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

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.

What Came Next

After several generations of wearables with abysmal battery life, a breakthrough: researchers studying the effects of calisthenics on mice stumble upon an energetic process through which we can power our devices through ingested food calories.

We simply plug our devices into the USB hub on our hip and charge them with our body’s catabolic process.

Finally: lasagna and Krispy Kreme, Big Macs and burritos, chocolate shakes and triple-cream cheese: all in the service of full batteries.

Bacon-wrapped, deep-fried, fudge-stuffed, Texas-style: all to keep our phones glowing, cars rolling, keyboards tapping, apps tracking.

Best of all: we devour whatever we crave and gain no weight. Our appetite unclasps from our personal caloric requirements; we now eat for civilization’s pulse. After a long day’s work, we sit on the couch and plug into our apartment to power the lights, the TV, and the dishwasher. And, of course, we gorge. Steak and Steak’ums, Nutella and Cheez-Its, pizza and bagels and pizza bagels.

We gotta keep the lights on.

And then, a matter of some concern. Communities once suffering from staggering rates of obesity are now afflicted with chronic malnourishment. We simply can’t eat quickly enough, obscenely enough to power all of our devices.

The public begins to adopt elaborate habits and routines around unplugging. Some unplug after five in the afternoon. Others decide to only plug in with friends. A few unplug entirely, a variety of tech veganism that gains a small but vociferous group of adherents along the coasts. But many, an unfortunate many, simply can’t or won’t accept a disconnected life. For them, life goes on as normal, mostly, until one morning they begin to feel rather tired. They notice their phones won’t keep a charge even after a trip to Olive Garden. Their kitchen lights dim at increasing intervals.

It all takes about forty years.You can hover a few hundred miles above the Earth and watch. Blip by blip, each city begins to go dark.

Why We Do Better

For many people, the hardest part of implementing a new diet plan is the suspicion that they will need to restrict or deprive themselves. We imagine a plate full of our favorite foods. A long-faced nun in dour gray enters the dining room, lifts your plate, slides the sweetest third into a trash bin, and plunks the plate back down. Eat, the nun growls. Eat and repent.

The truth is that the easier path to removing what you don’t want is by adding what you do want.

When I coach friends who aim to lose body fat, the first thing I ask them to do is add, not subtract: specifically, 40 grams of protein within 2 hours of their first meal.

What they learn is that by adding the nutrients they lack, they crave less the nutrients they have in excess.

Each explicit addition compels an implicit subtraction; extra salmon and water and greenery nudge the chips and pizza and Pop Tarts off the plate. The plate is never emptied; the plate is always overfull.

So it goes with each habit we wish to change: keep your plate overfull. Do not subtract. Add the habits you want, and crumb by crumb the junk falls off the plate.

Why We Learn

If starving, we’ll eat anything.

If presented with an endless buffet, we’ll eat what we already like – and usually too much of it.

Ironically, when it comes to advice about healthy eating, it works same way. Too much information is just as dangerous as none. We don’t know how to choose.

To navigate the buffet:

  • Search for a person who’s been through the line before, and ask them for recommendations
  • Take only small portions

Better than a buffet is a restaurant, with a chef that you know and trust.

Better than a restaurant is experimenting in your own kitchen.

Why We Create

Ask someone who has effectively implemented a nutrition plan (perhaps with the goal of enthusiastically removing their shirt on sunny days) about what they cook at home. You’ll find that their favorite recipes are never found in a cookbook. Instead, they are the results of reckless culinary experimentation, cobbled-together remixes of common dishes. The cook rarely knows what to call these Franken-recipes: turkey..thing? Power coffee? These are children with no name.

In the Star Wars universe, students of the Force must build their own lightsaber before they are accepted as Jedi.

Here in the regular wars universe, aspiring masters build their own tools.

Uncategorized, Why We Do Better

There is symmetry between our dietary and political preferences:

They have biological antecedents, but are formed by the people who raise us and the circumstances in which we are raised.

The stuff we consume shapes us, literally and figuratively.

Food and politics both become our symbolic identity. We are what we eat. We see the world for what it is. We taste with our tongues. We vote with our hearts. The frontal cortex is largely left out of the loop. Arguments about American interventionism and the best slice of pizza in Manhattan each carry the undertone of existential threat.

As we age, we meet new people, visit new cities, and our diets and political opinions shift – quite unintentionally. One morning, we are surprised to find ourselves eating asparagus and supporting a flat tax. But, we are resolute that these new opinions are the correct opinions, and have always been the correct opinions. We congratulate ourselves for our own keen judgment and uncommon courage.

Where diet and politics differ:

Some people intentionally change their diet.

Those that do begin to perceive the relationships between input and output, context and tradeoff, control and randomness. Food is no longer a mirror; food is an instrument, like any other. We aren’t what we eat.

Imagine if we approached our political opinions in the same fashion.

No, no. We are already in perfect shape.

Why We Fuck Up

When it comes to advice, we prefer the intuitive.

Rules of thumb are best when shaped like thumbs.

As a result, we are provided with many thumb-shaped things, and told they are rules.

Beginning in the 1960s, a misinterpretation of nutrition studies led a coalition of researchers to assert that dietary fat caused fat to accumulate on the body and in the bloodstream. Makes sense, we concluded, that ingesting fat makes one fatter.

It took nearly fifty years for better thinkers to dismantle this mistaken narrative.

“You are what you eat,” they told us.

Take caution around thumb-shaped things.

Why We Fuck Up

There are thousands of books full of valid, yet conflicting advice on how to make money, but relatively few on how to lose it.

Works the same way with your health.

Low fat vs. low carb, intermittent fasting vs. frequent meals, big important breakfast vs. skipping breakfast. Despair at the countless, contradictory principles intended to improve health.

Or understand the few heuristics guaranteed to worsen it:

Eat foods with added sugar. Delicious!

Drink anything besides water, tea, or coffee. Accelerate the process with alcohol. Fun!

Sit as much as possible. Relaxing!

Let somebody else do the cooking. Convenient!

What Came Next, Why We Fuck Up

The Sugar Conspiracy is a long article that might save the lives of the people who take thirty minutes to read it. Rather than summarize its thesis and nutritional implications, I think there are three biases that are worth setting aside to consider:

1. In-group bias and the politics of academia: It is incorrect to think of the general public as the target audience of academics. Academics write for other academics. As a result, the dynamics that pervade the psychology of any group – drive for consensus, alienation of outsiders, the convergence around charismatic leaders – subvert the supposed objectivity of the scientific process.

Further complicating this is that funding for research is tied to the results. Just as movie studios and musicians produce whatever the crowd wants to buy, academics tend to produce what will be funded and allow them to continue their careers. Hard sciences with fewer direct implications to human behavior (e.g. physics) are less affected by this than social sciences, where results influence business and politics.

2. Confirmation bias and progress via death: Changing a person’s mind through reason is impractical. Add to this the social and monetary motivations for social scientists to remain steadfast against contradictory evidence, and you have a field that generates tremendous confirmation bias. That’s why this quote by physicist Max Planck sticks out to me:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Feel free to substitute “scientific” progress for social, political, culinary, etc.

3. Authority bias and the threat of the crowd: When the printing press was first invented, there was debate within the Catholic Church about whether the Bible should be made available to the masses. Until this point, literacy was largely limited to priests in the church, whose responsibility was not only to read the Bible to the congregation, but interpret its truths. Catholic leaders were concerned that ordinary people would not be able to “correctly” interpret the word of God without an intermediary. The availability of the Bible in homes directly led to an overthrow of orthodoxy thanks to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

We have reached a familiar precipice thanks to the democratization of the internet. Over the past century, scientific process has been relegated to academics who take pride and pleasure in regulating which voices are valid. Blasphemers of academic orthodoxy have been No-True-Scotsman’d out of conferences, funding, and tenure. But once again, advances in communication technology have “flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist.” More voices does not necessarily mean better signal, but it does topple the prevailing authority bias present throughout academia. In the next couple decades, we will see a return to prominence of citizen scientists that crowdsource their validation with other non-credentialed enthusiasts.

Which, ironically, is how the scientific method first emerged.