The More You Risk the More You Learn?

Here’s a relationship I’m exploring right now:

The amount you learn is proportionate to the amount you risk.

I’m not sure if it’s universally valid.  There are probably exceptions.  Still, the more I think about it the more I like it.

It’s important to note that “risk” is subjective.  An increase in risk is an increase in the probability and/or magnitude of a result that forces you to do something you’d prefer not to.  Risk can be material, emotional, physical, or psychological.

If you work for an established, large corporation you will learn things.  If you work for an early stage startup you will learn more things.  If you start your own company you will learn even more.  Each stage ratchets up the risk, in this case financial and social (status loss in event of failure), and the learning goes with it.

Physical risk seems to follow the same pattern.  To learn new moves on the court or field you have to be willing to try them.  Each new move has an increased risk of failure or even injury.  Adventure athletes can probably attest to this at the most extreme, where loss of life is a legitimate risk the physical and mental knowledge gained is likely tremendous.

Even in pure intellectual pursuits I expect this is true.  Sitting and reading or contemplating seems an inherently riskless activity but it’s not.  What you can learn is limited by what you explore, what questions you’re willing to ask, and how far you’re willing to go for answers.  If you safely examine comfortable, socially acceptable ideas you may learn a few things.  But the real learning comes when you push yourself and explore things with potentially risky ramifications.  If your beliefs were to change how uncomfortable would it make you?

This doesn’t mean intellectual risk taking is simply reading people diametrically opposed to your own views.  This is one of the least risky things to do.  More likely it involves reading someone reasonable with a number of foundational beliefs in common but with some unexpected angle or paradigm you’ve never considered.  Imagine a knowledgeable libertarian, for example, reading a radical socialist.  Not very risky.  It’s easy to predict what will be argued and responses are already at hand.  It’s riskier for a libertarian to read an anarchist who builds on the same foundation but extends the ideas into more radical territory – territory that might make one seem “impractical” at cocktail parties.

So what does it mean if the more you risk the more you learn?

The conclusion shouldn’t be that more risk is inherently good.  We all love the word “learning” but there is nothing inherently good about learning either.  Don’t necessarily feel guilt for not risking and therefore learning more.  There are plenty of instances where reducing risk, and therefore learning, is the better path.  I’m sure if I played chicken with an oncoming car I’d learn a lot about myself that couldn’t be learned any other way.  Doesn’t mean I should do it.  I’m not sure knowledge helps if you’re dead (then again, how can I know without trying…)

But I think there are some valuable implications to the risk/learning relationship.  If you know your own goals and are honest about them it can help you make decisions.  If you place a tremendously high value on learning something in particular you might consider higher risk situations that will impart a higher level of knowledge.

This is related but (I think) a little bit different than Nassim Taleb’s powerful concept of “skin in the game“.  Skin in the game is about getting more value out of the decisions you do make by being more invested in the outcome, whereas the risk/learning relationship is perhaps slightly broader and has implications for the kind of decisions you make in the first place.

Five Steps to Epiphany

Over at the Praxis blog, I challenge anyone interested in education, entrepreneurship, career success, wealth, happiness, or personal growth to read five books this summer.

Each book is described with an endorsement from someone in the Praxis network.  Check out the article.

The books are:

  1. The Education of Millionaires
  2. The End of Jobs
  3. The Last Safe Investment
  4. Zero to One
  5. How to Find Fulfilling Work

See the full text for details and links to the books.

School is a 16-Year Internship for Professors

Want to learn something?  Be around it.

The habits, ideas, processes, and perhaps most importantly, incentives of the environment you want to be a part of will teach you vastly more than consciously studied facts.

Julian Jaynes, in his seminal book on consciousness, cites a study where students were told to compliment any girl wearing read.  Within a week, red outfits were everywhere in the school.  The girls weren’t consciously responding to factual knowledge but internalizing the compliments and altering their behavior subconsciously.  Jaynes argues that learning signals, skills, and even reasoning are not, in fact, conscious processes.  In fact, after taking in the basic structure, being conscious of learning gets in the way and slows the process.

This means the subconscious queues and incentives of the environment are a more powerful force in determing what you learn than whatever conscious topic is presented.  What you pickup on and get rewarded for and see others doing to succeed or fail shapes how your brain transforms and adapts to succeed.

This has some pretty interesting implications for schooling, from kindergarten through college.

The school setting, whatever subject is being taught consciously, is a single-file line-standing, speak-when-given-permission, the “expert” knows all right answers, zero-sum, obedience training program.  The clear “winners” in the school setting are the authority figures and those who best please them.  The academics and kids who do things that academics like.

In other words, school is a 16-year internship for being a professor.

You’re immersed in the daily habits, worldviews, problems solving methods, attitudes, and incentives of professors.  What you learn from shadowing academics isn’t whatever topic they might be teaching as much as how to be like them.

This is, of course, the ideal program if you want to be an academic.  I have many wonderful professor friends and I’ve met some young people who want to be professors.  The system was built for them, and it’s a good fit.  They should stick with it happily.

The problem is that most people have no idea that they are in an extended academic internship.  Most don’t want to be professors or they simply have no idea whether they do or not because they’ve never been around anything else.

You can’t discover what you might enjoy or be good at from academic books and practictioners telling you about it.  You need to experiment and experience it.  You need to be around people doing those things.  You need to apprentice with people other than just academics to learn what people other than academics do and how to succeed in that world.

Get out of the classroom and try real world stuff to find what you enjoy and are good at and immerse yourself in the subconscious learning of how to succeed in whatever environments you explore.  A few courses or books or a major can’t give you that knowledge while your subconscious is fully occupied with learning how to be a professor.

You might not be learning much from the conscious process of schooling (hence forgetting everything after the test), but you’re definitely learning something in school.  The question is, do you want to learn that something?  Will it help you, or set you back in a dynamic marketplace that cares only for value creation, not academic process?

Yes, this realization is precisely why Praxis was created – to give you a real-world apprenticeship with top entrepreneurs in a variety of industries and dynamic businesses.  Check it out.

Episode 56: The Art of Selfish Learning, with TK Coleman

One of the downsides of formal education is that it fosters learning for the sake of satisfying a person in authority instead of learning in order to satisfy one’s curiosity.

Schools generally offer praise and avoidance of pain when learning rules are abided, which is still externally guided and not connected to our curiosity and goals.

TK Coleman comes back on the show to talk about the importance of selfish learning – approach that helps you achieve your goals and improve whatever it is that you see as valuable.

Learn selfishly!

This episode sponsored by Praxis and the Foundation for Economic Education.

Apply to Praxis now!

Check out FEE seminars to learn about economics and entrepreneurship this summer!

This and all episodes are also available on SoundCloud, iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher.

Fear of Success is a Thing Too

The stoic approach has a lot going for it.

Contrary to “name it and claim it”, Law of Attraction kind of practices, stoicism admonishes not to fill your head with visions of utopia.  It takes the opposite tack.

Mentally explore the worst case scenario and familiarize yourself with it.  This prepares you emotionally to handle whatever comes.  By preparing for the worst you’ll be unshakeable when anything less occurs.

It’s a valuable life philosophy for dealing with fear of failure.  When you’ve already experienced failure mentally and realized it’s not all the bad, you gain a kind of invincibility not devoid of reason and realism.  You become what my friend TK Coleman might call a “Tough-minded optimist.”

But failure is not the only fear that holds us back.  Fear of success is a thing too.

What if you launch your blog or produce your movie or sell your new product and it actually takes off?  What if you go viral?  What if you have more demand than you can keep up with?  What if people start writing news stories about you?  What if your success presents you with the decision of whether to quit your day job and redefine yourself?  What if you threaten the status quo?  What if people start suing you?  What if people write articles about how much you suck?  What if all your acquaintances start asking you for jobs and money and favors?  What if big investors want to fund you but only if you move to a new city?  What if your quiet evenings at home with your loved ones and Netflix become impossible to maintain along with your new endeavor?

If you really succeed some of these things will happen.  They are at least as scary as failure and the stoic approach might cause you to avoid imagining them ahead of time.  It’s arrogant to close your eyes and feel the experience of wild success, right?  It’s delusional and might keep you from being able to handle failure, right?

Maybe if that’s all you ever imagine.  On the flipside, if you’re only every braced for failure you might be blindsided by success and crumble, or worse yet never go hard after it due to latent fear of its unknown rewards and challenges.

One of those cheesy evangelical phrases I grew up around is pretty accurate here.  “Another level another devil”.  Maybe now your problems and fears loom large.  If you don’t get the job you won’t know how to pay rent.  Yet if you succeed in a big way your problems and fears become more, not less serious.  If you don’t land the deal you’ll have to fire thirteen good employees and they won’t know how to pay rent.  Success can be scary stuff.

If the stoic experience of mentally living through the worst-case is the antidote to fear of failure then I suggest the opposite is the antidote to fear of success.

Envision your best-case.  Envision having millions of fans or dollars.  Envision wild success and its attendant obligations and challenges.  Really, seriously explore what you would do right now if you had it.  It presents more challenges than most are willing to acknowledge.

I don’t know about the effectiveness of envisioning your goals as a way to achieve them, but I still think it’s important to envision success as a way to overcome your fear of it.

Knowing What You Don’t Need to Know

It’s not that important to know things.

Two things are far more important than what you know.  What you can learn, and what you know you don’t need to know.  Maybe I’ll write a bit more about the importance of being able to learn another time, but today’s post is about knowing what you don’t need to know.

We’re surrounded by information.  Every new environment is jam-packed with people, assumptions, objects, ideas, processes, rules (written and unwritten), and data.  The vast majority of it is not necessary for you to achieve what you want to achieve in that environment.  But a handful of things are absolutely indispensable.  That is why the most valuable skill for success in diverse circumstances might be the ability to quickly identify what doesn’t matter.  Discern what is not of fundamental importance and ignore it.

Nearly everything taught in schools can be ignored.  So can nearly everything in a government or HR training video.  These are the easy ones.  Most people can intuitively gather from a young age that these things are unnecessary to successfully navigating the world (though harsh punishments may induce them to pay just enough attention to avoid manufactured pain).  It gets harder when you enter a social scene, family party, or workplace.  It’s harder still if you want to be an entrepreneur and enter the vast market with no blueprint.

The most successful and contented people I know are brilliant at being ignorant.  They are not stupid people nor are they unable to learn almost anything of interest or value to them.  But they are conscious of their chosen ignorance of the vast majority of facts and subjects and skills.  They know what they don’t need to know and they don’t waste effort trying to learn it.

This typically requires genuine humility and self-confidence.  Most people feel pressure to know a lot of useless stuff because it will save them the embarrassment of ever appearing to not know something.  This is ridiculous and sad.  Someone without broad swaths of conscious ignorance in many areas is usually wasting a lot of time and stressing over people-pleasing without ever gaining much self-knowledge.

There is no inherent value in knowledge of a fact.  When you enter a new situation the limiting factor to getting the most value out of it is not how much you can learn, but how much you can identify that you don’t need to learn.

This is the other side of the 80/20 rule.  Sometimes figuring out your 20% – what activities you will get the vast majority of your return on – is too hard.  It’s sometimes easier and no less important to identify the 80% of things not bringing you sufficient value and stop learning and doing them.

Crowd Funding vs.Taxation

The main justification given for taxation is that it solves a collective action problem.  Everyone would be better off, we are told, with the construction of a road or a park, but no individual has the incentive to pay for it, and if a collection were taken up, everyone would shirk and expect the next guy to pay.  If you know your few bucks won’t make or break the project and you’ll get the benefit either way, why pay?

There are many flaws in this analysis, but even if we accept it, consider the emergence of crowdfunding as an alternative.  You can share the details of a project and the cost, and offer specific access or benefits to those who contribute a certain levels.  The project does not move forward until full funding is committed.  This is an amazingly powerful tool that is just starting to reach its potential.

If what is funded benefits the whole world, great!  They needn’t be labelled free-riders, because everyone who pledged to support it knew ahead of time this would be the result, and indeed welcomed it.  If it’s a project that can’t sustainably benefit everyone, crowdfunding allows the ability to restrict access to those who pay.  It also utilizes the power of transparency and shame.  If you claim to really want a project to succeed, yet you pledge no money yourself, you’ll incur the wrath of your peers.  Crowdfunding harnesses people’s public spiritedness.  It lets you openly demonstrate what you’ve pledged.  It creates competition to cooperate.

I’m not just talking about bake sales for summer camp.  There have been startups that raised ten million dollars on sites like Kickstarter.  There have been massive research projects and prescription drug advances utilizing crowdsourcing (harnessing dispersed knowledge) as well as crowdfunding; not just the supply of capital, but the supply of human and intellectual capital can be done without central control.

The very projects that people worry wouldn’t happen without government funding are those most suited for crowdfunding.  Works of art that won’t generate tons of popular sales through traditional channels.  Highly speculative research.  Space travel.  Charity and welfare enhancing programs.  Helping a single person pay for a costly medical procedure.  Why couldn’t bridges or buildings be financed in the same way?

We live in an amazing world.  Every day, more people voluntarily coordinate and co-create and make the functions the state tries to monopolize less and less relevant.  Humans have always created free institutions that, under no compulsion and with no clear designer, enhance our individual and collective well-being.  Technology just puts it in high relief and speeds the process.