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

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 Create

The work we do falls into one of two camps: performance or experimentation.

Performance is the work we do that creates value for others. It’s teaching in a way that your students understand. It’s building and presenting an analysis for your colleagues. It’s following the set of exercises recommended by your trainer. It’s giving gifts, offering compliments, telling jokes. It’s doing the dishes before your partner gets home. It’s delivering consistently, effectively, reliably, every morning. It’s following a well-trekked path to a beautiful destination.

Experimentation is the work we do to answer our own questions. It’s sending an email with emoji to see how the VP responds. It’s starting a vlog to help potential customers know you better. It’s debuting an unfinished song for your fans. It’s revealing your vulnerability to your friends. It’s staying in instead of going out on Friday night (or the reverse, if you’re over 30). It’s leaping into the unknown, uncertain, unskilled. It’s wandering a foreign city with no map.

Some people prefer performance or experimentation alone, but most of us require both to feel satisfied in our work. Chefs stay up late to dabble in their kitchen; physicists moonlight before a packed comedy club. Should you feel dissatisfied with life professional or personal, perhaps you’re starving to tinker, perhaps you’re thirsty to dance.

Why We Do Better

Developing a team of risk-takers is challenging foremost because culture is a bad dog: it resists efforts to train it. Posters on the wall don’t create a team’s culture, nor do mandates, hoodies, slideshows, or mission statements.

People follow incentives, systems, and other people. So to foster your risk-takers, you must:

  • Hire people that are weird and endearing.
  • Expect modeling from the experienced people on the team
  • Give people the trust and time to test their ideas,
  • But abandon stuff that isn’t working as quickly as possible.
  • Do not get overly fixated on metrics, which almost always miss something important and ineffable.
  • As a manager, know the difference between an interesting idea and somebody throwing shit at the wall.
  • Distrust grids, bars, and spreadsheets; trust curiosity, experimentation, and people who build relationships outside of their team.

It’s trendy for companies to outwardly praise risk-takers, mad scientists, and leaners-in, those intrepid challengers of status quo. It’s less common for those companies to tolerate the uncertainty and failure that accompanies real risk.

In many companies, the biggest risk you can take as a manager is standing up for your people’s permission to fail – messily, noisily, nobly. Do that, and your fellow adventurers will take notice.

Why We Fuck Up

Tim Ferriss’s podcast is one of the best out there. His goal: to “deconstruct the habits, tools, and tactics of world-class performers”. He is not alone on this mission. A jaunt through iTunes’ podcast rankings uncovers dozens of shows dedicated to interrogating comedians, authors, scientists, clergy, investors, entrepreneurs, and artists for their personal stories and secret sauces. We want to learn from the people that we aspire to be.

In fact, we would learn more from the people we aspire not to be.

Unfortunately, there are few books authored by unsuccessful people, and those that fail to achieve their goals are rarely interviewed on podcasts. If they were, one might quickly find that their stories and habits are not so dissimilar to their exceptional role models.

One of the best books I’ve found on the topic is Jim Paul’s What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Paul chronicles his story of becoming a millionaire through commodities trading and losing it all within a few months via poor decision making. Crucially, he identifies that while there are countless (and often contradictory) strategies to make money, there are only a handful of ways to reliably lose it. Although he uses the world of investing as an example, the psychological principles he discusses apply to any endeavor.

It’s a great book to add to your reading list this year, no matter your goals.

If you’d like a preview, you can listen to Jim Paul’s interview with… Tim Ferriss. Like I said, one of the best out there.

Why We Do Better

There’s a moment during a heavy barbell squat, about quarter-way into pressing the weight back up, when the expanse of your physical, emotional, cognitive, and moral terrains narrows to a pinprick through which you must answer a single question: Do you believe you will lift the weight?

The barbell is a perfect lie detector. It is 100% accurate.

So it goes with all the heaviest things.