Posts Tagged ‘personal development’

Nov 2nd (day 21): Obviously wrong truths

by Hang

When I was in my very first undergraduate programming class, they hammered into me on very important truth:

The compiler is never wrong

The compiler has no bugs in it, the libraries have no bugs. If you’re not getting the output you expect, then the bug is in your code. Nearly every week, someone would be there furiously muttering to the tutor that he just needs to LOOK at this example because the code is so OBVIOUSLY correct that it MUST be a compiler error of some kind. And every time it happened, the tutors would simply smile complacently back and remind the student that “The compiler is never wrong”. Eventually, with enough repetition, we understood this fact down deep into our bones and I think it’s made us better programmers as a result of it.

On the face of it, this is absurd. Compilers are programs just like anything else and they contain bugs like every other program. If we were talking about established, battle scarred compilers like gcc, you might be able to make a credible argument but we were working with the Glasgow Haskell Compiler which most certainly did have bugs in it.

The statement “The compiler is never wrong” has such power because it’s so patently easy to prove false. And as I grow older and think I understand more and more about the world, some of the most powerful beliefs that you can hold are the obviously wrong truths. You can never tell an obviously wrong truth to someone who is not ready to hear it because it’s so obviously wrong. You need to take a leap of faith and accept that something can be obviously wrong and still true for such things to make sense.

If this sounds supiciously like what you’ve heard religious people say, it’s because maybe this is what religion is…

Oct 17th (Day 5): You can’t get here from here

by Hang

Personal growth is never a smooth process. There are many potential pitfalls along the way which can trap people for years at a time until they see the neccesary advanced wisdom to unstick themselves. One of these that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is a concept I call “you can’t get here from here”.

Let me give you an example: Of all the most deeply spiritual people that I know, all of them have had some sort of deep crisis of faith where that have had to grapple with serious doubt and all of them have confessed to me that such struggle has been a key step in deepening their faith. I would go so far as to argue that such a crisis of faith is a neccesary step to forming a truely genuine bond of faith as it forces you to seriously grapple with your existential doubt rather than simply ignoring it. But if this is true, if a crisis of faith is a neccesary component, then you simply can’t get to having strong faith simply by having strong faith. You can’t get here from here.

You can’t get here from here is a pernicious process because the path to the goal inherently requires a leap of faith. None of my friends who went through a crisis of faith were thinking “oh good, I’m having a crisis of faith now which is Step 8 in my Good Christian handbook”, they were too busy freaking out that what they had taken for granted all their lives was being pulled out from under them. And indeed, none of them knew what they would look like coming out the other side. For some it grounded their faith, for others, it was the first steps towards atheism and for a few, it simply left them deeply confused and hurting. But for all of them, it required bravery to fully commit to the path they were on rather than staying in a state of denial. How many others were there who came on the verge of a crisis of faith but resisted because they deeply believed that the road to more faith was more faith?

I’m talking about others now because “you can’t get here from here” is a deeply personal process and it’s possible for me to see it more objectively from the outside. Examples from my own life are always messy and confusing and full of doubt but I think there are some I’m willing to tentatively put on this list:

  • You can’t become truly arrogant until you’ve become humble
  • I used to think being nice was about saying nice things. Then I realized that being truly nice is to think nice thoughts and to do this, you must say your nasty thoughts
  • In order to master a sport to the level of being able to analyze constantly, you have to at some point, stop thinking
  • You can’t be truly generous until you’ve achieve selfishness

If you don’t understand what I mean by these, they might be advanced wisdom. On the other hand, they could just be bullshit.

Oct 16th (Day 4): Skills you didn’t know you needed

by Hang

I was talking to a friend the other day about the nature of argument and how to argue well and it occured to me that I needed to take a step back and convince him that it was possible to argue well. Argument just seems like one of those things you do. You sit and you talk and you generally say the first thing that comes into your head. That argument would require training and skill is something which doesn’t appear immediately obvious at first grasp to people.

We seem to split up the list of personal qualities into skilled and intuitive. In the skilled category would be things building a house, playing a game of chess, arguing a case in court or solving math problems. On the intuitive side, we have things like having a good sense of humor, being co-ordinated, having the ability to draw well or coming up with good ideas.

The difference between the two is that we believe that to be good at skilled things is a process of mastery of certain skills which is relatively unmysterious. On the other hand, being good at intuitive things is something wholly mysterious that seems largely innate.

What’s interesting about argument is that it seems to have shifted from a skilled task to an intuitive one. In medieval times, rhetoric was part of the trivium, along with grammar and logic. People would spend 1/3rd of their university education solely on learning the art of arguing and people understood instinctively back then that you had to work to become a good arguer. Nowadays, rhetoric is a minor part of a minor department and argument seems like a purely intuitive process.

It seems to me a plausible explanation is that we rely on social signals to cue us in on what is skilled or not. Because we see people spend years learning to be a professional doctor but not learning to be professional arguers, we tend to believe one requires skill and the other does not.

So why am I going on about this? Because such a heuristic is imperfect at best and being aware of how it is flawed can help you gain an incredibly easy win over other people. By correctly identifying something as requiring skill, you can start to gain immediate improvements and, what’s more, others will believe that this improvement is innate and both be impressed with how good you are and not try and compete with you.

July 23 2008

Ira Glass on taste

by Hang

Ira Glass, that distinctive voice on This American Life, has a video manages to distil into words a process that I’ve been observing for a long time about taste and the creative process:

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