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 Do Better

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

In his essay on the wisdom of lifting barbells, Nassim Taleb applies the principle of tail risk to strength training. Our bodies get stronger not from the monotonous humdrum of routine activities (rising from bed, sitting in a car, sitting in the middle row at team meetings, walking to our car, etc.), but from exposure to infrequent extremes: lifting weight off the ground at the very edge of our muscular and skeletal capacity.

He uses the analogy of weight-testing a bridge:

“You will never get an idea of the strength of a bridge by driving several hundred cars on it, making sure they are all of different colors and makes, which would correspond to representative traffic. No, an engineer would subject it instead to a few multi-ton vehicles. You may not thus map all the risks, as heavy trucks will not show material fatigue, but you can get a solid picture of the overall safety.”

Frequent, trivial insults chip away at a system (low back pain, carpel-tunnel, etc.). Rare, intense shocks may strengthen them.

For the past decade, Millennials have faced a glut of minor knocks but, outside of the 2008 U.S. recession, relatively few cultural hammers. Despite being the savviest participants in social media, the most connected and technologically capable, and having the broadest access to education and global impact, commentators describe the average Millennial as sheltered, anxious, and timid.

It makes sense that a generation insulated from failure and conflict would popularize the concept of microaggressions: frequent, trivial insults that chip away at self-esteem and dignity. And, like a overactive immune response, the battle against microaggressions has not strengthened Millennial political or social clout.

To the majority of voting Millennials, the election of Donald Trump was a tail event: an unthinkable catastrophe, an existential threat made concrete.

A macroaggression.

What if that was exactly what the generation needed? An extreme event that would organize, mobilize, and strengthen the entire system? What if the most connected, most educated generation was also the most politically engaged?

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

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.

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, Why We Love

In 1968, when William Jefferson Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he met a graduate student named Jeffrey Stamps at a party.Clinton promptly pulled out a black address book. “What are you doing here at Oxford, Jeff?” he asked.”

“I’m at Pembroke on a Fulbright,” Jeff replied. Clinton penned “Pembroke” into his book…

“Bill, why are you writing this down?” asked Stamps.

“I’m going into politics and plan to run for governor of Arkansas, and I’m keeping track of everyone I meet,” said Clinton.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown, the forty second president made it a nightly habit to record, on index cards, the names and vital information of every person whom he’d met that day.

Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone

My first reaction upon reading this: “Ha, what an odd dude, that Clinton.”

My second reaction, a moment later: So what the hell am I doing at parties, then? If I’m not there to learn about the people I meet, if I’m not curious about their histories, their perspectives, if I’m willing to let our conversation spill from my memory as soon as the food arrives, why am I there?

And if I am there to learn, how would I demonstrate that?

If a student doesn’t take any notes during a lecture, you can assume that they don’t care much about the class. Perhaps they have a supernatural memory, but it’s far more likely that they aren’t invested in the subject.

When we want to learn, we don’t leave it to chance. We pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

And yet, when it comes to the most important subject – the people around us – we leave it all to chance.

For a long time, this wasn’t a problem. We didn’t need to spend a great deal of effort learning about new people because until recently, we rarely met new people. Our social biology and behavioral norms are shaped by thousands of years living in tribes rarely larger than a few hundred. Our brains are only equipped to hold around 150 people in our heads. Odds are, your mental rolodex was full before you got to high school.

Social networks are useful to us because they help fill in the gaps. We meet somebody in the wild and then we get to know them on our iPhone. Their profiles are the notes we should have taken when we met them.

I used to remember people’s phone numbers, now my phone remembers them. It’s your birthday when Facebook tells me it’s your birthday.

Social networks, if we let them, will happily gobble the remainder of our mental representation of our friends.

Maybe that’s not a big deal. Perhaps outsourcing trivia like dates and facts to our phones allows us to focus on what’s really important. The test is open-book, says the student. Why take notes?

We take notes because there is a difference between passing the test and learning the subject. We take notes because we care.

We are bad students when it comes to connecting with people.

And what would a good student do? Pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

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.

Why We Learn

There are some days I wish I was less curious.

There was a once a six week stretch when I was obsessed with learning how to make juices. I read an article by a fitness coach about how we can get a lot of missing nutrients when we puree vegetables and fruits into a frothy liquid, add chia seeds, and gulp it down. I spent weeks researching various juicers on Amazon. I read up on the best juicing recipes: which veggies retained their nutritional value during the juicing process, and which didn’t. How to clean seeds and pulp from a juicer.

Maybe I could have become great at juicing, but after a few weeks a new curiosity gripped me: Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law is the observation that the amount of time you spend on a task expands to fit the amount of time you have to complete it. So, if you have six months to get in shape for your trip to Hawaii, it will take six months of working out and eating well. If you only have one month, then you will find a way to do the same amount of work and see the same amount of progress in one month.

For a few weeks I blabbed to my coworkers about Parkinson’s Law. I read and thought about thirty different applications and corollaries of the idea. I was a Parkinson’s Law evangelist, a true believer. Until I started playing a game called Papers, Please..

In the movie Independence Day, we learn that the aliens move planet to planet, eradicating life and harvesting all the resources. But what do they ever use the resources for? Who knows. Perhaps they just enjoy traveling to new planets. Perhaps on their home planet they just have enormous, untouched piles of carbon, magnesium, and silicon, and in front of the piles there are little signs listing the planets of origin. They were just curious.

This is passive curiosity. The passively curious discover a topic, absorb everything they can, then move on to a new subject. It is a curiosity that is useful for cocktail chatter and racking up library fines. Students are implicitly taught to develop their passive curiosity: to focus lesson to lesson, remember what they can long enough to complete a test, then move to the next chapter. Nomadic knowledge.

Passive curiosity answers the question: “What have other people learned about this?”

So what question would active curiosity answer?

Why We Do Better

Fighter planes were new technology during World War II, and we needed to learn how to protect them.

The military commissioned a study that examined bombers that had returned from missions and had taken damage. The study found that a small number of areas took the majority of the fire. The commission recommended that we add armor to those areas of the aircraft.

Luckily, Abraham Wald stopped them before making a costly mistake.

A statistician before the war, Wald understood survivorship bias – our tendency to focus on the winners that are able to tell their story, rather than the losers that cannot.

He observed that instead of reinforcing the areas that took the most damage, we should protect the areas that took no damage. What the commission had actually studied was where bombers could take damage and survive. The planes that had been shot down, the ones that didn’t return to base to be studied by the commission, were hit precisely in the areas where the survivors were unscathed.

We are all survivors. It’s easy to forget, but the seat you’re sitting in right now is one that hundred people like you could have had. Our idols and mentors are brilliant and talented and wonderful, yes, but also lucky. So are you.

The bruises we carry with us and the mistakes we’ve made, the accidents we’ve had and the flack we’ve taken: we could focus on those when we try to improve ourselves. We could dwell on how to never be hit in the same place twice. But we made it. We survived all those hits. Our scars don’t tell us where we are weak, but where we are strong.

The better question is, where are we unscathed?

Why We Do Better

(They will say)

“All things in moderation.”

No. No!

Moderation is dull stress, joint pain, compromise, boredom, homogenization, mediocrity. Carpel tunnel. Weak opinions. Dad bods.

No. All things in extremity. In small amounts. At random intervals. Sprints, not jogs. One square of the darkest chocolate, not a bar of Nestle.

We ignore the lesson that taps us gently on the shoulder every day. It is the moment that smashes us, breaks us, and ejects us into the atmosphere that travels alongside us forever. Not the daily bumps, but the rare stabs – deep enough to leave scars.

No, no things in moderation. Feast, then famine.