"Know thyself." - Inscription at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
A lot of the learning I do is an attempt to follow the ancient advice given at Delphi that starts this post. It's not as though it is an overriding thought in my mind or that I keep it at the forefront. It just seems to work out that way, magically, on its own.
A couple of the people that have helped me in doing this are Tim Ferriss and James Altucher.
In an interview with Leo Babauta of Zen Habits on living with and without goals, Tim Ferriss said that he believes in alternating between appreciation and achievement. He believes that a "good life" should entail both, not just one or the other. I agree with this completely. A life of achievement without appreciation seems hollow and a life of appreciation without achievement seems a waste of many people's drives, talents, and abilities to contribute to the world in a positive way.
However, even with my strong agreement, that still leaves the question, "What should be achieved?" Enter Altucher.
Altucher believes in achieving through what he calls the daily practice. The daily practice involves accomplishing four things each day. Becoming better physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Again, I have to agree, although these are still a bit vague for my liking. I love the idea, but think there is room enough to make the daily practice more specific to my personal beliefs and values.
My Daily Practice
Over the last couple weeks, I've been trying to figure out my priorities in terms of daily things I hope to accomplish. Perhaps I don't get all four each day and perhaps I do, but that's not the point. The process is the point.
In thinking over it, I have come up with my own list of four items as part of a daily practice; mine, however, are all actions instead of categories. They include:
I have found that by really examining the choices, actions and things that I appreciate and accomplish I become more aware of myself and gain a richer understanding of myself. For instance, by just looking at the four actions above it is clear that I highly value physical strength and health, education and experience, sharing with others, and connecting with people in a deeper way than simply watching sitcoms or sports together.
These actions are ones I try to accomplish each day, but also ones that I try to appreciate that I am able to do each day as well. There may come a day where I can't squat heavy, read complex texts, write my thoughts or personally connect with others coherently, but I can certainly take advantage of all those things while I can and learn much more about myself and others in the process.
I am by no means saying everyone should do these four things each day. They work for me. I do think an attempt to find out what you value and appreciate can help anyone live a fuller life though. Whatever it is, figure it out and apply yourself. The weeks go by to quickly to be passive about them.
I recently finished my master's degree in education. During the process, I got to meet a lot of interesting people and few of them are some of my best friends at this point. I was recently talking to one of them about learning new material and how I remembered everything.
Specifically, she was curious if I remembered everything that I read and whether the memories formed on the first read or if I needed to read things multiple times as she did. My answer was yes and no. It depends. Declarative knowledge, or the knowledge we generally get from textbooks, as opposed to procedural knowledge requires a certain process for me to become comfortable with.
How Our Brains Work
Basically, I use a simple metaphor to understand how my brain works in terms of learning new information. I imagine a really overgrown jungle, bush, or forest area. Then, I imagine that I need to make a path through the overgrown vegetation. The first time that I hack my way through with a machete is going to be ugly. I'm going to barely make a dent in the plants and I'm probably going to be tired from all the hacking and maybe even a little beat up and bleeding from sharp and pointy thorns.
Needless to say, if I continue walking down the same path each day and hacking away at the same outgrowth, the path will get smoother and easier to traverse over time. Eventually it will become an easy walking trail with clean, wide paths that I can stroll down with little to no effort.
From all of the books I've read on how neuronal connections get made, this metaphor seems apt to me. The first time I read new information, the going is very slow and difficult. I may or may not understand everything, but it will definitely be difficult and I will definitely be exhausted mentally by the end. In contrast, the Nth time I've looked over information, the going is easy. I can skim right through a text and practically guess what is going to be said before I read it. This is analogous to the well beaten path in the metaphor above. The neuronal connections have all been laid down and they fire quickly and effortlessly.
My Process to Learn New Information
To me, learning new information simply requires lots of exposure via multiple voices, styles, and time points. This means that I do read the same thing multiple times, but rarely from the same source. I can count on one hand the number of books I've read more than once. And none of them involved my actual field of TESOL.
For example, the first time I read a second language acquisition textbook, I would estimate that I understood perhaps fifty percent of the information. There were simply too many acronyms and technical words that I could not understand. In fact, the linguistic terminology in many cases is like reading another language. In fact, I consider learning any new body of information to be learning a new language. The first six months to a year in a new field is largely figuring out what the vocabulary means and who the important people are.
However, even reading just one more textbook on the subject of second language acquisition is going to get you eighty percent of the way there. This follows the Pareto principle or 80/20 rule. After two textbooks, I'm mostly learning nuances and filling in the gaps, but the general topography of the field is understood. This seems to be the case with any field I've been interested in, whether it's language, health, psychology, or philosophy. A couple textbooks will get acquainted enough with the field to have a discussion, albeit probably not a debate with any experts in the field.
The interesting thing about reading a handful of textbooks on the same subject is that you will learn there are some things you never did understand, even though you originally thought a topic made sense the first time. When you read a new textbook and the vocabulary is already known from the beginning, it gives you the opportunity to see the forest for the trees as it were and not be so microscopic in your focus when handling the jargon and decoding individual sentences. You can focus on the big picture and not get so caught up in minutia.
When It Comes to Memorizing
So the answer is a resounding, "NO!". I don't read the same thing multiple times to understand it. But, yes, I do read multiple sources on the exact same topic, which obviously have a ton of overlap. This is time consuming, but knowledge is the bottleneck for most expertise. Besides, as you get a better idea of what you're reading, your understanding actually gets better in a non-linear way. You will find yourself understanding more, the more you know.
The major benefit to reading many sources though is that there comes a point where you simply know the material. You haven't spent any time memorizing anything. You don't review certain chapters from certain books, or spend time making notes or flashcards. You simply finish a book and pick up a new one. After a while, you get the feeling that you've read everything in the book before, even though it's a brand new book. At this point, you've probably read enough on that particular topic to move on to something more specific. You don't have to read every textbook ever written on a topic to understand it. You will know when you know!
Taking second language acquisition as an example again, I felt like I was bored due to lack of novelty in the textbooks after about six of them. From there, I moved on to specific areas of second language acquisition or TESOL. I found textbooks on teaching reading and writing specifically. Or teaching conversation. Or pronunciation. Assessment, fluency, linguistics, pedagogy.
You get the idea.
Just move on when you're read to move on. You will know when that time comes. If it hasn't, then keep reading.
There you have it. My method for dealing with, learning, and getting a handle on new information (declarative knowledge). This isn't exactly the same way that I would go about learning a new skill like baseball or painting (procedural knowledge), but there would still be some time dedicated to knowledge acquisition with skills as well.
For information rich fields of knowledge simply:
There is nothing hard about this. It just takes time, discipline, and a genuine interest in the information. If you don't genuinely want to know the information, you won't have the patience to read through five to twenty books on the subject and if that is the case you probably have to wonder what you're doing with your time and why.
I have been fascinated with the idea of free will for a long time. Questions like, “What is it and does it exist?” go through my head regularly. During college, I felt as though free will must surely exist, but that evil didn't necessarily spring from it as many religions or philosophers seemed to believe. People often think, largely because of the bible, that if we have free will, then we have choice. That choice can be good or bad, as illustrated in the bible by Eve’s decision to eat the apple in the garden of Eden.
I never saw it that way. I assumed that free will did exist, but it was not responsible for good and evil. Instead, if anything was considered “evil”, it was simply an act committed by a person that was either ignorant or insane. Even with the person’s free will being exercised, I never put responsibility of malice or evil intent on them.
I still believe that ignorance or insanity are the two reasons for any sort of act that causes another person pain or suffering. I simply do not believe that people act maliciously. To me, insanity means lacking any ability to empathize or reason due to genetic disabilities in your brain or intense emotions like rage and jealousy - both of which are outside a person’s control. The first is a lifelong problem, whereas intense emotions are temporary. Ignorance, on the other hand, simply means lacking the knowledge needed to empathize or reason properly, but having full control over your emotions. Since college, however, my understanding (read belief) of free will has changed as I've learned more about the world, especially neuroscience.
History of Free Will
The idea of will goes back a long way. I am not going to attempt to trace it to its origin. What’s important in this conversation is that traditionally the idea of free will is largely linked to the idea of a soul separate from the body and intimately connected to reason.
If our soul is disembodied from our flesh, emotions, and feelings, then reason can reign undisturbed by our environment. It is ethereal and acting solely of its own logic, without interruption from our unconscious brain or the influence of external stimuli.
This belief seems pretty untenable at this point based on the evidence coming out of the field of neuroscience. Naturally, nothing has been proved or written in stone, but the probability is getting smaller and smaller and if I were a betting man, I would definitely not put any chips down on a disembodied soul or mind.
As mentioned in my recent post on dress codes, research by people like Eagleman, Churchland, Lakoff, and Damasio points more and more strongly to the fact that reason is not unconnected from our feelings, brain, or environment. In fact, multiple cases like Phineas Gage, a man with a brain injury that no longer allowed him to experience normal social emotions, show that without our feelings we are incapable of making even the most mundane decisions. We need emotion to reason. If this is true, then what does it mean to have free will?
Meaning of Chaotic Will
Chaos theory is the idea of the butterfly flapping its wings in India and a hurricane forming in the Caribbean as a result. It means that small events can have exponentially larger consequences. It also means that we can’t predict the future very well because of the non-linearity of a chaotic system. It does not mean that there is no reason or cause for an event, just that we can’t easily predict it.
The best example I’ve seen to explain this is the idea of filling a bucket up with ping pong balls and dumping it upside down. You would have an almost zero percent chance of predicting where one particular ping pong ball would finally come to rest and if you did happen to get it right, it would almost assuredly be from luck. Even with that being true, there are obvious causal factors that determine where those ping pong balls come to rest. We know enough about physics to understand that gravity, friction, potential and kinetic energy all exist and they impact where each ping pong ball goes. We just don’t have the mental computing power to put all that knowledge to use in predicting where an individual ball will go. When we dump the bucket upside down, it looks random, but we know it’s not. It’s all a result of physics.
This is what the idea of a chaotic will looks like to me. It might look like I have free will because I seem to be making conscious choices. That is simply an illusion though. Most of my decision making ability is being carried out subconsciously in an area of the brain I have no conscious control over. This nonconscious activity is calculating all sorts of knowledge and data I don’t even know exists. It’s taking into account things such as past decisions and their outcomes, my current needs and wants, my current physiological state, my emotions, my genetic predispositions, and a million other aspects outside of my conscious choice.
We can think of all of this as the physics of the brain. The biology that we have been endowed with via evolution has given our brains a million deterministic factors for our choices. What looks like free will is really just all the physics of the brain doing its thing behind the scenes. Of course, our conscious brain likes to believe it is in control. So when we are asked why we made a certain choice, it will come up with a simple reason. “A led to B, and B led to C.” Obvious.
This is all a logical fallacy of the post hoc variety. Assuming we decided something because it happened after something else. It’s just our conscious brain’s way of believing it’s in control when really the majority of decision making is happening beneath the surface.
That’s my current understanding on free will. My current belief is that it’s largely an illusion. We may appear to have it, but really it’s just an amalgamation of our genetics, environment, and past experiences and that most of our decision making ability comes from subconscious brain activity.
You don’t need to trust me that this is true. Think about it for yourself. When was the last time you made a decision and not your emotions? I ran through this question with my wife not too long ago just to illustrate the point to her.
She said she makes decisions all the time. For example, she decided what we were going to eat for dinner. I then asked her how she did that. She said she wanted something healthy. Lean meat and vegetables. How does she know those are healthy? She read a book or saw a TV show. How does she know those are trusted sources? She believes them because of their credentials and converging evidence. Ah, belief. That is a feeling and not something you control. At the end of the day, you simply feel something is right. Even with all the converging evidence in the world, you can’t be sure. Nassim Taleb has written about this extensively and uses the examples of black swans and turkeys.
Everyone in England thought all swans were white until they went to Australia and saw black swans for the first time. All turkeys think they have the best life in the world and that it will continue to be so until Thanksgiving day comes around and it quickly turns for the worse.
Even with all that, there is still a part of me, deep down, that simply believes free will must exist. It has to, right? How else can we better ourselves or reach for a better world. I’m not sure. The evidence I’ve seen suggests free will doesn’t exist, but I deeply hope it does. I don’t want my life to be completely at the whim of my genetics and desire to reproduce and adapt to the environment. But if that’s all there is, who really cares anyway? I'm just lucky to be alive and somewhat conscious for most of it. Lacking free will wouldn’t really bother me all that much.