Why We Learn

One of the difficulties I have with the concept of ‘grit’ is that it is often reduced to “perseverance through failure” or “commitment despite failure” rather than the more accurate and helpful observation that “failure is information.”

“Failure is the path to success,” is a common narrative in TED circles, so we assume that failure implies progress, that we hop from failure to failure like stones to cross a river. Instead, we’re more like a blindfolded person trying to cross a field; when we find an obstacle that doesn’t yield to a shove, then we should stop and change our path, search for a gap in the fence.

The obstacle is information: not here, not this way. Try it differently.

Grit isn’t pushing against a brick wall for a few years and then congratulating yourself for a job well done. Grit is noticing, “Hey, there’s a wall here. Shit. Lets look for a way around.”

Grit requires knowing why, not how.

Grit is sometimes mistaken for commitment, but at a tactical level, grit is a complete lack of commitment. Grit is aggressively quitting what isn’t working, what is stressing you out, what you’re procrastinating on.

In a programming context, grit is not hacking on shitty code, but a complete refactor.

In an office context, grit isn’t catching up on an email backlog, but deleting the backlog and setting up an autoresponder.

In a nutritional context, grit isn’t suffering a half-dozen arbitrary restrictions (no white carbs after 7PM!), but learning the foundations of nutrition to plan your own meals.

In a jujitsu context, grit is not muscling into positions when you meet resistance, but mastering angles and leverage.

Grit is “embracing failure” in the same way that taking the wrong bus is “embracing transportation.”

Wherever you’re trying to get, you can still make it there. But please, get off the damn bus and figure out a new route.

Why We Act

Space-time is, broadly, the concept that time and space are not independent structures; the flow of time changes relative to an object’s position and movement through space.

As I sipped absinthe in a secret red-walled bar down a Shibuya alleyway, I considered the existence of a new theory of relativity: the space-food continuum.

What I discovered in my liquor-ish haze, is that my food selection changes relative to my position and movement around the globe.

I treat food like I treat maps.

When I visit unfamiliar cities, I discard maps. Fuck a map, I am a space explorer. I lose time. I lose myself. I pick a point and wander, turning randomly at intersections, no destination in mind. I prioritize novelty over all else. I don’t particularly care where I end up, or when. I trust curiosity, fortune, and friends to lead me to the right spaces.

And the right foods.

Plunk me in a new city, and I will eat everything, try anything. I chuck calorie tracking and nutrient density out the window. My intention is to amble about the culinary topography, to taste the strange, the banal, the obvious and obscure; to let luck guide my tongue.

At home, I turn from explorer to engineer. Space is an optimization exercise. I study the map. I figure out where the fewest stop signs are located and I track the lengths of stoplights in order to shave seconds off my travel time. Beating Google Maps’ estimated travel duration brings me great joy. Missing an exit on the freeway brings me great shame. The purpose of commuting isn’t to commute; the purpose of commuting is to Get There.

At home, food becomes a route to a specific destination. To lower blood levels of LDL-P. To reduce body fat by 5%. To deadlift 35 more pounds. In the kitchen, I track macros and weigh meat. I record weekly averages. Food follows function: I prioritize effectiveness and efficiency over aesthetics and chance.

My tolerance for serendipity increases as a factor of distance from my house.

This is what I define as the space-food continuum.

Why We Learn

There is such a thing as a bad question.

On Reddit’s fitness forum, people share stories, trade tips, and ask questions on a shared quest to improve their health and sculpt their bodies. The site is a treasure for the motivated, curious beginner.

You also encounter questions like, “Is it okay to eat a grapefruit before my workout or should I wait until after?”

Bad question. Good person, but bad question.

This is a bad question because it is fear disguised as curiosity. Learning a little more, reading another book or blog post can feel like progress, but it is also a common stalling tactic. Same with asking for advice. The wisdom of experts can help us avoid painful, time-consuming mistakes.

But this question is about grapefruit timing.

I want to grab this person and yell, “JUST TRY IT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”

Yesterday, I talked about passive curiosity, which asks, “What do people already know about this subject?”

Active curiosity wonders, “Let’s see what happens when I try this.”

The curiosity of taking apart a camera to see if you can put it back together.

The curiosity of introducing yourself to a group of strangers to see how they react.

The curiosity of taking the long way everybody avoids rather than the short cut everybody seeks.

The curiosity of failing forward.

The curiosity of taking the first bite.

The curiosity of saying yes.

When a person specializes in passive curiosity, we call her well-read. When she dedicates herself to active curiosity, we call her well-lived.

The well-read person is sometimes interesting, and often dangerous. The well-lived person is always interesting, and often heroic.

It is the difference between timing a grapefruit and starting a movement.

Why We Create

Let’s test some alternative definitions for technology and art !  Let’s see. Simply:

Technology facilitates closure, completion of tasks.

Art opens, creates unresolved tensions, new tasks to complete.

With these definitions, we free ourselves from the thorny cages of silicon versus ink, steel versus string, function versus aesthetic. Can toilet seats be art? Can a poem be technology? Can the camera be a work of art, and the photo be the technology?

A personal essay that helps people find closure in the deaths of their family members? This is technology.

Simone Giertz’ shitty robots, the goofy, miserable contraptions that inspire people to build, to fail, to leap? Art.

Art and technology, questions asked and answered.

Why We Create

How might we resolve the chef’s dilemma, the asymmetry between the effort it takes to make something and the effort it takes to consume it?

Here are three common strategies:

  1. Make it faster: If we reduce the time, care, or attention we spend on our work, then we approach a balance in the amount of time they’ll take to enjoy it. We can make things faster by refining our technique and producing our work more efficiently. Beware, however, that we usually end up hating processes that we try to make more efficient.
  2. Make a million: For some, a million people enjoying their work for a few minutes will be more satisfying than a thousand people enjoying their work for years. To appeal to the largest possible crowd, we may need to make a few compromises, but the reward and the renown are certainly unparalleled.
  3. Make them wait: Here’s a secret – for an artist, a delay is a way of getting even. A chef whose restaurant has a three month waitlist feels no shame. The line around the block, the album delay, each fan’s frustration is a small measure of justice. Once they’re inside, we create ways to slow their experience. We keep them at the table for four hours through fourteen courses. Small spoons. Tiny bites.

A little less care, or a little more. A little less time, or a little more. Chef’s choice.

Why We Create

You prepare your chicken stock by boiling four pounds of excavated chickens with onion, carrot, leeks, and fresh herbs. You simmer that for a full day. The following evening, you reheat the chicken stock. As it warms up, you mince garlic, onion, and red peppers. You crush saffron and add it to the stock. In a large cast-iron pan you heat some oil and sauté some chicken thighs. You slice a chorizo, grate a tomato and toss both into the pan, along with the vegetables. When that browns, you add several cups of uncooked rice and let that sizzle with everything else. Once everything gleams and steams, add the stock into the pan. Let that simmer for 30 minutes. Once the rice has soaked everything up, tuck some shrimp, piquillo peppers, and anything else you fancy in there. Make sure not to disturb the bottom of the pan. Keep the pan over that heat. You want to hear a sizzle. Thats the rice at the bottom of your pan caramelizing. That crust, called the socarrat, is the key to a perfect paella.

You bring the hot pan to your eager friends. They’ve been talking and laughing and sipping (okay, slurping) white wine while you conjured your magic in the kitchen. Exhausted and excited, you plop into your chair alongside them. Salud.

They scarf down your creation in five minutes flat. Noisily, gleefully, gratefully… and rapidly.

The chef’s dilemma: they will spend less time, care, and attention eating your food than you will spend making it.

He spends four years on his followup album. They listen to it once while responding to emails and burp out an opinion over their lunch break.

She spends the better part of her twenties observing, sketching, painting. They walk through her debut gallery, stop in front of each piece for fifteen seconds and nod.

That violent asymmetry of time, care, and attention. A devotional injustice. The chef’s dilemma.

What Came Before

There are some that assert that Pop isn’t a specific genre of music, but rather the ever-shifting expression of a generation’s joys and anxieties. Pop sheds its skin in every era, wears new names: Rock, Grunge, Rap, EDM. The purists who point to a specific sound (say, late-80s Madonna) and insist, “this is Pop,” miss the point completely. They may as well point to the tomb of Lenin and declare, “this is leadership.”

Some speculate that at the beginning of the 20th century, what we consider Philosophy, the ordered examination of what we know and how to live, also shed its skin. The kids gave it two names: Physics and Psychology.

Why We Act

Interest is asking questions. Care is attachment to a specific answer.

So when Chuck Klosterman confesses, “I don’t think being interested in something and giving a fuck about about it are remotely connected,” he also describes the ideal state for a journalist: inquisitive and unbiased.

In fact, it’s enlightening to locate our personal and professional lives along these two dimensions: interest and care. Consider these the four quadrants of curiosity:

1. Not interested, don’t care: We are ignorant of these topics. Everything we are easily convinced about falls here. For most, this includes plate tectonics, foreign tax law, the sex lives of the elderly, and plot of the Entourage movie. Common professions of people that don’t ask questions and don’t care about answers: hitmen, political lobbyists.

2. Not interested, but care: Here we hold strong opinions, but don’t have the time or courage or curiosity to question what we believe. Usually includes city planning, contemporary fashion trends, superior pizza locations, how cell phones work, our cholesterol level, books that we buy and don’t read. Common professions of people that care without interest: people more successful in school than out of school, terrible journalists, unsuccessful investors, bad spouses, unethical academics, bloggers.

3. Interested, don’t care: These topics elicit neutral questioning. We ask, and we keep asking, because we’re not partial toward any particular answer. Includes the worlds of astronomy, non-applied (pure) mathematics, neurotic cat behavior, and combat. Here we meet ethical scientists, empiricists, platoon leaders, photojournalists, taxi drivers, strippers, successful investors, and people more successful out of school than in school.

4. Interested, and care: Ugh. These are the topics that inspire passion within us. Exhausting, ideological passion. We research obsessively. Each answer inflames or revolts us. We know every scrap of trivia, and when we run out of questions we invent hypotheticals. We know we’re right; we must be. After all (we say smugly), we ask the most questions. These are our zealots, nerds, bodybuilders, annoying students, fiction authors, and people who want to create new schools.

Every idea, every event, every subject, every app, every meme, every possible conversation, every person we meet, every history and every future fall somewhere along these two dimensions for you.

And should you be dissatisfied with any of these, consider moving to a new quadrant.

Why We Love

“There are three dimensions to music: melody, harmony, and rhythm. When it comes to music preference, I think everyone has one dimension that moves them more than the other two.”

A friend laid this theory out to me fifteen years ago. I return to it every few months after a new song gives me chills.

Some people might leap to nitpick or refute his claim. “Evidence!”, they demand. “Well actually,” they insist. These are the types of squares you want to avoid at parties.

For the rest of us, it’s a fun starting point to inspect the hidden strings that pull on our aesthetic tastes, to plumb past the cold pipes of reason and swim in our murky, bubbling, emotional broth.

“You, for example, are drawn to rhythm,” my friend told me, “which is why you love hip hop.” And why he, drawn to harmony, loved the Beach Boys.

In the past fifteen years, the only adjustment I’ve made to this theory is to add a fourth dimension: meaning. Songs are more than their sounds; for some, lyrics and cultural context are most moving.

Then last week, I made a synaesthetic discovery: we can extend this theory to visual art. Form, color, repetition, and interpretation are visual art’s siblings to melody, harmony, rhythm, and meaning. For example, I might be hypnotized by Autumn Rhythm’s subtle fractals, my friend might be moved by its melancholic soft browns and cutting blacks, and you might be completely disgusted by its lack of form and focal point.

Something to consider on long walks, or at parties (away from the squares): in music, we are drawn by different brushes. In painting, we are plucked by different strings.

Why We Talk

On long train rides, I consider the helplessness of Superman.

The public has, perhaps unfairly, concluded that Superman’s powers are limitless. Therefore, when a problem – any problem – goes unsolved, the point of failure is obvious: Hostage situation? Capsized pleasure cruise? Unexpected volcanic eruption? Superman problems.

Systemic racial bias in policing? Hidden debt in derivatives markets? Mounting threat of mass extinction due to global climate change?

Alas, Superman’s abilities end at the boundary between quick disasters and slow disasters.

Quick disasters are events that erupt in moments. They tend to be single-factor, physical, objective, observable incidents. Falling planes. Speeding cars. Aggressive drunks. Catastrophes that can be averted by lifting, swooping, blocking, catching, and most thrilling of all, punching.

Slow disasters brew and unfold for decades or centuries. They are often complex, contextual, informational, nonlinear systems. Regional political disputes. Behavioral norms and biases. Environmental and economic degradation.

In the age of Buzzfeed, I imagine strongly worded Open Letters to Superman, penned daily by representatives of communities obvious and obscure, decrying his inaction on the amount of GMO grain in chicken feed, and the shrinking of Australia’s coral reefs, and the development of commercial properties on tribal lands, and, and, and.

Not Superman problems.

Clark Kent problems. Clark Kent, the journalist.

The power of the written word: to snake through the boundary between quick and slow disasters, to lift hearts and minds instead of overturned school busses. To inspire mass action, to salve (if not solve) a generation of sectarian divide, to plant vision and ethics and seeds that grow for centuries, long after Superman returns to that great Fortress of Solitude in the sky.

Imagine if Krypton didn’t imbue Clark Kent with superhuman strength, but superhuman wit and empathy. Able to bridge bitter conflicts in a single aphorism. More inspirational than a parent’s sacrifice, a preacher’s pulpit, or a clear view of the Milky Way in the night sky.