Mental Pivot #74: Beginner’s Mindset
C.S. Lewis on the disconnect between student and teacher, Nassim Taleb considers disinformation and salient details, and the See-Do-Feedback practice loop.
“I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.”—C.S. Lewis
I was reminded this week of the critical importance of the beginner’s mindset.
My son is interested in computer programming and wanted to spend more time learning the Unity game engine and the C# language. To help him out, I decided to bone up on Unity and C# myself. After all, learning with others is both fun and instructive. To accomplish this, I set out to find an introductory tutorial and book that offered the right balance of helpful instruction without excessive hand-holding.
Finding effective teachers and learning resources can be challenging. Granted, it’s easier than ever to find an expert in a given topic with the internet. But expertise doesn’t always translate to effective communication or teaching. In particular, I get frustrated when I encounter books or instructors who leave out important information or gloss over key concepts that their audience needs (fwiw, I’m no expert and I’m certainly guilty of this when I teach or write—I just don’t always know it!).
No doubt, there’s a genuine (and unintentional) disconnect between the neophyte and expert that frequently stymies learning.
C.S. Lewis comments on this in the introduction to his Reflections on the Psalms (1958):
It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling to you.”
Lewis alludes, in part, to the “curse of knowledge,” that cognitive bias where we assume others know what we know. In this situation, students are less susceptible to the curse—it’s one reason why they can “solve difficulties” together. The master, on the other hand, sometimes lacks this awareness: they have forgotten the mind of the beginner.
The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.
Lewis’ observation is a keen reminder about an important aspect of learning. There are pitfalls for beginners, experts, and the experts who teach beginners.
Thankfully, I eventually found a book on Unity as well as a helpful video series that connected with my beginner’s mind and that of my son. I’m always awed by teachers who successfully bridge this chasm. It takes a special combination of knowledge, empathy, and patience to do so. Above all, it requires remembering how a beginner thinks.
Now onto this week's recommendations…
Disinformation and Fooled by Randomness: This short video from Nassim Taleb (Black Swan) discusses our cognitive vulnerability to salient details and the representativeness heuristic. “We mistake the particular for the general, details for the ensemble, and noise for signal.” An idea worth thinking about when processing news, online media, and the daily deluge of information.
Engineering the Current Thing: The “current” thing, as Paul Orlando explains, is “any concept that grabs hold of public attention…and which demands an answer: are you for or against?” (for example, after 9/11 the “current thing” was terrorism while during COVID-19 it might have been masking mandates). Citing a prescient 1999 paper, “Availability Cascades and Risk Reputation,” Orlando explores ideas of disinformation, informational shortcuts, reputation and signaling, conformity, and the opportunists who exploit this phenomenon.
PARA vs. Zettelkasten: The False Binary: “The popular frameworks are only your starting point. Adapt it to your own self. Skip the parts that seem convoluted, that seem tedious. Just adopt the parts that resonate.”
See-Do-Feedback: The Right Way to Practice: Scott Young (Ultralearning) reminds us that the foundation of effective learning is practice. To get the most out of practice, Young suggests a three-step process: see examples of the problem you’re solving, do by implementing those solutions on your own, and obtain feedback to gauge if you’re on track. Rinse and repeat.
The Chinese Way of Innovation: Matt Sheehan cautions against the simplistic Western narrative that the rise of the Chinese economic juggernaut is largely the result of intellectual property theft. Instead, he explores how China accelerated growth through careful state control while cultivating innovation. Sheehan highlights three events instrumental to China’s 21st century economic surge. 1) The creation of a semi-protected market that prevent homegrown startups from being steamrolled by Western juggernauts (the “Great Firewall” was a core piece of this puzzle in the early aughts. 2) Cultivating relationships, experience, and collaboration with Western companies, universities, and institutions (e.g., Chinese engineers would work at Google for several years in the States and then return to China to start their new companies). 3) Unleashing the economic, infrastructure, and administrative resources of the nation to accelerate new technologies once the first two steps were in place (e.g., the Chinese 2017 artificial intelligence initiative).
In Defense of Friction: If you can make it through the abstruse introduction (which, if you make it to the end, encapsulates his theme), musician Gabriel Kahane delivers a satisfying essay on the idea of friction and modern living. Friction in everyday life, as he defines it, is the wrong-turn, the inconvenient, the unexpected, and the frustrating. Modern life—technology and mobile devices in particular—makes transactions as frictionless as possible. If you have a need, there’s an app for it. While I don’t advocate for smartphone-free living, there is something to be said for the kind of in-the-moment presence, resourcefulness, and observation Kahane champions.
Primitive Communism: “Marx’s idea that societies were naturally egalitarian and communal before farming is widely influential and quite wrong.” Anthropologist Manvir Singh pushes against this narrative and the “Edenic image of humanity” it promotes. Singh adheres to pragmatic explanations for primitive communal sharing (i.e., it was the optimal survival strategy) over ideological ones (i.e., pre-agrarian humans were inherently good and uncorrupted). The examples he draws from modern field research of primitive peoples such as the Aché in Paraguay, Hiwi of Venezuela, and Mbuti of Central Africa are fascinating.
Odds & Ends:
Are You Tone Deaf? is an auditory experiment from Harvard University’s Music Lab that tests your pitch perception. Specifically: can you detect if a note’s relative frequency to another (e.g., it is “higher” or “lower”)? The test gets tricky at points when non-Western microtonal intervals like 1/64 and 1/32 “steps” are introduced. I managed a 31/32 (fumbled on one of the 1/64th microtones) so even though my significant other complains that my hearing is bad, at least I have hard evidence that my pitch perception isn’t lacking! The Music Lab offers other musical “games” to test your ears.
Who We Spend Time with as We Get Older visualizes data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) of 15 to 80 year-olds. As one might expect, the bulk of the time spent with parents and siblings occurs early in life, while the lion’s share of time spent with coworkers plateaus in our middle years. Still, seeing this data graphed is sobering. That precipitous drop-off in time spent with a parent or sibling is unsettling. And there’s always the stark reminder that it’s a gift to be comfortable in your own shoes, since alone time is the one constant throughout life. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics maintains the ATUS repository which has a wealth of data about how Americans spend their time on a wide range of activities including working, parenting, volunteering, and socializing.
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Shout-out to the following newsletters that are recommending Mental Pivot via Substack’s new “recommendation tool” (I haven’t started using this feature, but will look into it): Brandon’s Notebook, The Sun’s Out, and El cuaderno de Paloma.
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