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 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 Do Better

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In the meantime though, there is a lot of fuckery.

If you find yourself waking up with a tightness in your chest, the grim ache of a gutpunch, or the simple fear of progress undone, then do not slide into dread.

In the morning light: breathe, stretch, and shake.

Breathe: Find a quiet room that you can sit in for 15-30 minutes today. Download and listen to a guided meditation. This one from Tara Brach is one of my favorites. You can also download the Headspace app, which explains how and why meditation improves our health with brief, adorable animations, then guides you through a 10-minute meditation. The app also offers themed meditations for topics like stress, anxiety, and sleep. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath. Pay attention to the sensations in your body. Listen to the moment unfold.

Stretch: Write down three things for which you are grateful right now. Do this every day. For support, get the Five Minute Journal, which provides a short, daily gratitude practice. Dread narrows our vision, contracts our muscles. In time, persistent dread paralyzes, like micro-doses of poison dripped into a morning coffee. We must reach past nihilism, which doesn’t serve us, which has never served. Research suggests that gratitude journaling improves mood, focus, and progress toward personal goals. On some days, finding something you are grateful for will feel like a stretch. That is exactly what we want. Stretching makes us mobile.

Shake: Move. Get involved. Take a long walk. Ask questions. Find alternate perspectives. Listen more. Read more. Donate. Lend a hand. Misery loves inaction. If you feel sore, shake it out and get to work.

Breathe, stretch, shake. Each morning is an opportunity.

Why We Act

Space-time is, broadly, the concept that time and space are not independent structures; the flow of time changes relative to an object’s position and movement through space.

As I sipped absinthe in a secret red-walled bar down a Shibuya alleyway, I considered the existence of a new theory of relativity: the space-food continuum.

What I discovered in my liquor-ish haze, is that my food selection changes relative to my position and movement around the globe.

I treat food like I treat maps.

When I visit unfamiliar cities, I discard maps. Fuck a map, I am a space explorer. I lose time. I lose myself. I pick a point and wander, turning randomly at intersections, no destination in mind. I prioritize novelty over all else. I don’t particularly care where I end up, or when. I trust curiosity, fortune, and friends to lead me to the right spaces.

And the right foods.

Plunk me in a new city, and I will eat everything, try anything. I chuck calorie tracking and nutrient density out the window. My intention is to amble about the culinary topography, to taste the strange, the banal, the obvious and obscure; to let luck guide my tongue.

At home, I turn from explorer to engineer. Space is an optimization exercise. I study the map. I figure out where the fewest stop signs are located and I track the lengths of stoplights in order to shave seconds off my travel time. Beating Google Maps’ estimated travel duration brings me great joy. Missing an exit on the freeway brings me great shame. The purpose of commuting isn’t to commute; the purpose of commuting is to Get There.

At home, food becomes a route to a specific destination. To lower blood levels of LDL-P. To reduce body fat by 5%. To deadlift 35 more pounds. In the kitchen, I track macros and weigh meat. I record weekly averages. Food follows function: I prioritize effectiveness and efficiency over aesthetics and chance.

My tolerance for serendipity increases as a factor of distance from my house.

This is what I define as the space-food continuum.

Why We Act

You would though.

Given the right set of circumstances, you would vote for an erratic, dangerous, anti-democratic nitwit, assuming that she or he represented the majority of your political priorities.

So let’s build a liberal Donald Trump.

First off, it wouldn’t be Donald Trump, because an old white male would have difficulty channeling the younger, less-white, less-male Democratic base. However, this person could have all of Trump’s other qualities: narcissism, inexperience, troubling attitudes toward women, bluntness, and the ability to entertain large crowds by saying nothing.

Look: Kanye West would be liberal Donald Trump.

And what would be the characteristics of a Kanye candidacy? In order to appeal to a liberal base in a Trumpian fashion, we would see appealing far-left positions framed with a naive understanding of policy and diplomacy.

On the Kanye platform:

  • Monetary reparations for Black, Native, and Asian Americans
  • A promise to end to “all war”, including suspension of drone strike program
  • Federal legalization of marijuana and psychedelics
  • Expansion of women’s rights, including equal pay, parental leave, and greater access to reproductive health care (unfortunately including an off-color joke about being the cause of many abortions himself)
  • Amnesty to undocumented immigrants and uncapping the number of work visas granted per year
  • Commitment to move U.S. energy sources to “future shit”: solar, wind, etc. by 2030
  • Free Tidal accounts for all citizens (taxpayer subsidized)

Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? The fact that he is a musician and entrepreneur with no political experience no longer strikes you as a deal-breaker. His inability to discuss these issues with any clarity or nuance on the campaign trail becomes easier to overlook.

But are you willing to overlook his more disturbing habits? Let’s also imagine:

  • An open war with police unions, including public musing over whether he will “shut down” the NYPD and prosecute officers for biased policing
  • Insults toward any opposition, including families of fallen officers
  • A full-throated defense of celebrity rapists
  • Behind-the-scenes recordings of him making demeaning comments about women and bragging about sexual exploits with questionable consent
  • A pledge to outlaw paparazzi and jail media outlets critical of his albums
  • 3AM Twitter ranting on biased journalism
  • A disgusting insistence that he will finally sleep with Taylor Swift as president
  • First Lady Kim Kardashian

You’re on the fence now. When 2024 rolls around, you don’t vote for Kanye in the Democratic primary, but he wins the nomination on a wave of (now-greying) millennial support. And who does the Republican party nominate?

Bionic Dick Cheney.

It has to be him. It has to be him because Dick Cheney makes liberals shudder the way Hillary makes conservatives furious. Their records aren’t equivalent, but they both represent the worst of the opposition party, and they have for decades.

We now have a 2016-style election between a dangerous asshole who you mostly agree with as long as he keeps his mouth shut (which is rare), and a literal zombie that hates everything you stand for.

You could, of course, make a protest vote. But you balk at people who do that. After all, there really is no such thing as a protest vote: Either Kanye West or Dick Cheney is going to be the next President of the United States.

And you aren’t going to vote for Dick Cheney. No way. No way.

You are going to vote for liberal Donald Trump.

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 Talk

Here’s how to land the job of your dreams. No need to spend weeks studying. Don’t bother learning about their business problems. Forget about power poses and positivity. All you need is One Great Story. Actually, just half of one.

On second thought, you will also need one accomplice, a wingperson, inside the building. And you will need to be skilled at thumbing your phone from your pocket, because you are going to signal them with a text message at the correct moment. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.

Now, the set up: your interviewer brings you into a room. You shake hands, sit down. They start out by asking you a general question – it really doesn’t matter what it is – perhaps an inquiry as to how you would approach blah-dee-blah given schmo constraints.

You respond, “Funny story, actually,” and begin to tell your One Great Story. The story, given that it is great, takes several minutes to recount. You notice that your interviewer is initially confused, then annoyed, but eventually (and this is important) intrigued. The story is implausible, bonkers, and yet utterly relatable human drama. Perhaps there is a tangential dash through a stranger’s wake or an illicit three-way tryst with the ambassadors of two warring nations. This is your Great Story, so the details are really up to you. The action intensifies until you see beads of sweat on your interviewer’s forehead.

And then: you signal your accomplice. Your accomplice pulls the building’s fire alarm. Sirens blare, and your story is brutally severed.

There is a cognitive phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. Psychologists wanted to understand how waiters could memorize multiple complex orders for half an hour, and then completely forget the orders as soon as they were brought to the table. Their studies observed that people were twice as likely to remember tasks that were interrupted than those that they completed.

We understand this intuitively; we talk about closure as a means of letting go.

But we don’t want our interviewer to let go. We want our interviewer to fixate, to ruminate. On their long walk to the designated fire safety zone outside the building, they should be turning your Great Story over in their head, muddling the greatness of the story with the greatness of the storyteller.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve already recognized the flaw in this plan. The firefighters arrive and scan the building. They give the all-clear. You’re going to have to walk back into that meeting room and sit down with your interviewer again. And you only prepared half a Great Story. That’s all you prepared. Shit. Your interviewer stares at you from across the table. What are you going to do?

Your heart clangs inside your chest. Your eyes dart around the room, searching. Desperate. Your mind grasps for an answer.  Then, blam, it hits you. Of course! All you need to say is

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?

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.