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 Learn

There’s a reason that Stanford sells sweatshirts and spends as much on athletics as it does academics: loyalty. Universities aim to create a sense of shared identity, of allegiance to a tribe, and most importantly, prestige for the university itself.

In education, the locus of authority, of popularity, of loyalty is the school, not the teacher.

This won’t last.

In the old world, companies built their brand for decades, then leased their good name to their employees. You were a reporter for the New York Times or a writer for TV Guide. What was your name? Who knows. Why should anyone listen to you? Because you worked for an outlet we trusted.

Then, the internet happened, and journalists no longer relied on the endorsement and employment of established news companies. Instead, they built direct relationships with their audience via social media. They developed their credibility through good work, and their devotion through the intimacy, authenticity, and unscripted candor that the internet provides. Their fans followed them from project to project, platform to platform.

People used to trust brands. Now they trust faces.

The dominant media corporations are just beginning to topple. In time, every profession dominated by institutions will transform.

And no field is more ripe for renaissance than teaching.

Higher education shares many of the same characteristics that news media once did. The institution dominates; value flows to and from the school. While students cross their fingers Harvard or Berkeley – few applicants know the names of the specific professors who will teach their courses. Teachers derive their reputation from the schools in which they work. Unless they write a best-selling book, they must remain inside academia in order to retain credibility and income.

Authority is even more concentrated in primary and secondary schools. A family might move to attend a “good school”, but rarely because they seek a particular teacher. Even when teachers are beloved by their students, the value and scale of that popularity ends at the borders of their school district. If a physics teacher in New Jersey moves to California, her reputation doesn’t proceed her, and her students won’t follow. Her previous school keeps the reputation for excellence that her work created.

The next decade will upend this dynamic. The next wave of superstar teachers will distribute their lessons on Youtube, full of recurring jokes. They’ll hold office hours on Facebook with two thousand students across the world. They’ll share their academic and non-academic hobbies on Instagram. They’ll create weekly podcasts, nerding out on their favorite subjects and discussing the ways in which their field shapes the news and affects real people. They’ll earn a living through exclusive lessons on Patreon, individual and small group tutoring over Google Hangouts, and monthly private donations. Sal Khan started Khan Academy by uploading lessons to his family on Youtube. The next Sal Khan will build his following on Snapchat.

This change will bring about many of the same practical and ethical issues that have emerged in journalism over the past few years: does training and licensing matter? How do we enforce standards of accuracy and objectivity? What happens when a popular teacher accepts advertisers on their podcast? If these questions disturb you, then start thinking about them now. Ask an executive at Sony Music or the Washington Post: you can’t fight the internet, you can only prepare for it.

Unlike record stores, brick-and-mortar high schools aren’t going away any time soon. Stanford will still be sought after for the next several decades. Yet, more educators will opt to work directly with students at scale, rather than serve the needs of a stodgy bureaucracy. Salaries of the savviest teachers will rise as they create side incomes as podcasters and tutors. Schools will compete for teachers that command a loyal, global audience. And students will have direct access to the best teachers in the world, no matter what town they live in.

If you are a school administrator, then this all sounds rather stressful.

If you are a teacher or a student (and we all are, always), then the future couldn’t be more exciting.

What Came Before

The misogyny and vicious trolling that sprouted around Gamergate was, in retrospect, a foreshadowing of the ideology and tactics that would coalesce around the alt-right’s political ascendancy two years later.

For whatever reason, the video game community tends to feel the first tremors of broader cultural and economic upheaval.

A second, less doom-laden example:

Once upon a time, if you wanted to learn about the video games, you went to either Gamespot or IGN. These websites were the most trusted and visited sources for video game coverage, and by the mid-2000s had largely supplanted the print media industry.

In 2007, Gamespot fired editor-in-chief Jeff Gerstmann because he gave a mediocre review score to a game, and that game’s publisher happened to be a significant advertiser on the site.

In 2008, Gerstmann and several former coworkers started Giant Bomb, and over the next several years, Giant Bomb helped to forge the new landscape of video game journalism. They phased out written coverage and moved to 30-60 minute videos of them playing games as they talked and joked, the way you might if you were sitting on the couch with a friend. They were one of the first sites to have weekly podcasts, analyzing the week’s news and digressing into bizarre conversations and inside jokes for hours.

What most differentiated Giant Bomb was that the creators were the stars. Their personalities, insights, and senses of humor were front and center. They didn’t hide their preferences and non-gaming obsessions. Newcomers visited Giant Bomb for the first time to hear about games, but fans returned daily to hear from Jeff, Brad, Ryan, and Vinny, regardless of the topic. As a result, they’ve dabbled in spinoff podcasts about pro wrestling, Formula 1 racing, and life advice.

Giant Bomb happens to be the site where you can hear your favorite people talk about games; if those people leave Giant Bomb (particularly Jeff), the brand ceases to have value beyond its SEO ranking.

This shift in authority from institution to individuals has rippled out beyond video game journalism over the past five years. We see it across all media. Not long ago, if you were a politics journalist, there were a half-dozen publications that might be your ultimate goal: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc. If you worked for The New York Times, your reputation was derived from your employer and the 150 years of credibility behind it. If you left The Times, the readers wouldn’t know or tell the difference.

Now, the opposite is true.

Nate Silver built his FiveThirtyEight blog on the strength of his work and participation in social media around the 2008 election. When The New York Times bought FiveThirtyEight in 2010, they didn’t give him credibility – he gave them credibility (and huge traffic). And when Silver left in 2013, he took his fans with him.

Starting with video games, the power of publications to grant legitimacy to people has shriveled. In the age of the internet we care about individuals over institutions. Journalism and entertainment were the first industries to change in the new climate, but every industry historically dominated by institutional authority is at-risk.

And schools are next.

Why We Learn

Straight-A’s should be a handicap when applying to colleges.

Imagine you are an admissions officer deciding between two applicants:

Lisa gets A’s in every class, is first-chair violin, and captain of the rugby team.

Arya gets C’s and D’s in all of her classes, save for Physics and Woodworking, where she gets A’s. She doesn’t do any academic extracurriculars, but she has a Gunpla youtube channel.

You might believe that Lisa is the better student, but the truth is that her transcript tells you less than Arya’s.

Lisa’s high grades across classes highlights her capability for success, but obscures her interest in anything other than academic achievement.

Meanwhile, Arya demonstrates both capability and passion for a specific topic.

Lisa, with so many commitments, manages her time. Arya prioritizes her time.

As an admissions officer, you should feel confident that Lisa will thrive inside your university. And that Arya will thrive beyond.

For a discussion of fragility and antifragility applied to education, read this article by Alwyn Lau.

Why We Learn

If you are open-minded and do not fear harm to your reputation, then there is a way to receive a world-class education for free. In order to explain how, we must first observe two phenomena:

  1. The internet provides us with immediate and abundant access to experts in all fields.
  2. We have a psychological need to correct stupid statements.

We will use these facts to create an individualized, graduate-level curriculum taught exclusively by the leaders of any field.

All you need to do is be an intentional idiot. Here are the steps:

  1. Find an internet forum dedicated to the topic you wish to study.
  2. Start a thread that offers terribly inaccurate advice to novices. Declare with certainty.
  3. The comment section will fill with experts on that subject emphatically correcting your idiotic advice. This is the goldmine. Scholars and experienced practitioners will clearly lay out everything you need to know about the subject. In many cases they will even debate amongst themselves, in doing so highlighting relevant controversies and opportunities for more research.
  4. If you need to drill down on a particular, simply challenge a expert with a qualified assertion like, “well that may be true, but then why X.” They will happily (angrily) get into the nitty-gritty.
  5. Take notes!
  6. When you feel satisfied with your expert tutorial, close out the thread by saying that you stand corrected, repeat back what you’ve heard (helps the commenters feel understood), and thank them for a new perspective. This is important. Experts spend most of their time arguing with other experts, so for them, the greatest feeling in the world is convincing somebody else that they are right. Since you are piggy-backing on their hard work, they deserve that gift.

This is how you troll for a world-class education.

I haven’t seen this method described anywhere else. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

To see trolling for education in action, check out this Reddit thread on avocados.

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.

What Came Before, Why We Learn

“The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.”

Nassim Taleb, Bed of Procrustes

When it comes to birds, at least we have an excuse for epistemic blindness: avian writing proficiency has lingered around 0.0% for the bulk of human memory.

Unfortunately, we commit the same error in liberal education. High school history classes use textbooks that summarize events that were only important in hindsight. English classes read authors who were unpopular or unknown in their time. We study the past through the lens of the present far more than we study the past through the lens of the past, or the present through the lens of the past (i.e. old predictions about the future).

In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to study the types of errors we make in forecasting the future. We declare that Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka were ‘underappreciated’ in their time, implying that we see clearly what our predecessors missed. We forget that we are living in someone else’s past, that we will be summarized and laughed at, that the authors that come to define our generation will likely be those that we’ve never heard of or heartily dismissed.

Like some twisted Greek myth, time turns each generation of ornithologists into birds.

What Came Before

History classes mistake what happened for what people cared about.

NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership might be the most significant and widely impactful international agreements of our generation. And I have no idea what they do.

I say this because people who study economics and globalism say things like this. It’s entirely possible that they are correct; NAFTA and TPP could alter the course of human industry and events in ways it will take centuries to fully understand.

Yet, if a time-traveler from 200 years in the future appeared on my doorstep and asked me to teach them about what was important to people of the early 21st century, trade tariffs would be among the last of topics that I would cover. Far better to tell them about Beyonce, Harry Potter, Fox News, The Wire, and Dave Chappelle: the voices that spoke to us and through us. Even better, I’d open up my Macbook Air (they’d no doubt gasp at seeing the ancient device outside of a museum) and show them the stories and the songs we sing to each other.

No, the time traveler might say. What do you think about NAFTA? We learned all about NAFTA in seventh grade.

I would regretfully inform my friend from the future that their history class has failed to teach them anything about the past.

Why We Create

We had a class called Arts and Crafts in elementary school, and nobody, neither the teachers nor the students, could explain the distinction. I grew up assuming art was painting and craft was sculpting. Or perhaps art was making things and craft was washing our hands afterward. These days, I understand the difference this way:

Craft is everything on the canvas, and art is everything outside the frame.

Every brushstroke of the Mona Lisa is craft. Its color palette is craft. Is portrait composition is craft. The expression on her face: alas, it is craft. The art lives in every secret teased by her inscrutable glance. The art lives in our obsession with her hands, her smile, her personal life. Her mystery, her history, her conspiracy.

As it goes in oil, so it goes in ink and strings and code. So it goes in our relationships, too.

Art requires something left unsaid. Everything else is craft.

Most classes teach craft.

Why We Learn

We take a hidden, grinning pleasure in eavesdropping on conversations out in public. For a floating instance, we are swept along the current of two dueling confessions. Out of context, their declarations (confidently blurted, intensely whispered) sound absurd. He insists, “the children are trying sabotage me,” with comic certainty. She says, “..they leaked for three days before exploding on my manager’s..” and unwittingly frustrates your day with questions that suddenly, urgently require an answer.

Let’s listen longer. Follow the river further and you observe a terrain of alien perspectives, unmet desires, savage caricatures, lusty trivia, blind assumptions, neon obsessions.

The right conversation, eavesdropped rightly, can inspire more questions and uncover more answers than direct dialogue.