Exploring Humanity by Exploring Space

In her book Packing for Mars Mary Roach writes, “space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much normalcy can people forgo? For how long, and what does it do to them?”
I really like this quote. When I typically think about exploring what it means to be human I think about current art and pop culture, about ancient human societies and the art and culture of those societies, and about our relationships and connections. I don’t often think about the cold vacuum of space, of planets beyond the earth, or of gravitational waves. But Roach suggests that we can learn a lot about humanity by studying the ways in which we have studied extreme cosmic phenomenon and explored those places where our bodies were never meant to be. By studying humans in such environments, by looking at the innovations that keep us alive in space, and by examining our search for the secrets of the universe, something deep and meaningful about humanity is revealed.
Roach is famous for exploring the parts of the world that we would rather not think about. There are countless innovations and discoveries that make life easier for all of us, but that we would rather not think about. Roach, however, is not afraid to look at dirty, messy, and sometimes disgusting science directly, all in an attempt to better understand our humanity. It turns out that space exploration is a perfect area of study for someone like Mary Roach. It also turns out that we can learn a lot about who we are, about the things we need, the luxuries we could live without, and how our societies operate when we study space and the efforts that go into keeping people alive and comfortable in space.
Humans did not evolve to live in space, and keeping someone alive on a space station or flying on a space shuttle requires that we truly know what it means to be human. It means we have to think about the mind, the body, our basic needs, and beyond. What does it mean to live on a diet of food designed to be highly digestible to leave the fewest possible waste products at end? What does it mean to be in a confined space for long periods of time? And what is it like thinking about these problems and how to solve them? The answer to each of these questions teaches us more about ourselves. By looking up, by striving to move away from the planet, and by putting ourselves in places we never belonged we learn more about ourselves, our societies, and our shared humanity. Space teaches us about ourselves, even if that wasn’t the goal when we set out to explore the stars.
Epistemic Vices - Joe Abittan

Epistemic Vices

Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind is all about epistemic vices. Epistemic vices are intentional and unintentional habits, behaviors, personality traits, and patterns of thought that hinder knowledge, information sharing, and accurate and adequate understandings of the world around us. Sometimes we intentionally deceive ourselves, sometimes we simply fail to recognize that we don’t have enough data to confidently state our beliefs, and sometimes we are intentionally deceived by others without recognizing it. When we fall into thinking habits and styles that limit our ability to think critically and rationally, we are indulging in epistemic vices, and the results can often be dangerous to ourselves and people impacted by our decisions.
“Knowledge is something that we can acquire, retain, and transmit. Put more simply, it is something that we can gain, keep, and share. So one way to see how epistemic vices get in the way of knowledge is to see how they obstruct the acquisition, retention, and transmission of knowledge,” Cassam writes.
A challenge that I have is living comfortably knowing that I have incomplete knowledge on everything, that the world is more complex than I can manage to realize, and that even when doing my best I will still not know everything that another person does. This realization is paralyzing for me, and I constantly feel inadequate because of it. However, Cassam’s quote provides a perspective of hope.
Knowledge is something we can always gain, retain, and transmit. We can improve all of those areas, gaining more knowledge, improving our retention and retrieval of knowledge, and doing better to transmit our knowledge. By recognizing and eliminating epistemic vices we can increase the knowledge that we have, use, and share, ultimately boosting our productivity and value to human society. Seeing knowledge as an iceberg that we can only access a tiny fraction of is paralyzing, but recognizing that knowledge is something we can improve our access to and use of is empowering. Cassam’s book is helpful in shining a light on epistemic vices so we can identify them, understand how they obstruct knowledge, and overcome our vices to improve our relationship with knowledge.
Teaching Statistical Thinking

Teaching Statistical Thinking

“Statistical thinking is the most useful branches of mathematics for life,” writes Gerd Gigerenzer in Risk Savvy, “and the one that children find most interesting.” I don’t have kids and I don’t teach or tutor children today, but I remember math classes of my own from elementary school math lessons to AP Calculus in high school. Most of my math education was solving isolated equations and memorizing formulas with an occasional word problem tossed in. While I was generally good at math, it was boring, and I like others questioned when I would ever use most of the math I was learning. Gerd Gigerenzer wants to change this, and he wants to do so in a way that focuses on teaching statistical thinking.
Gigerenzer continues, “teaching statistical thinking means giving people tools for problem solving in the real world. It should not be taught as pure mathematics. Instead of mechanically solving a dozen problems with the help of a particular formula, children and adolescents should be asked to find solutions to real-life problems.” 
We view statistics as incredibly complicated and too advanced for most children (and for most of us adults as well!). But if Gigerenzer’s assertion that statistical thinking and problem solving is what many children are the most excited about, then we should lean into teaching statistical thinking rather than hiding it away and saving it for advanced students. I found math classes to be alright, but I questioned how often I would need to use math, and that was before smartphones became ubiquitous. Today, most math that I have to do professionally is calculated using a spreadsheet formula. I’m glad I understand the math and calculations behind the formulas I use in spreadsheets, but perhaps learning mathematical concepts within real world examples would have been better than learning them in isolation and with essentially rote memorization practice.
Engaging with what kids really find interesting will spur learning. And doing so with statistical thinking will do more than just help kids make smart decisions on the Las Vegas Strip. Improving statistical thinking will help people understand how to appropriately respond to future pandemics, how to plan for retirement, and how think about risk in other health and safety contexts. Lots of mathematical concepts can be built into real world lessons that lean into teaching statistical thinking that goes beyond the memorization and plug-n-chug lessons that I grew up with.
The Social Imitation of Fear

The Social Imitation of Fear

“Why do people fear different things?” asks Gerd Gigerenzer in his book Risk Savvy. Many Americans are afraid of clowns, actor Kevin Hart is afraid of basically all bugs and animals, and as Gigerenzer writes in his book, I (like most Americans) would be afraid to go pick mushrooms in the wild to eat for dinner. The social imitation of fear, Gigerenzer explains, is often at the heart of many of our phobias. Most Americans probably haven’t had a personal bad experience with creepy clowns, few of us have ever picked the wrong mushroom for dinner and died, and most of us probably haven’t had near lethal encounters with bugs or animals. It is easy to understand why a toddler who was chased or bit by a dog might be afraid of animals, but it is simply comical that Kevin Hart is afraid of harmless butterflies and mice.

 

Much of what we fear comes from social learning, picking up on what others fear, and learning to fear that thing ourselves. Gigerenzer explains that the social imitation of fear can be a benefit and serve as protection for us, but that it isn’t without its own costs. Regarding the psychology of our fear he writes, Fear whatever your social group fears. This simple principle protects us when personal experience might be lethal. At the same time, it can also make us fear the wrong things.”

 

Fears that keep us away from the edge of dangerous cliffs or keep us away from people with dangerous weapons can save our life. We can’t afford to learn to fear something lethal from experience – if you fall from a 100 foot cliff you won’t have a chance to learn to be more careful in the future. Fearing dangerous cliffs because everyone else in your tribe fears cliffs is a safer option.

 

However, this does lead us to fears that are unreasonable. It is very unlikely that any of us will be murdered by a creepy clown in the dead of night. However, a few years back pranksters started standing on street corners dressed as creepy clowns, and they scared lots of people across the country. I know people who had nightmares and were very frightened by the thought of these clowns, and were terrified of even the prospect of seeing a creepy clown on the street corner. Horror movies and common discussions of clown fears prime us to be afraid when there is no threat to us, and no real reason to be afraid. The social imitation of fear which helped our ancestors learn and survive together from the experiences of others, has been hijacked by horror movies and pranksters to create fear and anxiety for no meaningful reason.
Positive Error Cultures - Joe Abittan

Positive Error Cultures

My last post was about negative error cultures and the harm they can create. Today is about the flip side, positive error cultures and how they can help encourage innovation, channel creativity, and help people learn to improve their decision-making. “On the other end of the spectrum,” writes Gerd Gigerenzer in Risk Savvy, “are positive error cultures, that make errors transparent, encourage good errors, and learn from bad errors to create a safe environment.”

 

No one likes to make errors. Whether it is a small error on our personal finances or a major error on the job, we would all rather hide our mistakes from others. In school we probably all had the experience of quickly stuffing away a test that received a bad grade so that no one could see how many questions we got wrong. Errors in life have the same feeling, but like mistakes on homework, reports, or tests, hiding our errors doesn’t help us learn for the future. In school, reviewing our mistakes and being willing to work through them helps us better understand the material and shows us where we need to study for the final exam. In life, learning from our mistakes helps us become better people, make smarter decisions, and be more prepared for future opportunities.

 

This is why positive error cultures are so important. If we are trying to do something new, innovative, and important, then we are probably going to be in a position where we will make mistakes. If we are new homeowners and don’t know exactly how to tackle a project, we will certainly err, but by learning from our mistakes, we can improve and better handle similar home improvement projects in the future. Hiding our error will likely lead to greater costs in the future, and will leave us dependent on others to do costly work around the house. Business is the same way. If we want to grow to get a promotion or want to do something innovative to solve a new problem, we are going to make mistakes. Acknowledging where we were wrong and why we made an error helps us prepare for future challenges and opportunities. It helps us learn and grow rather than remaining stuck in one place, not solving any problems and not preparing for future opportunities.

 

80,000 Hours has a great “Our Mistakes” section on their website, demonstrating a positive error culture.
Learning and Exploratory Nudges - Joe Abittan

Learning and Exploratory Nudges

So far, a lot of the nudges I have written about assume that there is a known best option for an individual and that a choice architect can help direct people toward that best option. In situations like retirements savings, healthcare benefits selection, and other complicated, structured, and somewhat formulaic choice scenarios, it is relatively easy to take a rational approach to use nudges to help people select an option that will be a good choice for them. But nudges don’t have to direct people toward an already known option. Nudges can be more exploratory in nature and directed toward learning.

 

In some situations, write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge, “it’s good to nudge people in directions that they might not have specifically chosen in advance. Structuring choice sometimes means helping people to learn, so they can later make better choices on their own.”

 

Helping people learn can be better than always trying to give people the right answer. Libertarian paternalism accepts that choice architects don’t know everything about another person’s preferences or self-interest, but assumes someone can generally know the right direction to point other people in. Using nudges to provide more feedback, encourage people to consider appropriate information, and help people better sort through their options can help people understand how to think and approach similar choices. When the goal of a choice architect is to maintain a maximal choice level while providing people with valuable information and alternatives, nudges that encourage learning are incredibly useful.

 

Additionally, nudges that encourage more exploration are helpful for people when it comes to things like listening to music or dining out. Nudges can direct people back toward things they already like, but they can also direct people toward new things that similar people like. Many algorithms on Amazon, music streaming services, and clothing subscription services work in these ways. While they are ultimately designed to keep you engaged or convince you to buy something else, they do employ exploratory nudges to help people find new likes. A company could continue suggesting you buy the same pair of shoes, but they might be able to get you to buy another pair if they show you one that other people also like. Helping people explore new genres of music, new authors, and new styles of clothes can provide real value to the individual, beyond the value to the company in convincing someone to buy something new. The individual still learns if they get feedback from their exploratory choices and gain new insight into finding new alternatives.
Luck & Success - Joe Abittan

Luck & Success

I am someone who believes that we can all learn from the lessons of others. I believe that we can read books, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, and receive guidance from good managers and mentors that will help us learn, grow, and become better versions of ourselves. I read Good to Great and Built to Last from Jim Collins, and I have seen value in books that look at successful companies and individuals. I have  believed that these books offer insights and lessons that can help me and others improve and adopt strategies and approaches that will help us become more efficient and productive overtime to reach large, sustainable goals.

 

But I might be wrong. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman directly calls into question whether books form authors like Jim Collins are useful for us at all. The problem, as Kahneman sees it, is that such books fail to account for randomness and chance. They fail to recognize the halo effect and see patterns where none truly exist. They ascribe causal mechanisms to randomness, and as a result, we derive a lesson that doesn’t really fit the actual world.

 

Kahneman writes, “because luck plays a large role, the quality of leadership and management practices cannot be inferred reliably from observations of success.” Taking a group of 20 successful companies and looking for shared operations, management styles, leadership traits, and corporate cultures will inevitably end up with us identifying commonalities. The mistake is taking those commonalities and then ascribing a causal link between these shared practices or traits and the success of companies or individuals. Without randomized controlled trials, and without natural experiments, we really cannot identify a strong causal link, and we might just be picking up on random chance within our sample selection, at least as Kahneman would argue.

 

I read Good to Great and I think there is a good chance that Kahneman is correct to a large extent. Circuit City was one of the success stories that Collins touted in the book, but the company barely survived another 10 years after the book’s initial publication. Clearly there are commonalities identified in books like Good to Great that are no more than chance, or that might themselves be artifacts of good luck. Perhaps randomness from good timing, fortunate economic conditions, or inexplicably poor decisions by the competition contribute to any given company or individual success just as much as the factors we identify by studying a group of success stories.

 

If this is the case, then there is not much to learn from case studies of several successful companies. Looking for commonalities among successful individuals and successful companies might just be an exercise in random pattern recognition, not anything specific that we can learn from. This doesn’t fit the reality that I want, but it may be the reality of the world we inhabit. Personally, I will still look to authors like Jim Collins and try to learn lessons that I can apply in my own life and career to help me improve the work I do. Perhaps I don’t have to fully implement everything mentioned in business books, but surely I can learn strategies that will fit my particular situation and needs, even if they are not broad panaceas to solve all productivity hang-ups in all times and places.
Learn Hard Things Quickly

What Is Needed To Learn Hard Things Quickly

In Deep Work, Cal Newport quotes a Dominican friar named Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges who wrote a short volume titled The Intellectual Life. In the short book Sertillanges writes, “To learn requires intense concentration.”

 

Newport continues to explain his views of learning and how his views align with Sertillanges, “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.”

 

We cannot learn when we are not focused on the material in front of us. We might pick up on headlines and a few trite lines when we brows a news article while watching TV, but we won’t do any real learning. Additionally, if we really need to make sure we understand some new material, we cannot attempt to study and pick up on what we need to know if we are checking our email every 15 minutes, notified about updates from our social media platforms, and continually interrupted by the world around us. We must cultivate spaces that allow us to devote time and attention specifically to the material at hand.

 

Newport describes what we need to do as deliberate practice, a term coined by a Florida State University professor named K. Anders Ericsson. “This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires,” writes Newport. “Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.”

 

Deliberate practice does, Newport also explains, seems to develop increased myelin layers around neural circuits related to the activity we want to master, “Keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits.” Myelin acts as an insulator for those neural circuits. The more myelin around a brain circuit, the quicker the neural pathway operates and the more it becomes easy and automatic. Deliberate practice helps promote the myelination of the pathways involved in the activity we focus on, even if that activity is focus itself.

 

Practice within deep work makes us better at doing deep work. Learning is a deep work process, and one that we can improve as we practice improving our focus. As our neural pathways become better at focusing and avoiding distractions, we will be able to maintain a state of focus for longer, and as a result our work and learning will improve. Conversely, allowing ourselves to drift in and out of focus and allowing our mind to be continually distracted prevents us from developing the crucial myelin insulation around the brain circuits needed for deep work. This means that when we need to focus on something, we won’t be able to, and without being able to focus we won’t learn, and we won’t be able to adapt to take on new challenges and opportunities. Without developing our focus skills and neural focus pathways, we will not prepare ourselves for the future and for a world that requires quickly mastering complex ideas and processes.
Deep Work in the New Economy

Competition in a New Economy

I am afraid of working in job that doesn’t provide much stimulating and interesting work and which drains my time and energy for when I am not at work. I want to have something to do that keeps me engaged, rewards me for being focused and interested in the world, and which provides enough flexibility for me to have a life I can still enjoy. In the opinion of Cal Newport in his book Deep Work, there are three kinds of people that will be able to find careers of the kind I desire. He writes, “In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.”

 

I don’t have a lot of access to capital, and probably won’t move in that direction with my life and career, but I can prime myself for working with intelligent machines (if that opportunity opens up in my life), and I can certainly strive to be the best at what I do, no matter where I find myself.

 

The two avenues that are open to me have one thing in common: deep work. Newport describes how these two avenues tie into deep work: “two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”

 

We need to be flexible, quick to learn, and efficient at producing high quality work if we want to be the best at what we do or if we want to be able to work creatively with intelligent machines. Technology is changing quickly, and whether you code, work with a certain type of machine, or produce material in a certain format, you need to be able to adjust with new technologies and innovative ways of using those technologies to produce and deliver work. As I wrote before, you will also need to produce high quality work, or what you do produce will be ignored and overlooked.

 

Deep work is crucial for success in a new economy. If you cannot focus, you cannot quickly master hard things, you will always find yourself behind the technology curve. Also, if you cannot engage in a distraction free manner with important ideas and topics, you won’t find yourself at an elite level in terms of what you produce and work on. Your work won’t be able to stand the test of time, and you will be passed over for those who can produce more elite level work. This is where I find myself when considering a career and considering how I approach each day. If I am not building those skills, then I am not preparing myself for an economy that demands focus, creativity, and attention.
The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.