Scott H Young

Developing an Appetite for Hard Ideas


Richard Feynman, professor and Nobel-prize winning physicist purportedly only had an IQ of 125. Smart, but hardly in the rarefied spectrum we normally consider for genius.

This trivia is usually brought up to show the ridiculousness of IQ testing. If an obvious genius doesn’t qualify for Mensa, how valid can it be for normal people?

After reading Feynman’s memoirs, a different idea struck me. While his intelligence is obvious, what impressed me most was his persistence in learning hard ideas. He would reread physics papers meticulously for hours, and all of their sources, until he understood an idea from the bottom up.

Perhaps genius isn’t best defined by raw intellectual ability. Instead, maybe it’s the appetite for hard ideas that makes someone smart.

Intelligence as Endurance

The two explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. Feynman’s intelligence was probably underestimated by the IQ test, even if he also had a greater thirst for hard problems.

Despite this, intelligence-as-endurance has empirical support. Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, studied the effect of mindset on intelligence. Students who believed smarts were malleable wanted to take on harder challenges, and became smarter than students with more talent but less motivation.

Dweck contrasts the two groups of students as fixed-mindset and growth-mindset. Believing your abilities were rigid killed students’ appetite for hard ideas, while a growth mindset fostered it.

In my own experience working with students, I’ve seen how appetite for hard ideas translates to success. When faced with a concept that they don’t understand, most students simply accept the correct definition and memorize the solution. Top learners don’t do this—they struggle obsessively to figure it out.

Hunger for Hard Ideas

When I was a kid, I liked books by Brian Greene. Not out of a deep love of physics, but simply because the ideas were hard to understand at first glance. Following all the concepts required thinking differently about the world.

A hunger for hard ideas is a specific subset of curiosity. It’s seeking explanations for things because they are hard to understand. Because, when those ideas are understood, the satisfaction of knowing something difficult to learn is even greater.

People who believe in superstitions lack this hunger. They are curious for explanations, but they prefer naïve explanations that are easily understood. They prefer incorrect explanations, than accepting hard ideas exist.

Developing Your Appetite

I agree with Dweck’s research that a key distinction enabling people to love hard challenges or shrink away in fear, is mindset. If you believe certain domains of knowledge are too difficult for you to understand, then you’ll avoid hard ideas.

People with the right attitude believe no idea is too difficult to understand. The only reason you don’t know everything is that you haven’t spent the time to learn it all yet. Effort is the only barrier, not ability in 99% of all cases.

The worst limiting belief in this area is the idea that some are “math”, “arts” or “English” people. Once again, it’s true to the extent you make it true. Some people will be faster than others, but no branch of knowledge is off-limits.

Feynman was a perfect example of this. He may be renown for physics, but less people know he was also an amateur musician, artist, linguist, engineer and lock picker. There isn’t enough time in one life to become perfect at everything, but that’s a constraint of lifespan, not talent.

Seeking Hard Ideas – Why Aren’t More People Autodidacts?

A question that has bothered me is, why aren’t more people self-educated? With the internet’s immense resources, almost anything can be learned online for free, or for a fraction of the cost of tuition.

Some possible answers are that learning is difficult without instruction, the content is boring, there aren’t good systems for proving knowledge obtained outside of an institution. To a certain extent these are all correct.

However, a bigger culprit is that people simply don’t like hard ideas. The reason millions of people pay billions of dollars to attend university, but only a tiny fraction watches brilliant MIT, Harvard or Stanford lectures online is because most people won’t learn for fun. Without the prospect of a diploma, most people would rather watch television.

But even if most people can’t be bothered to learn hard ideas if they aren’t given a carrot or stick to motivate them, some people will. Those people, armed with the near-infinite resources of our age and a hunger to learn for the sake of learning, will outrun the prodigies and gifted who shy away from the challenge.


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27 Responses to “Developing an Appetite for Hard Ideas”

  1. Aaron Fung says:

    Scott,

    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. Very thought provoking.

    I remember reading “Surely you’re Joking Mr. Feynman” back in middle school. It nearly convinced me to become a physicist. A surprisingly funny book about a fascinating character.

    I never knew that Feynman’s IQ was 125, that is well over average, but as you say not what you’d expect of a Nobel Prize laureate. Thank you, I have a new piece of trivia to impress the girls with at cocktail parties. :-)

    Why aren’t there more autodidacts?

    You propose an interesting question, especially in this age where information and education can be had with little more than an internet connection and even the most basic of computers.

    Part of it is that many folks attend college for the credential, to impress their peers, to become marketable in a job search, to network, etc

    Many of the major reasons for going to college have little to do with the actual learning. Indeed, the learning is more an obstacle to overcome than a primary motivation.

    For those who really do want to learn, college provides support that an online webcast and pdf does not: there is office hour to bug the professor with our questions and we have the camaraderie and shared suffering of our classmates.

    As you said, many of these ideas are hard. An autodidact must face these hard ideas on his or her own, without comrades, and without a flesh and blood professor as a guide.

    Depending on the class, the presence of a flesh and blood professor is a major factor. I know my own college experience was enhanced by access to leaders in their respective fields of study; I was able to argue with them about hard ideas, debate hard ideas, even correct flaws in their analysis of said hard ideas.

    Were I taking an online class, I would have had to be content with being a passive absorber of information; a consumer rather than a collaborator.

    In addition, the autodidact lacks the incentive of the credential from a recognized institution of higher learning. Saying “I watched the online course in Calculus off of the Stanford website” is a very different thing to our peers from “I studied math as a student at Stanford.” This is regardless of any learning actually accomplished.

    I’m not saying this is right or wrong, just a few deterrents to modern autodidacts.

    I think it is interesting that you mention Mr. Feynman’s varied interests. As I responded in my reply to your previous post, I believe in grappling with a field of study, we should leverage any knowledge we currently have, so that we aren’t starting from scratch.

    Beyond this, I believe that innovation in a field occurs as a result of going to the edge of a field and bringing something new from outside. Professor Robert Allen of Oxford argues in his book, “The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective” that innovation occurred as a result of this collaboration of different disciplines (note, this is a corollary of the main argument of the book, which centers around coal and high real wages).

    I have a feeling that Mr. Feynman was able to make connections between these his varied interests, and these connections helped his physics, even if unconsciously.

    However, he was not really world class in any of these fields except for physics. In most of these fields, Feyman was a mere dabbler; from what I remember of his autobiography, I don’t think he got in deep enough to grapple with the hard ideas of these fields; he just didn’t have the time, as his passion and career was in physics.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on Renaissance men, who become world class in many fields, such as da Vinci, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who not only wroth poetry but made discoveries in the sciences as well.

    Is it possible to become world class in many fields, or is it possible only to become world class in one field, that you devote all your time and talents?

    Just some thoughts.

    -Aaron

  2. Rich says:

    Great Post.

    I love the mindset = intellectual potential hypothesis.

    In my experience, not only can you apply this hypothesis to ideas, but also to activities (and life projects). For example, with exercising many people believe they are just a certain body type (big boned or forever skinny) and nothing can be done about it. However, I have seen several people transform their body composition through dedication to exercise and diet. Just like IQ, people can alter their body weight set point through discipline and the belief that they are not trapped by their own genetics.

    I’m going to use this “hard idea” hypothesis while in law school in the fall. It will be nice to know that struggling is a good thing.

  3. Feynman had such a love and reverence for science and knowledge, even watching the videos of him speaking on YouTube his passion is completely contagious (I recommend the “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” series, from which this video is taken: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28 ). I can’t imagine how captivating he would’ve been to see speak in real life.

  4. Stanley Lee says:

    Scott,

    I like your final remarks about how people have to be dangled with a carrot stick in order to attempt tackling hard ideas. Even then, the extra pressure and stress involved would make people more likely to give up after reassessing the cost-benefit (or reward) ratio of tackling hard ideas.

    Stanley

  5. Krishnam says:

    Hi Scott

    another thought provoking article, I agree with you on the idea about superstition people believe what they want to believe and hear and read or see what they want to. If you show the same clip of film to two different people they both will give you a different views when questioned about the details of the film – because they have seen what they wanted to see.

    My view is we will only learn something if and when we want to otherwise we receive so much information in one day which comes in from one ear and goes out of the other.

    Hard ideas are not easy to accept or reject – and people are forced to think about this – do i agree with this or not and take a side while the easier way out for most people is to sit on the middle wall.

    The human mind too functions in the same way – take the easier path and that is the reason there are many people who don’t make even one discovery, invention or new contribution through out their lives – not due to lack of ideas but due to lack of effort in making their ideas work.

    the question for me is – how to create the appetite for creating new ideas and how to make one work without losing motivation for the new idea while still balancing the mundane things in life.

  6. Stanislav says:

    Hi all,

    Aaron has mentioned an essential thing of online learning limitations — lack of collaboration. In addition to content there should be such key figures in this process: one who experienced enough to support self-educating, and a few peers ready to learn the same thing as you.

    I want to ask the following question: can we overcome these limitations? Is it possible to combine online learning with collaboration? Does simple chatting allow us emulate a classroom environment? Does voice chatting? Video conference? Will these features help improve motivation of attendees?

  7. Arman says:

    Wonderful insights Scott! Loved them!

    Why aren’t more people autodidacts? Being a very avid learner myself and at times experiencing difficulty to make myself to sit down and learn something, I realised that self-learning is difficult because it involves change. Learning is a process of changing and transforming ourselves. Changing ourselves isn’t easy. That is why self-learning isn’t easy. That is why there aren’t many autodidacts.

    From reading your blog I remember that you like the idea energy management rather than time management. To move out of homeostasis, a system requires energy. Change requires energy. Therefore, learning requires energy. So in many ways learning is deeply connected with energy management. When there is an excess of energy it is possible to “spill” that energy over to initiate a change.

    Nowaydays, when I sit down to learn something, I first ensure to keep my energy levels high through food, exercising, or caffeine, then accept that fact that I will be changed, and then enjoy the ride on the tide of learning. It makes a difference.

    So my conclusion is that to increase number of autodidacts, it is necessary to be mindful of the fact that learning brings change and that change requires energy. I am now exploring how to implement strategies of people who are good at changing (self-influence) to incorporate into my learning routines.

  8. [...] Developing an Appetite for Hard Ideas « Scott H Young Posted on August 11, 2011 by admin Developing an Appetite for Hard Ideas « Scott [...]

  9. Oskar says:

    For me, one thing that really motivates me to learn hard ideas, is when something I observe does not make sense. When there is a void in my understanding of the world, it seems that the brain really wants to fill it as quickly as possible.

    For example, I was never very interested in cognitive science until I studied linguistics and realised that generative linguistics did answer my question on how human communication works. In fact their models seemed counterproductive for that purpose, while excellent for other purposes. Suddenly, I became very motivated to read plenty of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics.

    In this way the appetite for hard problems might be stimulated by asking an intriguing question and discovering that one lacks a good answer.

  10. Oskar says:

    > generative linguistics did answer

    I meant to say:
    generative linguistics did NOT answer

  11. Aaron Fung says:

    Stanislav,
    Thank you Stanislav for distilling my point on collaboration into an understandable paragraph. I know I can be very verbose. :-)

    You ask a very pertinent question: “Is it possible to combine online learning with collaboration?”

    My analysis is very mixed. On the one hand I can provide deeper analysis in a written form that is obviously part of a larger discourse, be it on a blog, forum, or in response to a thought provoking blog post. :-)

    On the other hand, having an actual conversation with flesh and blood human beings cannot be replaced; in real life conversations we can immediately point out fallacious logic, emphasize important points that through nonverbal cues that cannot be imitated in text, etc. I personally find real life conversations more stimulating of creative ideas than any online conversation (perhaps why I only have 7 blog subscribers :-))

    Perhaps just as important is that most professors and leaders in their respective academic fields (barring computer science or anything related to technology) lack a significant web presence. My guess is that most of them are technophobic.

    This is a challenge because in higher learning these professors act as guides through the overwhelming mass of information. Without these obvious guides, internet collaborations could very easily devolve into a case of the blind leading the blind. Perhaps this blind peer has the most twitter followers, but as anyone with knowledge of youtube could tell you, what is most popular is not necessarily always right, much less educational.

    This may change, as a new generation of intellectuals find their way onto the internet; I think higher education ought to make better use of the information superhighway.

    In addition, these flesh and blood students and professors provide tangible humans the learner is accountable to; faceless internet denizens are easier to blow off.

    At least until the next great leap in internet technology (virtual reality?) the internet, though a useful and valuable resource, still cannot replace real life, flesh and blood collaboration with peers and professors.

    Arman,
    Not certain homeostasis is the correct metaphor here, as it requires more energy to remain in homeostasis; it takes energy for the human body to remain at 98 degrees by negative feedback processes rather than taking on the temperature of the environment, like cold-blooded lizards; note how mammals must intake significantly more food relative to body mass in order to maintain this homeostasis, as opposed to cold blooded lizards that require less food intake.

    A better scientific metaphor is inertia and friction.

    The resistance of static friction, the friction acting on a mass at rest, is greater than kinetic friction, the friction acting on a mass in motion that had overcome the threshold of motion.

    Like friction, the autodidact must overcome the initial static friction (ie it will be hard, I’d rather eat a pizza, I don’t have time, etc.) beyond the threshold of motion, to a point where he is “in motion” and studying, when the resistance of kinetic friction is bearable.

    Inertia is defined as “how difficult it is to change the momentum of a body.” (Wikipedia)

    Or as in Newton’s first laws:
    ” An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an unbalanced force acts upon it.
    An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an unbalanced force acts upon it.” (Wikipedia)

    Like Newton’s first law, which describes inertia, the would be autodidact must overcome his initial inertia that keeps him at rest by an “unbalanced force..” However, once he is “in motion” it is a lot easier to maintain the studying.

    Scott,
    Another key barrier to autodidacts is the lack of purpose in the acquisition of knowledge.

    In school, the purpose is clear: I am learning this material because Professor X says I must in order to pass this class; I want to pass these classes so I can get my degree. If nothing else, there is peer pressure from the student’s fellow classmates to study.

    An autodidact doesn’t have this; she must create her own incentives, her own purpose to power through the discomfort of grappling with hard ideas.

    A semester class is a commitment, and once the honeymoon phase of “oh goody! I am taking classes in organic chemistry on the interwebs!” has worn off, there is little incentive to get through the hard stuff, to grapple with hard ideas.

    Seth Godin, in “The Dip,” talks about the “dip,” in which the honeymoon phase ends, and the hard part begins. In technology marketing this is time when a product must cross the chasm from the early adopters to the early majority. In the course of study, this i s the point at which we must grapple with hard ideas, struggling for every incremental gain in understanding.

    Godin suggests that the key to succeeding is to not only press beyond the dip, but to quit often in projects that there will either be little chance of getting beyond the dip, or there is little payoff to justify the hardship; all resources ought to be applied to getting through the dip of a worthwhile project.

    Not that learning for learning’s sake isn”t a valuable ideal, but for the average American, there is not enough payoff to justify getting through the dip, and her resources are better spent elsewhere, such as on her career or pop culture trivia.

    Tim Ferriss recommends somewhere or other that when learning a new skill, you should enter a small competition, exhibition or something of that sort. The competition,gives the learner something to train for, a reason to show up and work hard.

    I think the autodidact must set her own incentives, undertake the learning as part of a purpose beyond “learning”. I get the feeling you are doing this, as your learning of classical mechanics was part of a greater project that you are blogging about.

    Your project provides purpose and incentive; your blogging provides accountability.

    -Aaron

  12. Scott Young says:

    Aaron,

    One thing to point out is that learning doesn’t have to be online-only just to be self-education. If you live in a larger city, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to set up or join a group of people who are all learning the same thing, attend conferences on the topic or otherwise engage with people face-to-face.

    -Scott

  13. YoungAndDum says:

    Intellectual curiosity. That shit’s sexy.

  14. Aaron Fung says:

    Scott,

    ‘One thing to point out is that learning doesn’t have to be online-only just to be self-education. If you live in a larger city, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to set up or join a group of people who are all learning the same thing, attend conferences on the topic or otherwise engage with people face-to-face.”

    This is a great point, and one that I overlooked.

    This is among the reasons I prefer to live in a large city, lots going on and lots of smart people to engage with.

    The nice thing about the internet is that it makes these face-to-face meetups more common and easier to coordinate.. Just off the top of my head once could utilize the internet to find meetups through meetup.com or finding out about conferences through the university website.

    Autodidacts must understand the strengths and weaknesses of her tools, and leverage them accordingly; for example, lectures could be watched online while collaboration could be done in real life.

    -Aaron

  15. Scott Young says:

    Aaron,

    I agree. Self-education is different than attending university. So if you try to find a one-to-one comparison for every single attribute, you’ll fail. But that’s making excuses–self-education also has advantages over learning in an institution. It’s cheaper, there’s less bureaucracy, you can focus on learning the things that interest you most instead of following a set curriculum, etc.

    I think the major limitation, currently, is that most people don’t have an appetite for hard ideas that causes them to seek them out and try to learn. With the right motivation, one can do just about anything.

  16. aswin says:

    Scott , i agree with your view . going through Feynman’s memoir , its obvious that he loved physics or mathematics much more than anything . He was excited by challenges ,and did whatever it took to solve them .I think one should develop a perspective to love things which he do .

  17. Bonnie says:

    This post reminds me so much of a book I read in high-school called “Do Hard Things” by Brett and Alex Harris. It is an encouragement to teens to break out of social norms and excel during the teen years.

    As a mostly Un-schooled kid, I got to pick all my own subjects throughout school. I focused on subjects that interested me and I had the “knack” for.

    It wasn’t until that book that I really started tackling subjects that I wasn’t “naturally” good at.

    Just this morning I was studying a particularly difficult subject (I’m in college, but during the summer I get to study what I want :). I was really sitting there thinking that I just might not be smart enough to ever grasp the concept. I took a break and read your blog post- thanks for the encouragement to keep going.

    (also thanks for the links to all those resources, I’ve already started bookmarking like crazy)

    All the best
    ~Bon

  18. Stanislav says:

    Scott,

    so what we have: self-education has undoubted advantages over learning in an institution, but also has such disadvantages as lack of collaboration.

    Don’t you think this subject is similar to some others? Namely: when freelancers had appeared, they got some essential advantages over office staff. But afterwards they had been evolved in the direction of forming freelancers’ studios. Another example: personal blogs eventually were outrun by collective ones.

    Could it be expected the same from the field of education?

  19. Matt says:

    The idea that intelligence is greatly determined by your mindset resonates with me.

    It is not the smartest people based on IQ Tests that succeed the most. It is those who have both the potential and an incredible mindset.

    Great post! Will share it on Twitter and Facebook :-)

  20. Cal says:

    Loved this post.

  21. Cal says:

    Interestingly, James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, titled “Genius,” went out of its way to emphasize that Feynman was some sort of savant for whom hard math came easy. This is obviously a sexy story, but I find it gratifying to hear that in Feynman’s own memoirs he says, in essence, “not so fast…”

  22. Bornagainscholar says:

    I am glad that you wrote this article. I don’t think most people even realize the limiting affect of the of their mindset and this may open the eye’s to a few who may portray more of a fixed-mindset. Carol Dweck is quick to point out that everyone is a combination of the two and it is within each persons awareness to control which one they believe in most often. Which brings me to my thought that maybe people can believe in superstitions in some situations but still are typically a growth-mindset type of learner. Some superstitions are ridiculous and don’t deserve the time dedicated to figuring out the truth behind them. As you mentioned there is not enough time in our lives to learn everything, therefore somethings have to be left unanswered to give way for those things that are of more importance to an individual. Although this stereotype is somewhat harmless I believe that it is always safer to make as few all encompassing judgments and total inclusions as possible. Maybe it would be more accurate to say there are people who believe in superstitions that are mainly of the fixed mindset, if this is true of you it may be helpful to practice believing in the growth-mindset and dig deeper for the truth. I only bring this up because I think that is a very interesting example of the mindset and by saying all people who believe in a superstition are of the fixed-mindset, that takes away from your point.

    Thanks for doing what you do.

  23. Scott Young says:

    Cal,

    I’m not sure whether Feynman himself believed his talents were innate or trained, but his attitude towards hard ideas I found interesting. He talks about lock picking, and spending several hours on a single lock trying to figure out how to open it at a time. I doubt many people would have that kind of dedication to any pursuit.

    -Scott

  24. [...] Young had a fantastic post recently titled “Developing an Appetite for Hard Ideas.” It’s spot [...]

  25. Eric says:

    “Why Aren’t More People Autodidacts”

    I think the lack of feedback (Flow by Csikszentmihalyi) and ways to properly assess progress, along with the difficulty of managing oneself and the fact that even if you learn something on your own you still have a credibility disadvantage (at least initially) compared to a person who got a degree in the topic (even if you learned it better). I think these factors make it difficult in our society to even consider as an option an autodidact approach to something you would do as a career. I think when most people think about switching careers, the first thing they think of is going back to school. (I know this is how I often think) We want to see how something can be done before we do it, and a lot of the people we see in a particular field of work usually went through some schooling related to it.

    I appreciate what you write on this site. You have a lot of good ideas.

  26. T. M. Deuerling says:

    Why? What’s the difference in the guy trying to perfect his golf swing or learning physics? What’s the difference in the guy trying to get an extra mph out of his dragster or studying molecular biology? What’s the difference in the teen girl trying to expand her facebook or learning to trat AIDS? What about the guy trying to score at the hillbilly bar on Saturday night or developing a new calculas? There is no one to decide what is the most noble use of our life. Richard Feyman is dead and everything he knew and felt died with him and what he has given to others has no effect on him now; he enjoyed it while he was alive and that was his reinforcement so it will be with us. There is no reason to work except as it brings us reinforcement. The only rationale I know of for learning new things are either as a tool to help live more comfortably or as a lens to allow one to perceive what would otherwise not be known. But even if we never learn anything new, we won’t know what we don’t know.

  27. Meredith says:

    Just skimming through from a Cal Newport link in one of his older posts. I find reading through these type of self-help student posts cathartic if I have trouble falling asleep at night. ;)

    So thank you for that.

    Just wanted to say this: From observing my new schoolmates (FRESHMAN here w00t lol), perhaps the largest factor is lack of self-confidence?

    I think the solution would just involve major one-on-one spirit-pumping though. There’s something very compelling about looking a person in the eye, and telling them that they’re awesome, and if they don’t think they are, they can be awesome, because we’re all human. We can do it.
    >:… I want to figure out the main self-help articles I’ll refer people to, and how I can reach more people in my school…

    :3 We’ll see. ‘Night now.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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