Synthesis and the learning loop

Synthesis is how we get from knowledge to learning.

We take a big step toward learning when we’re able to extract what is useful from all the knowledge, facts and data that we’re exposed to. And, we do this by developing mental models when we force ourselves to synthesize. These mental models, in turn, help us get to wisdom – understanding how to use the learning after we run facts through our mental model.

That, in turn, spurs action as wisdom brings about clarity. Besides, to learn and not to do is not to learn.

This loop can be self re-inforcing as the action can help us develop better mental models, and so on.

But, the key step is synthesis and that is incredibly hard. Think about how easy it is to just read the news or interesting articles or blogs over the internet without ever thinking about the implications of those ideas in our life.

That is is why synthesis is the entry point to this learning loop. It is a rite of passage of sorts.

We don’t learn until we synthesize.

You don’t know what I’ve been through

“You don’t know what I’ve been through. If you did, you would understand why I’m behaving this way.”

Sounds great in theory. In practice, “you don’t know what I’ve been through” is the ultimate excuse for jerk behavior.

Of course, they don’t really know. They can’t know. They didn’t experience that bad break up, the passing away of a loved one or get screwed over by someone they trusted. Not in the way it happened to you at least.

But, it doesn’t matter. Adversity is an opportunity for us to learn more about ourselves and become wiser about how the world really works. If you are simply wearing that adversity as a badge to justify bad behavior or if all it did was close your mind to new possibilities, then that experience was, sadly, wasted.

The universe will throw us adversity opportunities every once a while to learn and grow. It is up to us to use them well. When we do, it’ll show in the wisdom behind how we operate. And, when that happens, they will want to know what you have been through and how can they go through similar experiences and grow through them.

If they don’t want to know what you’ve been through, telling them isn’t going to help. As far as people go, pull tends to work much better than push.

Is everything alright

On the day before he passed away, Albert Einstein’s assistant, seeing him in pain, asked – “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything is alright” – he said – “but I am not.”

In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational energy. In February 2016, scientists in California confirmed this prediction a fully hundred years later. I remember saying “Wow” as I read this piece of news. How do you develop such a deep understanding of first principles and make a prediction that turns out to be spot on a century later? So, I ordered Walter Isaacson’s biography on Einstein.

While I only started reading a few months later, I made slow progress and even considered stopping at some point in the middle. I’m glad I didn’t, however. As I made more progress, the book just kept getting better. And, by the end, it was clear that Walter Isaacson had done a great job with character development.

So, it follows that one of my biggest takeaways from the book didn’t have much to do with Einstein’s smarts. Instead, it was his attitude toward life that resonated deeply.

Walter Isaacson characterized Einstein’s approach as one of a “wry detachment” (I think of it similar to non-attachment). Einstein himself called out the fact that he didn’t take his life or work too seriously. That, in turn, helped him deal with challenges with a good measure of equanimity and a sense of humor. This becomes apparent as Isaacson shares many interesting stories from an eventful life. His charm and wit made him very quotable. And, I was fascinated by the regularity with which Einstein and his work appeared in the front page of “The New York Times.”

Can you imagine that happening with a modern day scientist? Einstein’s fame meant he was like a modern day rockstar.

And, yet, he maintained perspective. “Wry detachment” describes his attitude toward life well. He seemed to have mastered that human ability to be able to look at oneself as an outsider. And, he managed to do so by not taking his life or contributions seriously.

That’s why I thought his response to the “Is everything alright” question was among the more powerful lines in the book (and there is no lack of competition). Most of us might interpret the question as being about us. But, not Einstein. Despite his out-sized contributions to life on this planet, he understood his place in it better than most of us ever will.

I’d love to be able to emulate a bit of that wisdom in my life.

Age and wisdom – correlation and causality

If you ever want to understand what Economists describe as the “Identification error” – mistaking correlation for causality – just take a look at the relationship between age and wisdom.

There is undoubtedly some loose correlation between age and wisdom. Take a random 60 year old and a random 20 year old and it is likely that the 60 year old is wiser. While there exists this loose correlation, age and wisdom do not have a causal relationship. Or, to put it differently, growing older doesn’t automatically make you wiser.

Wisdom is defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment. I would simplify this further as “the quality of having knowledge and good judgment.” This is because good judgement comes from experience, which, in turn, comes from bad judgment. This explains the loose correlation between age and wisdom. As we age, we tend to have more experiences and these experiences could improve our judgment.

To understand why it is hard, it is helpful to understand what I think are the pre-requisites or causes of wisdom –
An array of diverse experiences. If you have done the exact same job for 20 years, you have, in some ways, lived through the same year 20 times. The experience gained from such an experience is very narrow.
Reflection and assimilation of your learnings from these experiences. Even if you have had diverse experiences, there is no guarantee you’ve learned from them. Learning requires a commitment to reflection and assimilation.

It is hard enough to push yourself to find diverse experiences. And, it is exponentially harder to then extract the depth of insight from your experiences. That is why wisdom isn’t common and why it is flawed thinking to assume that age leads to wisdom.

It isn’t the years in your life that count. It is the life in those years.

age, wisdom, learning, depth of experience, diverse

Lao Tzu and the digestive system

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” | Lao Tzu

The great Lao Tzu was well ahead of his time as he inadvertently described the idea of mental models. An easy way to understand this is to draw a parallel with our digestive system.

First, we ingest. This is the addition part that Lao Tzu alludes to. The focus is just to take in information.

Next, we digest. This is the stage where a teacher helps a great deal. By helping us put frames and structures around information, we are able to aggregate content and make it digestible.

Then, we absorb. The way we absorb new models is to connect them with existing patterns and models. This is why the learning process taxes the brain. It takes a long time for us to map with existing patterns or create new ones. As a result, taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learnt and digested is THE critical step in absorption. And, this is what most action packed seminars, conferences and retreats miss. Without down time, there isn’t understanding.

Finally, we excrete. This is the subtraction part of the process. Once we’ve built on an existing model or created a new one, we’re in a great position to remove unnecessary detail and information. Again, excretion is impossible if we shortcut absorption. So, if you’re going through a busy and intense experience, you should know that return-on-reflection-time is incredibly high. There is no learning without reflection.

The beauty of this process and the development of mental models is that, over time, your ability to process new information goes up dramatically. For example, if you come across a new productivity technique, you can dig into the essentials and decide very quickly as to whether it’ll suit your style or not. Decisions require you to cut and kill what is unnecessary. We do that with mental models. Not all mental models are accurate, of course. So, what makes accurate mental models? A lack of rigidity.

The more rigid the model, the more it is a sure sign of ignorance and stupidity. The smartest people are always testing their assumptions and adapting their mental models. That way, they’re constantly converting learning to understanding to wisdom. And, that’s how they experience the power of compound learning.

Notice how Lao Tzu talks about subtracting “every day.” Wisdom is not a state. It is a daily activity. And, you can’t shortcut daily reflection and thought.

The process wisdom frontier

As you all know, I’ve been going on and on about the idea about the idea of focusing on ‘process’/systems vs. goals for many months now. I’m sure a search for process will provide an inordinate number of hits in the past year. It has definitely been top of mind in my approach to life.

As I reflect on the progress I’ve made in the past 3 years, I realize that, overall, a lot of things have worked well. For example, I’ve learnt to enjoy the journey a lot more instead of simply driving with an eye on the destination. This, in my opinion, has translated to a better quality of work and deeper learning. It has also resulted in more repeatable processes wherein I’ve focused more on the “how” of learning instead of just attempting to get through it. And, finally, I find myself judging my preparation and performance a lot more than the outcome. That’s a big change and means it has definitely been a happier journey as we spend 99% of our time on the process.

But, there is one frontier I still haven’t overcome and this promises to be the toughest of them all. For important results, I find myself having to work very hard to truly let go of the outcome and just focus on the next process instead. I have to keep repeating the ‘you’ve done all you can and thinking about it now is useless’ idea. It still hasn’t worked nearly as well I’d like.

I realize it calls for a certain amount of detachment from outcomes and a fair amount of wisdom to channel energies only on things we control – both of which have, for the most part, eluded me so far. I guess I’m still experiencing very basic human instincts when I experience these feelings of anticipation. However, I also realize that wisdom is often about letting go of some of these instincts and learning to be above them. Perhaps a part of getting there is not doubting that great processes lead to great results. I don’t doubt the idea especially considering I’ve seen plenty of evidence of the truth in it. But, as far as my own experiences go, this has been a relatively new part of my life and I think I do have a pretty high internal burden of proof. So, perhaps, the full unquestioning belief will come in over time as I experience more good results following good processes.

Either way, letting go of results after a good process is likely to be the final frontier in my process quest. Looking forward to making progress. I will keep you posted on (you guessed it) the process – of course. :-)

A few thoughts on age

1. The concept of age is largely a mental construct. Yes, our body does change over time . However, we often exaggerate changes to suit societal norms.

2. Societies  (especially more hierarchical ones) often attach many expectations to age. There are certain expectations on how to behave and how to live. The reason for this is that age is a great tool for enforcing mindless hierarchy. “I am older than you. So, I know better.”

3. The truth, however, is that respecting someone because they are old is completely arbitrary. It assumes wisdom and that’s a flawed assumption. Wisdom doesn’t come with age. It comes with maturity, openness and self awareness. While the probability that an older person may possess these are higher, I’m not sure it is much higher because openness tends to decrease with age. A friend of mine feels respect is one of the most misused words in the English language – I can see why.

4. For illustration of the above ideas – think of five 80+ year olds you know. I’m sure you can name a couple who act and move about like they’ve reached the end of their lives while there are others who still possess extraordinary youthful exuberance (a certain Warren Buffett comes to mind). Think also about a few more older folk you know – would you consider all of them mature, open, self-aware, and wise?

5. Ageing has a lot to do with mental inactivity. I’ve sadly learnt this from seeing this with my grandfather. Until 10 years ago, my grandfather was known to be a 68 year old man with tremendous energy and youth. However, after his decision to stop working, we’ve watched him age at 3 mental years to the rate of 1 physical year. The difference is profound.

6. Television plays a very negative role in an older person’s ageing process. You can almost always be sure that their mental age is linked to the amount of television they watch as the television encourages a permanently vegetative state. Video games are better – perhaps theirs an opportunity in having older folk play video games?

7. If age is largely a mental construct, should we bother about the right age to do this and that? Only to a point. There are some things that make more sense at some ages – like university degrees while we’re young so we’re not a burden to our parents and becoming parents while being relatively young for biological clock reasons. But, beyond that, there is no right age for anything. It is all about being ready. So, the next time you hear about something making sense because you are at the “right age,” question it.

8. The biggest mistake adults make is they forget what it is to be kids (hat tip to J K Rowling). The toughest part about growing up is making sure we mature enough to not be childish but continue to be childlike. This means retaining an insatiable curiosity and a willingness to be open to any possibility that might present itself to us.

9. Age, wisdom and happiness are a wonderful combination. But, as Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, they don’t come as guarantees on our birth certificate. We need to keep learning, we need to keep working hard, and we need to be persistent in the face of our attempts failing. None of this gets easier with age. In fact, I’d even argue it only gets tougher. So, it is up to us to ensure we stay mentally young while growing wiser through increased reflection and self awareness at the same time. It is hard work. But, hopefully, we’ve learnt by now that embracing hard work is the only way forward.

10. The best part? If we work hard enough on it – we don’t just get older, we get much better. Think of what a small daily improvement will mean 25,000 mornings later..