consuming, not learning

It seems like it’s never been easier to be an autodidact. Endless wikis, videos and articles are a search away. And they’re (mostly) free. All you need is the will. Supposedly.

Learning is probably the closest thing I have to a hobby. But I struggle to learn on the internet. And I think it’s because I’ve been consuming, not learning.

There’s a lot wrong with formal education. But besides the pieces of paper you get at the end (the currency of Human Resources), the best of formal education is the guidance of someone who has achieved mastery. Especially, guidance (compulsion) to practice.

Most online resources I’ve come across are instead geared around consumption. Even if there’s a “curriculum” there’s rarely an emphasis on practice. On building reps. Rarer still are explorations of what makes effective practice.

At best this is a recipe for mere familiarity. At worst it leads to stagnation, frustration and abandonment.

They aren’t all like this. When I was an undergrad I did a lot of Khan Academy to brush up on maths. There were seemingly endless practice problems and you couldn’t progress until you showed some level of “mastery”.

This seems obvious for a well trod, ostensibly linear path like maths. But repetition is the basis for learning pretty much anything. And it’s missing from a lot of the internet’s learning materials.

In the past couple of years I’ve gone deep on painting and drawing. YouTube has a fantastic catalogue of art videos, as do platforms like Skillshare or Domestika.

But you’re more likely to go down a rabbit hole of product reviews as anything else. My first months of painting were a mess of Amazon packages as I tried different brands and gadgets, even as my skills largely stagnated.

One of the longest videos in a course I recently purchased was about the teacher’s favourite tools. It was almost twice as long as the video on perspective.

Even when there are exercises attached to the lessons, there is often little on how to make it generalisable. How to self critique and correct.

The breadth of my knowledge of watercolour brands is now truly staggering. I own some really expensive brushes. But, years into my watercolour journey, I’m still unsure how I should practice.

Because I’ve been consuming, not learning.

Centring curiosity

There’s some sampling bias in how often biographies I read centre curiosity. But I wonder if it’s more my choice of reading material, than it is the kind of people who get biographies.

I started reading a new biography of Jennifer Doudna. She won a Nobel prize for her work on CRISPR.

Almost immediately we run into her being an outsider as a child, her diverse interests. Her curiosity.

“Her work also illustrates, as Leonardo da Vinci’s did, that the key to innovation is connecting a curiosity about basic science to the practical work of devising tools that can be applied to our lives - moving discoveries from lab bench to bedside.”

CRISPR is something I know little about, bar a half remembered Radio Lab episode from a few years ago. So I’m really excited to read more, and whether this pays off.

But this does look promising:

“Curiosity-driven research into the wonders of nature plants the seeds, sometimes in unpredictable ways, for later innovations. Research about surface-state physics eventually led to the transistor and microchip. Likewise, studies of an astonishing method that bacteria use to fight off viruses eventually led to a gene-editing tool and techniques that humans can use in their own struggle against viruses.”

We (really) don’t know why it happened

Fulfilment at work comes from mastery, and the perks that go with it, rather than pre-existing passion. That’s my main takeaway from So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

There isn’t much earth shattering in it. But it’s a great example of a simple inversion of a “common sense” idea. And the power of, and need for, different framing.

But a side note in the book is what has really captured my thinking the past few days:

There was debate in the chess world at the time surrounding the best strategies for improving. One camp thought tournament play was crucial, as it provides practice with tight time limits and working through distractions. The other camp, however, emphasized serious study—pouring over books and using teachers to help identify and then eliminate weaknesses. When surveyed, the participants in Charness’s study thought tournament play was probably the right answer. The participants, as it turns out, were wrong. Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors.

That we don’t fully understand or appreciate the reasons for successes (or failures) is something I’ve often returned to since reading The Hidden Half.

That book largely focused on noise and unknowability. Newport concentrates on poor framing and mental capture.

I started reading The Serendipity Mindset this morning and came across yet another spin. This is a book largely focused on luck (“serendipity”), and our perceptions of it.

The point is that when we construct our story of past events, we do what forecasters do: we create a model and ignore the details and the random events. Forecasters have a good excuse for doing this with the future: they cannot model every detail and, by definition, cannot foresee unpredictable events. But what is our excuse for doing this with the past?..
...We downplay or exclude the unpredictable events from our version of the past because random events that happened are no longer unpredictable. In fact, in hindsight they can start to look like they were inevitable. We then use information that wasn’t available to us at the time, and construct narratives that conveniently explain everything, including how each piece of the story logically connects with the rest of the story.

The overarching thread is the stories we tell ourselves are wrong. Whether due to an inability to perceive, ingrained misdirection, motivated reasoning, an uncomfortableness with randomness, post hoc rationalisation, or something else.

Eyewitness accounts seem to receive less and less credence as evidence of flaws mount. But perhaps all stories should be treated thus.

The context of colour

We’re surrounded by colour. On TV, advertising and clothes. I can whip open an app and conjure countless hues. We have wonderful algorithms that can interpolate from grainy, black and white footage.

But, reading Color by Victoria Finlay, gives you an appreciation of how unusual this is. How colour was rooted in place, politics, science, superstition, tradition, myth, adventure, disaster, exploitation, geology, biology and time.

And that isn’t an exhaustive list. As our use of colour has exploded, we’ve lost so much of this context.

With the exception of a few Russian icons which may have been painted with blue from Siberia, all the real ultramarine in both Western and Eastern art came from the last of these places—from one set of mines in a valley in north-east Afghanistan, collectively called Sar-e-sang, the Place of the Stone. It was where the Buddha’s topknots came from; it was where the monk painters of illuminated manuscripts found their skies; it was where the robe of Michelangelo’s Mother of God would have come from if he had waited long enough. And it was where I was determined to go.

Wars were fought over shades. Masterpieces left incomplete when artists couldn’t afford particular hues. Espionage was rampant as countries competed for monopolies.

This is a fascinating book, part travelogue part history. Finlay physically journeys to find ochre in Northern Australia, cochineal insect farms in South America, and the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan.

But I was probably taken most with what’s lost. Many of the works lining our national galleries have changed since they were completed. Natural pigment often isn’t permanent. And nor are the techniques to make them.

I carry around a little box of watercolours nowadays. In case I can get in a quick sketch. But now I realise they’re more than burnt umbers or cerulean blue. It’s a box of stories.