Tag Archives: Learning

A miracle

Our son is over 4 months old now. Before his birth, I was looking forward to the many things that I would have the opportunity to teach him. After all, he is quite a bit less experienced.

And the time for that teaching will likely come when he grows older and begins to perform activities like going to school, playing with friends, and doing work.

However, at his current age, I’m learning more from him than he is from me. My learnings are taking place in many areas, but one that really stands out is what he teaches me as a result of his innate curiosity for and resulting fascination with everything in life.

The fascination with which he examines someone he meets for the first time.

The fascination with which he tastes something new (even though they’re only liquids so far).

The fascination with which he watches new places from the window of the car.

The fascination with which he listens to a new sound.

And so much more.

There’s a quote, attributed to Einstein, which goes as follows: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

As adults, since we’ve experienced many things before, we often default to the former. However, while a specific experience may be similar, the actual moment we’re experiencing is always new.

When I observe our son, I’m reminded that each new moment is a miracle.

Learning from your and others’ experiences

There are two ways to learn. The first is from the experiences of others and the second is from your own experiences.

The advantage of the first is that, since multiple people have more experiences than a single individual, you can learn more faster by relying on others’ experiences.

The challenge is that it’s harder to learn from others’ experiences than it is to learn from your own. The reasons for this are that you’re more likely to discount others’ experiences by thinking that they don’t apply to you, and even if you don’t discount them, it’s difficult to internalize the learnings of others’ experiences without having felt the pleasures and pains which result from having lived through them.

In other words, others’ experiences provide breadth while your own experiences provide depth. Once you appreciate the benefits and shortcomings of each, you recognize that both are necessary.

Inaction

We live in a time period where technology has greatly increased our productivity. This means that, on an individual basis, we can get things done much faster than before.

Thanks to the content available on the internet, we can learn faster than before.

Thanks to the extensive storage and processing capabilities of software and hardware, we can apply our learnings to quickly produce outputs from inputs.

And thanks to online communication tools like email and messaging apps, we can instantaneously relay the outputs we produce, and the decisions based on these outputs, to the people we interact with.

In other words, technology makes it easy to act fast.

However, acting fast isn’t always in our interest.

Although there is a limitless amount of content that we can learn from, our brains remain single track processors that need to recharge regularly. We therefore need to choose what to learn, and allow enough time for the learning to actually take place.

Although we have, for most practical purposes, virtually infinite storage and processing capabilities, that doesn’t mean that we should store and process everything.  We need to ask the right questions based on our learnings in order to store and process data that’s likely to produce meaningful answers. We also need to cross-check the assumptions behind our answers before using these answers to drive our decisions.

And although we can instantaneously communicate the outputs we produce, and the decisions we take based on these outputs, to others, we need to take into account the fact that the recipients of these outputs and decisions are humans. Humans process information differently depending on when they receive it, both on an absolute basis (for example, the time of day or on weekdays versus weekends) and on a relative basis (for example, relative to when they expect to receive it, which is in turn influenced by the importance of the output or decision and when you last communicated). As a result, the first moment when an output or decision is available for communication isn’t necessarily the right moment for its communication.

In other words, while technology makes it easy to act fast, as a result of our humanity, there are important benefits to inaction.

Learning the fundamentals to create the application

In a post from October 2016, I wrote that “if we hope to create or support the creation of an application, in other words if we’re an entrepreneur or an investor, we need to understand the textbook fundamentals [behind the application]”.

This is in contrast to diving straight into the application without engaging with the primary sources necessary to understand the fundamentals behind the technology, or, even worse, trying to get a grasp of the fundamentals by reading secondary accounts (like most blog posts and podcasts) of the technology. Since the latter doesn’t take a structured approach to building your knowledge base in a particular technology from the ground up, you’re left with many holes in your understanding.

The best source for acquiring textbook fundamentals (or video or audio fundamentals, depending on the medium of your choice) is schools. Fortunately, we live in an age when many leading global universities make available the content of their classes online, and often for free.

For example, Princeton University offers a Coursera course on Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies. I recently completed the 11 week course and have learned more about cryptocurrencies in general and bitcoin in particular through the course than through the hours I’ve spent reading secondary accounts of the same technologies.

Tradeoffs, judgment, and learning

If you’re fortunate (born in a good place, to good parents, with good genes) and work hard, life throws a lot of opportunities at you.

It starts with school. First, you get to go to a good school. Second, you get to choose what to do while there. What classes do you take? How much time do you dedicate to your classes? Who do you hang out with?

Then comes work. What sector do you work in? What role do you take in that sector? Who do you work with?

And what about your personal life? How much time do you spend with family and friends? Do you choose to build your own family (other than the one you were born into)? If so, who do you build it with?

In each of these decisions, there are tradeoffs involved. Assuming both majors are demanding, studying economics means that you can’t study computer science. And focusing on your studies means you have less time left over for extracurriculars. Working in tech means not working in pharma (unless you’re using tech to change pharma). Being a VC means not being an entrepreneur. Deciding to build a family means spending less time with friends. And saying yes to the one means saying no to the others.

These tradeoffs exist not only within domains but also across them. I once come across the following quote: “Work, sleep, family, fitness, or friends. Pick 3”. I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job with 4, but 5 would be very challenging. And even if you think that you’re getting 5 done, you’re probably doing less on each dimension than someone who is only focusing on 3 or 4.

As a result of these tradeoffs, you need to not only decide what to do, but also what not to do. For example, as a VC, where do you get your information from and where don’t you get it from? Which factors about the companies you meet do you evaluate and which do you overlook? How much time do you spend trying to build deal flow, versus picking the right companies within your deal flow, versus working with the companies you’ve invested in?

Faced with these tradeoffs, each person will have a different answer depending on their personal goals and preferences. But given two individuals with identical goals and preferences (if this exists), there is an optimal way to go about building a life that’s aligned with these goals and preferences. And what you need to get there is judgment.

Judgment consists of identifying tradeoffs, setting goals, making decisions, taking action, evaluating the results, and tweaking your decisions and actions in light of the results as long as your goals remain the same. And since there’s a feedback loop, improving your judgment isn’t a destination but a journey. If you don’t choose to stop learning, it never ends.

So enjoy it.