0170 – question assumptions; what got you here won’t get you there

Fishes don’t know that they’re in water. And we don’t realize that we’re in unique cultures and environments until we get out of them. I’d like to reflect on this phenomena, to help me identify a superior course of action for myself, and to persuade myself to take it.

I’ve already written quite a bit about family and school. I don’t want to waste my time repeating myself. Zooming out.

There’s also meta trap to be wary of, where I fall in love with the sound of my voice describing my issues and spend all my time in that space instead of doing the hard, painful work of solving the problems I’ve described. I go, “Yes, yes, that is accurate, I am so smart. And smart people have it easy, right? So I don’t have to do any hard work. I’m smart. The only reason I didn’t do well was that I didn’t study.”

There’s quite a bit of literature on how calling your kids smart (my parents did) makes them undervalue effort. When it comes to children, at least, we should reward effort, not good results. So that’s something I need to continue unlearning.

I think a huge faulty assumption I made- which was encouraged by and inherited from broader culture (it’s just something in the water)- was that smart people have it easy. Smart people don’t do boring, difficult work. Smart people don’t schlep. They just sit around on their butts and come up with crazy, clever ideas that blow everybody’s minds.

This is totally wrong. There’s a famous quote attributed to Bill Gates about how you should hire lazy people because they’ll get the job done in the most efficient way.

Faulty assumption: devil-may-care, lazy people are efficient and enlightened and they have it good. It’s good to be that way.

This goes to the heart of entrepreneur porn. The idea that you can come up with a smart idea on LSD (Steve Jobs) and then build a great business. The idea that you can delegate everything and fly around the world having fun (Richard Branson).

In all cases the shlep is actually the most important thing. (I recall Elon Musk saying “I work a lot. I mean, a lot.” to Chris Anderson at TED). Functionally smart people do hard, boring things and they do them intensively, purposefully, knowingly, because they know and believe that it will help them get what they want. All the delegation and eureka moments typically come only after you’ve put in all the groundwork. The groundwork is the most important thing. Reality doesn’t owe us success.

I think I could get a lot of mileage out of changing one faulty assumption in my head: That ‘smart’ people have it easy, and so they take it easy, and so if people call me smart then I can be a lazy genius with flashes of grand insight. If people tell me that my relationship looks like a fairytale then i believe it, and subsequently neglect it. The real truth is that ‘smart’ people spend hours and days and months and years working on their craft. Founder-CEOs are functionally Janitors-in-Chief.

When I look back at my mountain of rationalization I am in awe. First I had some minor success in school, etc and got early praise for it. I let it get to my head. (What does that phrase really mean anyway? I happily believed that I was special and important in some absolute sense.)

So I did what seemed rational to me. I goofed off. I played video games, ate junk food, watched anime. It was pleasurable and I enjoyed it. And I’m smart, so I should be okay, right?

Until I’m not. The problem is that life scales in difficulty and complexity as you get older (or at least as you transition from infancy to childhood and do on.) What helped you thrive early on can kill you later if that’s all you know how to do. I was a one trick pony and I milked that trick for all I was worth. I can absorb new information very quickly. I’m the first person to understand something new, and I’m the first person to ask an intelligent question. Having crafted the illusion of competence, I sit back and tune out. I doodle, I chat with friends, whatever. I’m smart, I’ll figure it out, it’ll all work out somehow.

You have to do the work. It doesn’t do itself. Your subconscious and intuition are great when they tell you that you should do X or not do Y. They’re not so great when they tell you “you’re smart, you’ll figure it out, so don’t worry about it.” (Some people have the opposite problem and they worry obsessively about everything. I can’t help you.)

Where do you draw the line? I now draw the lines at broken promises. It’s very important for your long term psychological, mental health to be a person of your word. “It’s okay to not be perfect” is fine. “It’s okay to make a few mistakes” is context dependent. Is it okay for a heart surgeon to be careless? She has to take every precaution, because lives are at stake. But if she loses a patient despite her best efforts, she shouldn’t hold it against herself. (But she probably will, or develop some sort of complex. Being directly responsible for the lives of others must have that effect on people, and it also probably explains why so many parents, teachers and other authority figures seem a little kooky. It’s having us dependant on them that does it. They’d be a lot more ‘fun’ if they weren’t responsible for us.)

Breaking promises is debilitating. You lose good friends, and you get stuck with other irresponsible promise breakers. And together you coauthor this brilliant narrative where the group of you are really smart and brilliant, unbeknownst to the world. You validate each other’s inertia, irresponsibility. There’s a group like this in every school, probably every organization. A group of people who perversely idolise how much they get away with, how little they do. They feel like they’re “cheating the system”. And I think that’s legitimate to some degree. The system isn’t exactly fun for low-effort players.

We invent narratives after the fact to explain how we ended up the way we did, ideally in the way that’s least painful. (some people do the self-hating thing and come up with an extremely painful, torturous self-narrative. It’s messy and complex and I could make an effort to unpackage it out of curiosity, but that’s not my interest right now.)

So it’s interesting for me to try to come up with the most neutral narrative possible.  One that describes an indifferent reality devoid of purpose and meaning.

I was born to humans who were Imperfect and flawed like most other humans. I Was put into an imperfect education system with other imperfect children, taught by imperfect teachers.

I was told that I was smart. I was spoiled and not given any real responsibilities. I had a domestic helper to clean up after me. I never learned to cook or clean or mop or use the washing machine. I read a lot for pleasure. I liked pyramids and roman soldiers and volcanos and dinosaurs and avalanches. I played video games a lot for pleasure. I liked being smart. But I never did my homework. Homework was boring. I played video games. (maybe related: I liked McDonald’s and sugary sweets. I hated regular meals.)

The response authority figures typically give to that is “you think you’re cheating the system but you’re really cheating yourself”. That never really convinced me then. I suppose the fact that I’m bringing It up now means that it stuck with me the whole time, but I’m sure there’s a better way of talking about it in a way that kids like my younger self would’ve been more receptive to.

Is there a better way? What’s up with the “you’re cheating yourself” rhetoric? I talked about it with my wife and her first thought as an ex-teacher was that that’s a sort of preemptive I-told-you-so. It doesn’t really improve the situation, it just makes the adult feel better.

How did I personally react to “you’re cheating yourself”? My thoughts were, I think- “So? So what? I don’t care! What’s wrong with “cheating yourself”?

“I cheated myself” is a line we use to express regret about decisions we made in the past that have led us to suboptimal circumstances today. There are all sorts of interesting lines of inquiry we can pursue here. Most of them converge on the reality that the self isn’t single, whole, consistent. Rather, it’s fragmented, multi-faceted, context-dependent.

When someone says you’re cheating yourself, you should insist they clarify. Which self? What why should that particular facet of self get more respect than any other? I’m not saying that all facets of the self are equal, I’m just saying that you should get people to explain themselves.

We have a storytelling deficit in the world. People don’t make it a habit to help other people find meaning in action, to care about things. School tells you that you should care, and it provides a system of incentives- grades, scholarships, detention, expulsion. But it doesn’t actually sit you down and inspire you. It doesn’t actually show you why you should care. Those things are so much more powerful than any system of incentives.

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