Understanding Understanding

One thing I’m working hard (and ever so slowly improving) at is increasing the rate at which I learn new things. I think this is one of the most important meta-skills to have, contending with really basic concepts like self-reflection when things go wrong, and increasing self-discipline to increase the amount of work that can be accomplished in any given day.

One of the most easiest ways I’ve found to make myself more productive is to find ways to actually enjoy what I’m doing. Simple, but it works! Sure, there are some tasks that I pretty much never want to do, but usually there’s a way to make every task more fun.

Some tasks become fun just by focusing on them. If I don’t want to clean a heap of dirty dishes (an unfortunately common state for me to be in), all I really have to do is get started. Focus takes over from there: it feels good to be determined to get through a task, and have such a tangible way to know that progress is being made. The stack of dishes is finite (hopefully), so you know you will get through them, you just have to put in some time. There’s a sort of trance you can enter here, almost like meditation. Put on some music, enjoy the warm soapy water, and focus on the task at hand.

There’s a similar weird effect I’ve found with tasks that are more quantifiable. It feels better to “read 100 pages of that book I’ve been meaning to read” than it does to “read some of that book”. There’s a better sense of accomplishment after finishing the former, even if the latter might take you to the 110th page. This isn’t even gamification, really, but just by quantifying things you’re setting up your brain for enjoyment since it’s so susceptible to craving a new high score.

At the intersection of these ideas is something that I think is really important: becoming comfortable with not knowing things, and making it almost fun. There is no way to learn something that you believe you don’t have to learn. If you think you know something already, you’re not going to learn. It’s only when we’re confused that we have an opportunity to correct our confusion. There is no similar affordance for when we think we already know: what is there to correct?

For this reason, it might actually be helpful to purposefully seek out disagreeing viewpoints for the sole purpose of confusing your intuition. If two sides seem to argue equally well, and you don’t know how to pick between them, you’ve just taken the first step towards learning all the relevant facts. Contrast this with two sides where one side is clearly right (in your mind, at least). This isn’t always bad, but you’re certainly less likely to learn a lot of new things from people you agree with on everything all the time.

Note that what I mean by “being confused” and “being wrong” are nearly orthogonal. My point here is that if I’m wrong, but not confused, then I’m very likely to stay wrong. If I’m confused, at least I have a chance to correct my mistake, since I’ll be on the lookout for new information. It’s only once I’m highly certain that I’m correct that it starts making sense to let go of “being confused” (really, we could rephrase this almost tautologically: it makes sense to be more certain as your uncertainty decreases). Until that happens, stay confused!

Learning to enjoy confusion is hard. Our natural state involves a lot more certainty about the world than we’re reasonably entitled to have. People like definite answers. This relates to the “read 100 pages” example above: it’s nicer to have a definite goal than to muddle your way through. One way to increase how much fun is involved in confusion is to try to quantify it as well. What’s your estimate of the chance that you’re wrong about some fact X? This quantification also provides a nice way to prioritize your learning. If this estimate is high, and knowing whether X is true or not is important to you, maybe focus more of your personal research on answering that question.

It’s very, very difficult to be open-minded all the time. It would simply take too much mental effort if you had to reconsider your whole worldview every time you ran across something that slightly opposed it. However, if you want to increase the amount you’re learning (which includes the amount of mental model churn you’re going through), it’s worth it to enjoy being confused.


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