I kinda hated school as a kid. Sunday nights were sad. Like funerals where the weekend was laid to rest.
Why did I hate school?
It was a tiresome place to be. The waking up early didn’t help. I discovered the snooze alarm at an early age. But that could have been overcome if the destination was fun. But it wasn’t. I was bored. That’s not an “I was too smart for school” flex. It’s just that I liked playing more. I think the only aspect of school that kept me sane is the fact that I’m a pleaser. I’m happiest when I get approval. Getting good grades was a way to do that, at least from adults.
As I got to high school, getting good grades was a path to a good college which was a path to a good job, which was a path to money. I didn’t think much beyond that (money or lack thereof was a source of baggage and well beyond the scope of this post). My scholastic life started with A’s as a path to approval and ended with a 4.0 as a path to money.
Education As A Byproduct
If I learned anything along the way it was an accidental outcome of trying to win the report card tournament. Inverting, good grades are a lossy way to measure learning. The correlation between getting good grades and learning is pretty hazy.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of what good grades actually indicate:
- Horsepower that’s well-matched to school: Reading, spelling, and arithmetic are easier if your parents are good at them and you’re not dyslexic.
- Obedience: Your homework makes it to the teacher’s desk without a dog eating it.
- Competitiveness: You heard ranks were being assigned to humans so you paid attention.
- Fear: You were afraid of short term pain (getting grounded) or long term pain (being broke).
- Some actual learning. You could use this “reading” thing to follow Nintendo Power‘s instructions to defeat Ganon. You finally found a use for English class.
Notice how good grades are driven by extrinsic motivation more than a desire to learn. That’s a shame because losing a desire to learn was not inevitable. We are built to learn. Not for any grand reasons necessarily. We don’t need to pretend we emerge from the womb with little monk minds ready to contemplate the mysteries of the world. Learning is just the tool by which we solve problems.
If you have ever witnessed the frustration of a gesturing, prelinguistic child you know the power of motivation. Learning words has a direct bearing on the solution to the problem the child is solving for — nuanced communication. If a child points to her belly because she has a stomachache and mom thinks she’s just hungry the child realizes words are more effective than charades. Necessity, meet your baby, invention.
In contrast to a toddler’s home environment, the school environment concocts contrived problems that feel irrelevant. This makes actual learning an inefficient way to get what they want — good grades. School severs the link between learning and solution. It has replaced this link with “good grades are a solution to getting approval/eliminating pain”. My most pressing problem in the confined setting is how do I get my parents or teacher off my back so I can do what I want. Not how long it took train A to overtake train B if A is moving twice as fast B.
For the kids who aren’t totally defeated by the seeming irrelevance of their education, getting good grades becomes an all-consuming priority. Not learning. We dangled “approval” in front of a child instead of a pertinent goal that would call for actual learning. To a social animal in a group setting, the returns to approval dwarf the returns to true understanding. This is a recipe for an underwhelming formal education.
Instead, we used our capacity to learn to onboard the wrong lessons. What follows is my evolving understanding of:
- What school teaches us
What we mean by learning
What’s necessary to learn
How to actually learn
1. School Teaches Us That Time Is Scarce
Tim Ferris didn’t teach us the 80/20 rule. School did. It made us feel that time is scarce.
Nabeel Qureshi1 recounts his calculus education:
I remember being taught calculus at school and getting stuck on the “dy/dx” notation (aka Leibniz notation) for calculus. The “dy/dx” just looked like a fraction, it looked like we were doing division, but we weren’t actually doing division. “dy/dx” doesn’t mean “dy” divided by “dx”, it means “the value of an infinitesimal change in y with respect to an infinitesimal change in x”, and I didn’t see how you could break this thing apart as though it was simple division. At one point the proof of the fundamental theorem of calculus involved multiplying out a polynomial, and along the way you could cancel out “dy*dx” because “both of these quantities are infinitesimal, so in effect, this can be canceled out”.
This reasoning did not make sense. It turns out that my misgivings were right, and that the Leibniz notation is basically just a convenient shorthand and that you more or less can treat those things “as if” they are fractions, but the proof is super complicated etc. Moreover, the Leibniz shorthand is actually far more powerful and easier to work with than Newton’s functions-based shorthand, which is why mainland Europe got way ahead of England (which stuck with Newton’s notation) in calculus. And then all of the logical problems didn’t really get sorted out until Riemann came along 200 years later and formulated calculus in terms of limits.
But all of that went over my head in high school. At the time, I was infuriated by these inadequate proofs, but I was under time pressure to just learn the operations so that I could answer exam questions because the class needed to move onto the next thing. And since you actually can answer the exam questions and mechanically perform calculus operations without ever deeply understanding calculus, it’s much easier to just get by and do the exam without really questioning the concepts deeply — which is in fact what happens for most people.
This process is not limited to math. Here’s Nabeel on liberal arts:2
My problem with a lot of humanities education is that it trains you to find arguments for/against things, but does not train you to find the actual truth. You’re rewarded for generating the most original, plausible-sounding arguments, ideally backed by the obscurest writings from the coolest thinkers. At no point is “what is actually true about this topic” really the focus. Robin Hanson calls this “better babblers”. Certain combinations of words have better expected reward outputs than other combinations, so students learn to generate the “winning” combinations in clever ways. In this way everybody GPT-3’s their way to a degree.
In other words, school trains us to do what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls “guessing the teacher’s password“.3 Instead of understanding a concept, we mime an understanding by parroting a verbal sequence back to a teacher. The sequence is comprised of the bold-faced words in your textbook with the occasional memorized equation mixed in for, um, rigor.
If school is teaching us the wrong lessons, Nabeel is clear on the result.
How many people understand in a deeper way? Very few. Moreover, the ‘meta’ lesson is: don’t question it too deeply, you’ll fall behind. Just learn the algorithm, plug in the numbers, and pass your exams. Speed is of the essence. In this way, school kills the “will to understanding” in people.
Ouch. School kills the will to understand. This brings us to the next key point.
2. Learning is Understanding
Learning is commonly defined as the “acquisition of knowledge”. This is too broad of a definition. Much of what we call “learning” under this definition is simply “labeling”. That thing hanging in the sky all day is the”sun”. That thing where food is created from the sun’s rays is “photosynthesis”.
The words “sun” and “photosynthesis” are symbols representing concepts. The symbol we English speakers know as “sun” is a link in a food chain. But it is also a source of light for illumination, heat for viability, and gravity for lassoing planetary orbits. The ideas that we assign tidy names to have many facets and are context-dependent.
Learning is to increase your understanding of each context and the relationships between them. When we scale the process up we create a web of interlocking ideas. Imagine we could project this knowledge web as a hologram. Then understanding would mean growing the web. Understanding would mean being able to walk around it, seeing it from different angles and under different lights.
Contrasting Deeper Understanding From Broader Learning
Most of school was just ‘labeling’. That type of learning is necessary. It’s a prerequisite for actual understanding.
Let’s consider the pros and cons of the shallow/broad “labeling’ education vs the deep/narrow “understanding” education. A superficial introduction to many ideas is typical of school. The benefit is self-evident. Especially at younger ages when you are a blank slate. As you progress through school you need to pass tests in many subjects. This has a sneaky cost. It trains you to stop exploring at shallow depths.
Nabeel on the risk of staying shallow:
People who have not experienced the thing are unlikely to be generating truth. More likely, they’re resurfacing cached thoughts and narratives. Reading popular science books or news articles is not a substitute for understanding, and may make you stupider, by filling your mind with narratives and stories that don’t represent your own synthesis. Even if you can’t experience the thing directly, try going for information-dense sources with high amounts of detail and facts, and then reason up from those facts. On foreign policy, read books published by university presses — not The Atlantic or The Economist or whatever. You can read those after you’ve developed a model of the thing yourself, against which you can judge the popular narratives.
In contrast, diving deeper means a narrower breadth of topics. The benefit, of course, is finding a meaningful understanding.
Evidence of Understanding
A clue that your understanding is solid and growing is that you can either answer questions (aka solve problems) or you can ask good questions. The trajectory of learning is an ascending dialogue between good questions and good answers which feed back into deeper questions. At each plateau in the dialogue, the learner should be testing the understanding either via practice.
Tiago Forte contrasts superficial book knowledge with hands-on knowledge:4
When you’re applying that knowledge directly to a real-world challenge, you won’t have to worry about memorizing it, integrating it, or even fully understanding it. You will only have to apply it, and any gaps in your understanding will very quickly reveal themselves. By the time you’re done solving a real problem with it, book knowledge has become experiential knowledge. And experiential knowledge is something you carry with you forever.
3. Prerequisites To “Understanding”
People vary in their aptitude and strengths. Fortunately, many of the key ingredients for learning are not inborn but acquired. They are what Nabeel calls good “intellectual software” habits.
Nabeel contrasts “intellectual software” from “intellectual hardware”:
Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t understand…Importantly, this is a ‘software’ trait & is independent of more ‘hardware’ traits such as processing speed, working memory, and other such things. Moreover, I have noticed that these ‘hardware’ traits vary greatly in the smartest people I know — some are remarkably quick thinkers, calculators, readers, whereas others are ‘slow’. The software traits, though, they all have in common — and can, with effort, be learned. What this means is that you can internalize good intellectual habits that, in effect, “increase your intelligence”
Nabeel catalogs these “intellectual software habits” :
For most people… it’s much easier to just stop at an answer that seems to make sense than to pursue everything that you don’t quite get. It’s also so easy to think that you understand something when you actually don’t. This requires a lot of intrinsic motivation because it’s so hard. It’s not just energy. You have to be able to motivate yourself to spend large quantities of energy on a problem, which means on some level that not understanding something — or having a bug in your thinking — bothers you a lot. You have the drive, the will to know.
Many of you will recognize this habit as that annoying thing kids do when they keep asking “why?”. Louis C.K. described it best in this comedy bit.
Intellectual honesty or integrity: a sort of compulsive unwillingness, or inability, to lie to yourself. Feynman said that “the first rule of science is that you do not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Here’s Malcolm Gladwell on his father:
My father has zero intellectual insecurities… It has never crossed his mind to be concerned that the world thinks he’s an idiot. He’s not in that game. So if he doesn’t understand something, he just asks you. He doesn’t care if he sounds foolish. He will ask the most obvious question without any sort of concern about it… So he asks lots and lots of dumb, in the best sense of that word, questions. He’ll say to someone, ‘I don’t understand. Explain that to me.’ He’ll just keep asking questions until he gets it right, and I grew up listening to him do this in every conceivable setting. If my father had met Bernie Madoff, he would never have invested money with him because he would have said, ‘I don’t understand’ a hundred times. ‘I don’t understand how that works’, in this kind of dumb, slow voice. ‘I don’t understand, sir. What is going on?’
4. How to learn
- Make learning about trying to solve problems from the beginning.
If you want to learn Excel, don’t start with a course. Watch some videos then find something useful to build like a budget or portfolio tracker. Learn by doing. Google liberally.
- Don’t be afraid to go deep.
Jacks of all trades and renaissance men are celebrated. As a guy, I see this embodied by brands like Art of Manliness which extol the virtues of brains and brawn. But this culture can easily give way to “lifehacking”. There’s nothing wrong with this if you are just looking for a bar trick icebreaker. But this is a far cry from being a magician. How do we marry the virtue of breadth with the type of integrity and satisfaction that only comes from depth?
The answer is focus. Consider Josh Waitzkin. Chess champion, tai chi champion, and jiu-jitsu master. As a child, he was the subject of the film Searching For Bobby Fischer. In this thread, we learn how Waitzkin defines and ascends levels of competence. How he establishes an internal locus of control. How he prefers not to “simmer” or multitask. He is either intensely on or intensely off. How he spends 5-10 years immersed in a craft before taking on a new one.
If Waitzkin represents a reliable path to mastery then our modes of spending 8 hours in an office or classroom are simply unnatural. A lion is either peacefully resting or the pinnacle of violence. Her energy is a precious resource of which she cannot spare a drop.
- Forget the ladder
School felt like a race against time. But even worse, it implied life was a ladder. It’s true you can’t do algebra without arithmetic. But why does algebra need to precede geometry? And for that matter, why are you learning trigonometry before stats? The ladder metaphor is confining. Taylor Pearson breaks down an alternative metaphor coined by Shery Sandburg, “the jungle gym”:5
Using a jungle gym as the metaphor for your career opens up all new possibilities that a ladder doesn’t allow for.
For one, a career ladder implies a linear path. The logical thing to do after you step on the first rung is to step on the second rung. There is a very different end when you get on a jungle gym than when you get on a ladder. What do you do on a ladder? Climb to the top, obviously. What do you do on a jungle gym? Well, you can still climb to the top. But you could also hang from it and feel your shoulders stretch. You could drop to the ground and rest for a few minutes when you get tired.
No one looks down on someone for not climbing to the top of a jungle gym the way they would look down on someone not climbing to the top of a ladder. We look down at people who climb the career ladder slowly (or not at all) because why would you not get to the top of a ladder as fast as possible? That’s the whole point of a ladder.
You can also extend the metaphor in interesting ways. A jungle gym is on a playground and if there’s some asshole camping out at the top, you can simply go play on something else. Perhaps there is another jungle gym. Or some monkey bars. Or a fort. There isn’t a better or worse way to play on a jungle gym or playground. You just do what gets you excited.
- Zooming in
Perhaps the most powerful tool we have when learning is the ability to get our hands dirty. Tinker. Throw some numbers in a spreadsheet and play. Jot words down on the page and re-arrange. Sketch. Draw arrows. Trace. Copy. Take a photo. Explain an idea to someone else and handle their questions honestly. Re-examine the holes in your understanding.
Nabeel pulls an example from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to explain how come closer to insight:
He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first, he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say. One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.
When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say. He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told. It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer:
“Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.”
It was a stroke of insight. She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street. He was furious.
“You’re not looking!” he said.
A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.
He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”
Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five- thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana.
“I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it.”
She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before.
The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.
When I’m feeling anxious I find that it’s coincident with thinking too much. Like I’m stuck in my own head. The remedy is to bring ideas down to the level of action. Build a model focused on a narrow problem, spend time with others, or get outside and active. It’s counterproductive to spend too much time in the abstract at the expense of field observation. Zooming in allows you to reduce dimensions and recruit more senses. When I start feeling lost I try to remember “Bozeman”.
Life is demanding. Everyone is busy. It’s not realistic nor desirable to acquire a deep understanding of most things or even many things. But when you choose to 80/20 something make sure it’s a choice and not just a bad habit overlearned from years of academic grinding.
Personally, I never wanted to 80/20 learning the guitar by just learning a few “cowboy” chords. The best explanation for that is my interest in guitar isn’t derived (an example of a derived interest would be to learn guitar “to get chicks”). Guitar itself is the end goal. In this case, understanding requires study, deliberate practice, and tinkering. There’s no goal in mind but progress moves in many directions not along a single arrow. Developing an ear, improving rhythm, improvisation, copying songs, and applying bits of theory across all these domains is a slow but rewarding endeavor. I can’t say anything I did in school mapped well to how I approach my hobbies or career. Because in things that actually matter to me I learn because it sustains me. Not because I have to pass a test.
School is a scalable solution to a public need. I found the experience dreary. I’m not an expert on school and I recognize that the desires and constraints of all its stakeholders are varied. The system is asked to make impossible compromises. But I wrote this with a particular irony in mind. One that seems to pop up over and over amongst old and new friends alike.
People who call themselves lifelong learners didn’t actually start learning until after they were out of school.
Ultimately I just have questions.
Could we have trained our “understanding” muscles earlier and ended up in the same or better place even if our educations were narrower or more tailored to our curiosities?
Did we race to the finish line only to bring the wrong lessons into adulthood? Did those lessons dictate how we live and what jobs we choose?
We don’t need that education.
“The shortcut is twice as long.”