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What I’m Learning: Day 16/365

“My philosophy, and the one thing I’ve been strategic and deliberate about from the beginning, is reader first …” -Maria Popova

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (Pgs 150-170)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On how a playful state of mind broadens our perception and range of thought:

(pgs 152-153) The mental state of play is what some researchers call “flow.” Attention is attuned to the activity itself, and there is reduced consciousness of self and time. The mind is wrapped up in ideas, rules, and actions of the game and relatively impervious to outside distractions. May researchers…have described this state of mind as the ideal state for learning and creating. A few years ago…, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson developed what she calls the “broaden and build theory of positive emotions.” According to her theory, positive emotions broaden our perception and range of thought, which allows us to see what we didn’t see before, put ideas together in new ways, experiment with new ways of behaving, and in these ways build our repertoire of knowledge, ideas, and skills.

Fredrickson’s theory captures nicely much of what I have said in this chapter. But I would call it “the broaden and build theory of playfulness.” Or, to be more complete, maybe “the broaden and build theory of playfulness and curiosity.” The positive states of mind that broaden and build, in most if not all of Fredrickson’s examples, are states that generate play and exploration.

On how the power of play lies in its triviality:

(pgs 153-154) People often think of play as frivolous or trivial, and they are right. As I have explained, play is activity conducted for its own sake rather than to achieve serious real-world goals such as food, money, praise, escape from a tiger, or an addition to one’s résumé. It is activity that takes place at least partly in a fantasy world. So it is indeed trivial! But here is the most delicious of play’s paradoxes: the enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality.

Play serves the serious purpose of education, but the player is not deliberately educating himself or herself. The player is playing for fun; education is a by-product. If the player were playing for a serious purpose, it would no longer be play and much of the educative power would be lost.

(pg 156) Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life-skills,” but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

The Virtues of a Wandering Heart: How External Crushes Fortify Your Relationship

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Popova begins this thought-provoking article with the counter-intuitive suggestion that our feelings of attraction for people who are not our lovers might be the very element that makes it possible for us to not only remain faithful to our significant others, but to also fall in love with them over and over again. Sharing from the diary of Heidi Julavits, Popova offers her readers this bit of unconventional food for thought:

The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.

This is an idea I can honestly say I’ve never considered before. I’ll need some time to chew on this one.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Milton Friedman on Money

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Valerie Curtis on the Sources of Disgust

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, Valerie Curtis discusses the phenomenon of feeling disgusted, the different types of disgusts, and the relationship between our experience of being disgusted and our need for survival.

As it happens, my two favorite moments from this interview came when Curtis was talking about something other than disgust. While I enjoyed everything she had to say, what I found to be most noteworthy were her ideas about the nature of feelings and the importance of being what she calls “post-disciplinary.”  Those two excerpts are transcribed below.

Curtis on the relationship between feelings, imagination, and our human potential:

I don’t think that feelings are definitive of emotions. An emotion is a system that makes you behave in a certain way. So love makes you behave in a way that makes you sacrifice for the sake of a pair bond, for example. Why do we have feelings then? Well, most of what we do every day we can do perfectly well without our prefrontal cortex, without this uniquely primate part of the brain where our conscious brain resides. The clever trick evolution played that make us different from animals is to have this theater in our mind, is to have this ability to imagine the future. We’re able to take memories of things and project them into the future, that way we can weigh up future options against now. I can say to myself, being slim and beautiful in the future is such an attractive option that I’m prepared to forego my lunch now because I can imagine it. Now, no other animals can do that: they can’t hold alternative futures in their heads and weigh them up against each other. That’s what feelings are for, you look up your feelings, you have conscious experience of feelings, so that you can use them as tokens to map your chessboard of the future, and choose the one which will bring you the greatest value in the future, so that is the evolutionary trick that humans have played that allow us to be this extraordinary prescient animal, who is able to imagine, for example, working together to build a space station. No other animal can do this collaborative, collective work that produces this extraordinary world we live in today.

On her determination to make the pursuit of truth a greater priority than identifying herself by a particular academic discipline:

I like to think of myself as being post-­‐disciplinary. I came to this field because I wanted to change human behavior to improve health, but I came to a field where I couldn’t find good theories, good approaches that would help me learn about human behavior well enough to change it. So we’ve had to go back to the source, which is evolution. If you look at behavior in an evolutionary perspective, you start to understand why we behave the way we do, and ultimately, if we’re going to understand why we behave the way we do, then we’re going to get much better at changing it. So I think that you have to take a spanner from here, and a piece of wire from here, and a little bit of string from there, and whatever it is that works, to solve your problem, that’s what you should use.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

How to Change Education – Ken Robinson

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Ken Robinson begins his talk making note of how people often talk about “getting back to the basics” of education. According to Robinson, what most people mean by “getting back to the basics,” is tantamount to making children study the subjects we think are most important. For Robinson, however, the true meaning of “getting back to the basics” should be about assessing the purposes for why we educate in the first place. Pointing out the industrial model of education that originally gave rise to our public schooling system as an outdated paradigm , Robinson argues that it’s time to upgrade our approach to accommodate the new kind of world we find ourselves in. The real power to determine one’s educational path, according to Robinson, ought to belong in the hands of parents, students, and teachers, not politicians.

During his talk, Robinson identifies the following four purposes of education:

1) Build their capacity for economic self-sufficiency

2) Develop a sense of creativity and adaptability

3) Understand their cultural identity, appreciate the cultural identity of others, and gain a philosophical and practical knowledge of the social institutions that shape and govern the world.

4) Develop a sense of personal identity, autonomy, and individuality.

Near the end of his talk, he makes a poignant remark about the tragic results to both teachers and children when we insist on a top-down, politically driven approach to public schooling

Children have a vast appetite for learning and it only starts to dissipate when we educate them. That’s to say when we put them into buildings designed for the purpose and put them in serried ranks and start to force feed them information in which they may or may not have an interest. The conceit of education is that your children learn anyway, but we can help them do it better and direct them to things they may not otherwise learn if left to their own devices…If we really want education to be effective, we have to focus on the process of teaching and learning. And teaching, I think, over the course of the past number of years of these so-called reformed movements, has become reduced in the political discourse to a kind of delivery system. Your job is to deliver the national curriculum. Teaching has become a kind of delivery system and teachers have become seen as functionaries in the raising of standards and in the administration of tests.

In a world where so many people seem to think that the solution to education is throwing money at the problem or lobbying for more legislation, Ken Robinson’s talk is an inspiring breathe of fresh air. You can listen in its entirety here.

Activity XI: Watch One TED Talk (Under 20 Minutes)

Ray Kurzweil: Get ready for hybrid thinking

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Dangerous Ideas: Getting Started is Overrated by Cal Newport (Study Hacks Blog)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In contrast to the post I wrote this morning on the Praxis blog, Preparation is What Happens While You Work, Cal Newport warns aspiring creators to be leery of the commonly espoused notion that getting started is the key to proficiency. Referencing writers like myself, Newport claims there’s a lot more to the picture than the merely getting into the game:

Attend any talk given by an entrepreneur and you’ll hear some variation of the following:

The most important thing you can do is to get started!

This advice has percolated from its origin in business self-help to the wider productivity blogging community. You’ve heard it before: Do you want to become a writer? Start writing! Do you want to become fit? Join a gym today! Do you want to become a big-time blogger? Start posting ASAP! If you don’t start, you’re weak! You’re afraid of success!

Here’s the problem: I completely disagree with this common advice. I think an instinct for getting started cripples your chance at long-term success. And I suggest that, on the contrary, you should develop rigorous thresholds that any pursuit must overcome before it can induce action.

According to Newport, the problem with this advice is that it’s guilty of what Nassim Taleb call Survivor’s Bias — “a common fallacy in which we emulate people who succeeded without considering those who used similar techniques but failed.” While entrepreneurs are quick to emphasize the importance of getting started, the success stories they use to support this point only represent a small sample of the data that needs to be examined.

For every successful entrepreneur, or writer, or blogger, or actor, there are dozens of others who did get started but then flamed out. Some people lack the right talents. For many more, the pursuit, once past that initial stage of generic, heady enthusiasm, simply lost its attraction and their interest waned.

In other words, putting the emphasis on getting started leads to “flame out” experiences more than it leads to success. The real advice we ought to be given, according to Newport, is wait until you get started:

In short, I’ve noticed that people who succeed in an impressive pursuit are those who:

  • Established, over time, a deep emotional conviction that they want to follow that pursuit.
  • Have built an exhaustive understanding of the relevant world, why some succeed and others don’t, and exactly what type of action is required.

Steve Martin noted that the key to becoming really good at something (so good that they can’t ignore you), is diligence, which he defines as effort over time to the exclusion of other pursuits. This is why people who ultimately succeed in a pursuit go through such a long period of vetting before they begin — if you’re not 100% convinced and ready to tackle something, potentially for years, to the exclusions of the hundreds of interesting new ideas that will pop up along the way, you’ll probably fizzle out well before reaping any reward.

This reality brings me back to my original point: try not to get started. If you translate every burst of enthusiasm into action, you’re going to waste time. More dangerous, you’re going to hobble your chances of succeeding in any pursuit, as the constant influx of new activity prevents you from achieving a Steve Martin-style diligence.

My advice: resist starting. Spend lots of time learning about different pursuits, but put off action until an idea begins to haunt your daydreams and refuses to be dislodged from your aspirational psyche. Then, and only then, should you reluctantly take that first step, one of what’s sure to be many, many more before you get to where you want.

While I think there is much to learn from Newport here, I think he runs the risk of overstating his case a bit. While reading the comments for his post, I came across the  following comment from a reader named Scott that expresses my thoughts quite well:


I’m going to have a friendly disagreement with you, for two reasons:

1) A lot of experience comes from taking action. While you can learn something about a field by sitting on the sidelines, you won’t truly know about it until you dive right in.

2) Many pursuits have relatively few downsides. Starting a blog is free. If your blog fails after 6 months, then you’ve just wasted 6 months. There is no capital involved or employees to fire. I’d rather waste 6 months trying to make it as a blogger than waste 6 months researching blogging where I will learn less and have a 0% chance of success.

Where I do agree with you is in the domain of real risks. Areas where you are committing exorbitant amounts of time or money to a pursuit. In those cases, resisting the initial spur to get started and doing more careful research might be beneficial.

In fairness to Newport, he responds to Scott’s comments and acknowledges the value of his take:

Scott, I enjoy your take. I think an important distinction for this discussion is the ultimate goal of action. I guess I should clarify that I’m addressing those interested in building what I’ll call “superstar skill,” that is an expertise that has reached a level where rewards become disproportionately large.

With this caveat in mind, I would address your points as follows…

A lot of experience comes from taking action.

Superstar skill requires expertise which requires consistent, diligent action over time. Too much “experience” gathering on multiple fronts prevent expertise in any one area.

On the other hand, I think we agree in that I too support the idea of small experiments as a smart way to test whether or not to commit to a pursuit. Perhaps starting a small blog could be considered a lightweight experiment.

Many pursuits have relatively few downsides.

We chronically undervalue attention and time. If one is interested in building a superstar skill, any extra pursuit that eats up time and attention does have a big downside.

In essence, the attitude I’m combating is one in which every twinge of momentary enthusiasm is translated into action that consumes a non-trivial amount of time and attention.

I appreciate the non-dogmatic tone of Newport’s response. Given the fact that he’s addressing the proverbial problem of acting on “zeal without knowledge,” his points make a great deal of sense. Diving into action isn’t some kind of silver bullet that’s going to make your dreams come true. Over the long-term, getting started won’t matter very much without the persistence and deliberate practice necessary to cultivate true craftsmanship. As I wrote in Preparation is What Happens While You Work, however, it’s absolutely vital to recognize that taking some degree of risk-based action (as opposed to merely practicing or researching) an essential part of what it means to prepare for something.

A more important point for me to make, however, is how Newport’s article and some of the comments made by his readers illustrate the importance of taking a both/and approach to self-help philosophy and professional development. For almost any view that can be espoused (ie. Follow your passion or Hack your life), there’s a writer or speaker telling us to do the exact opposite (Don’t follow your passion or Stop hacking your life). This could lead to a lot of confusion if we approach self-help with the hope of having someone else do our thinking for us. But if we’re willing to think critically about all points of view, we’ll find something useful and useless in all the great ideas. This is why I think the best question to ask ourselves when studying ideas like this is not “Do I agree with this author?” Rather, the question we should be asking ourselves is “How can I take what’s application to my situation and use it to create the results that matter most to me.

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