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 Fuck Up

In the bloodless war between computers and referees, computers win 100% of the time.

Research shows that baseball umpires are less likely to call a strike after they’ve called the previous pitch a strike.

Soccer referees flub offside calls all the time. Why wouldn’t they? They are asked to judge a split-second half-centimeter difference in player positioning from twenty meters away.

Funny thing is, after the blown call, the TV broadcast rewinds and replays the action in slow motion. Neon lines materialize and frame the play. High-definition lenses confer with powerful computer servers, and we have a near-instant, perfect judgment of what we just watched. The information is both thrilling and useless, like finding out a high school crush really liked you, 20 years later.

Why don’t we simply replace those near-sighted, weak-willed meat bags with infallible, unswayable robo-refs?

Because deep down, we like the chaos of it all. Because when shit goes sideways and our guy or gal misses the line by a nose hair (or did they?), we need a person to blame, a human voodoo doll to stick our pins.We need an idiot.

Ideally, computers would watch Them, and nervous humans would watch Us. At the end of the day, we want a fair game. But for Them, it should be extra fair.

Why We Act

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes since I learned about them last night.

Smash cakes are whole cakes that parents give to their babies on their first birthday to mash into with their faces, dig into with their hands, to messily revel in, like a tiny infant hurricane tearing through a frosted beachside villa.

99 times out of 100, I’m sure parents just want to have a fun day and a cute photo op.

But, parental intent be damned, there is more than just batter in this cake.

What is a smash cake made of?

1. Vicarious indulgence: Every single 30-year-old I’ve talked to about smash cakes has replied with some variation of, “Jesus, I want that immediately.” When we watch an infant grip her cake with two small fists and smear her cheeks in frosting, we are reminded of how rarely we let ourselves plunge recklessly, shamelessly into pleasure. Cake smashes are no doubt fun for the baby, but they are cathartic to the adults hovering behind the highchair, cameras in hand. For ten minutes, our imaginations smash the cake too, fully present, carelessly free. Just like Pixar movies and trampoline parks, smash cakes are really for us, not them.

2. Ritualized destruction: I am reminded of sand mandalas, the exquisite, kaleidoscopic depictions of the divine universe created by Buddhist monks over days or weeks. After completion, mandalas are destroyed, brushed into an urn, and poured into a river to demonstrate the impermanence of all things. Similar rituals of artistic destruction appear throughout history and across cultures, all the way to present day festivals like Burning Man. Smash cakes carry this lineage of sacred ephemerality. One could argue that infants are better participants than monks to carry out this act of destruction, for even their memories of the event are lost to time. Parents, as usual, miss the almighty point by documenting the occasion like a Kardashian wedding.

3. The first hit of sugar: Smash cakes provide many babies with their first taste of processed sugar. Parents see this as a moment to celebrate. I can’t help but mourn. For most in the Western world, sugar is less a treat than a chronic toxin, strongly linked to the wave of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity that is crushing entire communities. While sugar doesn’t create the physiological dependency that opioids do, the taste preferences and habits we acquire as infants are arduous to reprogram as we age. In this context, watching a cooing parent push a frosted slice under their reluctant child’s nose recalls the dread of a slasher flick. I yell at my screen, tell her to run, run. The protagonist is deaf to my cries.

4. Shut up, it’s just meaningless fun: You read all this and sigh, come on, man! It’s not a ritual or a meditation or a metaphor for jack shit. It’s a fucking cake and it’s a fun, silly thing. Shut up. It’s meaningless. But (I reply) that is meaningful. (You are on the verge of punching me at this point.) I continue: a first birthday marks the symbolic end of an age of meaninglessness.

We demand nothing of infants. They act on impulse, gleefully free of the cultural ideas and interpersonal norms that shape our every shudder. Outside of a few sensations (the sight and sounds and smells of parents prime among them), very little has meaning to them. They could crash a Rolls Royce into the last living polar bear without breaking a sweat, and no jury would convict them because they understand what none of those things are.

Around 12 months old, babies begin to develop mental representations of the world. They notice that Buzz Lightyear continues to exist even when he is hidden behind mommy’s back. They form a hazy understanding of cause and effect, of goal and intent. As they begin to comprehend that a world exists beyond their field of vision, that world starts to place basic expectations upon them about how to exist. We snack on the fruit of knowledge, and suddenly we’re told to put on some damn underpants.

A first birthday is our grand entrance into civil society, with its rules and taboos and demands. In this light, smash cakes form the centerpiece to a sort of baby stag party, one last sensuous celebration of egocentric independence, a hedonistic abandon that will soon be wrenched away forever.

This means nothing to them. What a gift.

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes.

Why We Love

“Years ago, a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink VLB’s – Very Large Beers – from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLB’s, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee.

Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us.

Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted.

Most of the time, other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us, but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile, we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Heh – got ‘em all fooled!”

What’s so ironic and sad about this is that the very parts of ourselves that we’re most ashamed of and eager to conceal are not only obvious to everyone but are also, quite often, the parts of us they love best.”

Tim Kreider, The Czar’s Daughter

If you spend enough time in nature, eventually you will see something so majestic and unlikely that you are struck speechless. You might watch a deer nibble at the grass in your local park when an eagle swoops down like a fighter jet, snatches the deer from the ground, and soars up into the treetops. These scenes temporarily empty your mind of vocabulary. You replay the incident over and over again in your head, examining the memory for any clue that you misperceived what just happened, like a merchant inspecting a diamond for flaws. In the weeks and months later, what stays with you is not just the slow-motion clarity of the event, but the feeling of awe that hit you like a sudden drop in air pressure, a sensation our neurons produce only after witnessing something both brutal and impossibly beautiful.

At its peak, Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing generates this sort of emotional response every 60-90 seconds. You pause an essay for minutes simply to absorb and recover from the precision with which he knocks you in gut with a hard truth, gorgeously rendered.

The book isn’t a manual to boost your productivity or reclaim your finances or build your network. It’s a series of stunning personal essays by a little-known cartoonist and writer. Few people reading this will take a chance on this book, even after a recommendation by me, a fully-unknown non-cartoonist and writer.

If you’d like to listen to Lazy: A Manifesto, one of the essays that appears in the book, you can do so here for free.

Like witnessing a bolt of lightning strike a tree fifty yards in the distance, the first thing you want to do after cleaning your pants and picking your jaw up off the ground is share the moment with your friends.

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 Do Better

Who wins a debate?

Who had the better argument?

Who seemed more likable?

Who showed more strength?

Who was more informed?

Who blinked less?

Who was more memorable?

Who was funnier?

Who convinced more people of their position?

Who had more empathy?

Who showed more certainty?

Of course, it doesn’t matter. Because the person that wins is the person that does the work, investigates the problems, builds the coalition, earns trust, takes responsibility for the outcome. This is the person that wins, whether they show up to the debate or not.

What Came Next

What kind of monster are you?

No, really, I’d be curious to hear what kind of twisted, thoughtless human being you are. In order to find out, take MIT’s Moral Machine’s quiz. As we introduce autonomous machines to our roads, factories, and houses we must consider how self-driving cars should respond in events that will result in the loss of life. MIT’s goal is to understand our individual moral judgements, as well as how we apply those judgements to autonomous machines.

The quiz presents a series of trolly scenarios, where you indicate how a self-driving car should respond to brake failure. Specifically, you must decide who will die in the inevitable collision: passengers? Pedestrians? Young? Old? Overweight? Criminals? Dogs?

Jeez.

What kind of monster are you?

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?