I asked my friend Benny Lewis, who is fluent in nearly a dozen languages, what he thought enabled him to gain fluency so quickly, often in as little as three months. He claimed that most of it came down to attitude—when he is learning, he stops speaking English, fully devoting himself to the language he is studying.
This is something I’ve seen frequently. Successful people tend to have a different attitude than mediocre people. To Benny, the key attitude was not being self-conscious or afraid to start speaking—he just starts immediately.
I’ve seen the same thing in many other areas. My friends who excel in business, think about money and career in very different ways than most people. I’ve also documented how fast learners generally approach learning from a completely different attitude than struggling students.
From this, it’s reasonable to conclude that attitude is very important to success.
Not So Fast–The Curse of Knowledge and Attitudes as Skills
LessWrong recently had a great piece illustrating the psychological bias informally known as the “curse of knowledge”. The curse of knowledge is that, when you know something, it can be very difficult to communicate that idea to someone who lacks your knowledge.
The bias was demonstrated by a study which had participants learn a popular song, then try to tap out the rhythm to the song for another participant to guess. Turns out this is a difficult task—only 2.5% of people successfully guessed the song.
However, when asked what the likelihood of a participant guessing the song was, most of the tappers said around 50%. That means they were 20x overconfident in their ability to communicate the song through tapping.
The problem is that your knowledge of the song made it impossible to imagine that the taps could sound like anything other than that song. Your knowledge, it turns out, made it harder for you to explain.
What does this have to do with attitudes?
I think that attitudes similarly suffer from a knowledge curse. When you are successful at a pursuit, the correct attitude seems obvious. As a result, you assume that by explaining that attitude, and tapping out its rhythm to someone else, they will immediately see things as you do.
But because of that curse, the correct attitude seems simple, but may actually be more complex and nuanced. Ideas only seem simple once you “get” them.
Benny’s attitude of speaking immediately and not worrying about making mistakes is an important part of his success. But the exact attitude he has is almost certainly more nuanced and context-specific than his single epiphany would make it seem.
I discovered the same problem when teaching courses. Even though I feel the basic principles behind learning better are fairly simple, I still get thousands of emails from people asking me how to apply it to their particular situation.
Now this confusion could just be because I’m not a good teacher. But I think what’s more likely is that the principles I feel are universal and commonsensical are actually fairly nuanced and context-specific.
Beneath Benny’s attitude of speaking immediately or my attitude of learning via connections, there are hundreds of unstated assumptions built through experience. The problem isn’t that the attitude is unimportant, but rather that the attitude is a type of skill—it also requires a lot of learning and practice to implement.
Attitudes as Skills
I think this also explains a lot of the failures of traditional self-help. Experts believe the key insights needed to live better are simple. They write books that try to explain that perspective, but then many of the people who try to cultivate that attitude and use it fail miserably.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that attitude is unimportant or the ideas behind successful perspectives are wrong, but that the attitudes themselves aren’t simple. They are complicated and nuanced, so they cannot be effectively communicated in a single book or seminar.
You wouldn’t say physics was an attitude. Understanding physics is complicated and it takes a lot of effort to develop the correct intuitions and skill of thinking about physics. If someone told you the key to success in physics was to adopt a simple “physics mindset” you’d laugh at them.
But why do we think that life philosophies, which are far less reducible to key tenets the way physics is, can similarly be summed up in an aphorism? Why do we feel the correct life attitude has to be something obvious and simple, when even the fundamental laws of our universe don’t obey such nice constraints?
If this is true then, yes, attitudes and perspectives are tremendously important for success. Yet those same attitudes are also likely nuanced and complex, and not something easily transmissible in a thesis statement.
The Hidden Complexities of Common Sense
An idea can be simple and still be difficult to learn. Basically all of calculus can be explained in terms of limits, yet people still struggle with calculus. Why, then, must life philosophies be complicated? Couldn’t they be simple, yet hard to grasp fully?
To explain that, it’s important to consider an unexpected problem that occurred with artificial intelligence research. The problem is that common sense is much more complicated than we would guess.
In his book, Everything is Obvious, Duncan Watts shares how difficult it is to build computers that can perform simple human tasks. Take the example of where to sit on the bus—a simple problem, no?
Well it turns out that the etiquette involved in sitting on the bus is far from simple. Unstated assumptions of where to sit, how close to other people, what circumstances you should give up your seat, all underpin our ability to make decisions. We do it so effortlessly, we don’t realize that the underlying rule-set is so complicated.
Life philosophies are just a more specific version of the generic commonsense we all possess. They are rife with conditionals, unstated assumptions and nuanced explanations which work in one context but not others.
Life Philosophy and the Failure of an Elevator Pitch
In business school, they teach you to do elevator pitches—get your idea across succinctly in 60 seconds, which explains the most salient features of the idea. It’s an art, not only in what you say, but also in what you must omit because of time.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the elevator pitch for this website, because I honestly don’t have one. Other advice bloggers proudly delineate their life philosophy into a few key tenets and centralize their writing around those ideas. This site has always been an eclectic mix of different ideas, lacking a consistent perspective.
But if life philosophies are inherently complex, perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. Instead of trying to come up with the single axiom that defines a worldview, I try to provide little windows onto an issue or topic. Sometimes they contradict or only work in a particular context, but that’s the nature of experience.
Is Success a Matter of Attitude or Aptitude?
It’s obvious that the answer is both. Without a good attitude, or philosophy, for approaching an area you won’t be successful. Without ever building skills or ability, it’s also hard to succeed.
What’s less obvious is that attitudes and life philosophies themselves are a type of skill. They’re rarely a simple axiom you can use to know what to do in all situations, instead they’re a collection of rules, each of which works some of the time.
But if that’s the case, perhaps we shouldn’t expect to find a grand answer to problems in life, but a collection of little suggestions.