interviewed Dr. Joan Donovan, an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Dr. Donovan stated that two factors contribute to the proliferation of conspiracy theories and their peddlers in 2020. These are social isolation and QAnon. I'll take it a step further and interpret the second factor as the internet mobilization that QAnon has been able to achieve due to their strategic targeting of trends on social media.

These reasons make sense. Due to social isolation, people have been separated from a potentially diverse group of friends and loved ones that could temper their reactions to conspiracy theories. The isolated people look to Facebook groups and other outlets for answers and social interaction. Before you know it, what used to be considered fringe is now a trend.

Conspiracy theorists thrive on the "intellectual junk food" that is found on social media. The reading is light, the images are visceral, and the message is easy to trend with a hashtag. Plus, we know that Facebook's algorithms are designed to trigger a fast response when disagreement occurs. Instead of writing their own ideas, people just parrot the talking points. It's the perfect storm of personal growth stagnation.

Conspiracy theories have become an "intellectual junk food" epidemic. They have stifled the personal growth of entire populations of people. Fear and stress keep people reaching for answers in the form of conspiracy theories. They, in turn, feed into people's natural confirmation bias. This causes more fear and keeps people looking to conspiracy theories for explanations. The result? Zero personal growth and thousands of people arguing over nonsense on the internet. This cycle can be stopped.

Deliberate Reading

I believe that we should strive to be deliberate with our reading. Try to find a narrative thread in non-fiction that you read. Read with a pen in hand (analog or digital) to take notes.

While you cannot get rid of "intellectual junk food" altogether, you can deliberately read. Set aside time to indulge in this type of content, knowing that it is merely "empty calories." If you don't practice reading this type of content, you may have a harder time spotting it. It's human nature to crave it. Just know what you are consuming and treat it accordingly.

Ideally, the rich content will outweigh the "intellectual junk food" in your life. When you do read content that will help you learn and grow, write about it. Write about your own ideas about what you have learned. Test your values in public. You'll be well on your way to developing your own confidence-building mental models.

Personal Growth Maintenance

To keep perspective and build upon your mental models, you should revisit important books at different points in your life. If you've been learning in public, you should revisit your early writing as well. Think of this as personal growth maintenance.

The books will mean something different to you after having had different experiences and established different mental models. Your writing will take on new meaning as well. It will become an invaluable tool for showing your rate of change. If you want to knock out self-doubt, you must gain confidence. There is no better way to gain confidence than focusing on constant, iterative improvement.

Revisit some of your older work. You'll glean new insights, realize that you have outgrown some older ones, and gain confidence in the process. Most importantly, you will have stepped outside of your comfort zone.


I firmly believe that personal growth is needed to improve the world. Systemic problems will not go away unless people change from within. Imagine if, instead of conspiracy theories fueled by an "intellectual junk food" diet, people spread their personal ideas about the content they are learning. Those ideas can then be packaged and re-mixed with other well-informed ideas.

It's a lofty goal, to be sure. However, the motivation to achieve it is rooted in individual growth. That's just might be selfish enough to work.

Harley Stagner

I'm an IT professional working in technical marketing. I truly believe that our thoughts are the most unique asset that we can offer to the world. This will be a curated collection of mine.