Scott H Young

Good Life Philosophies Aren’t Simple


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.


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14 Responses to “Good Life Philosophies Aren’t Simple”

  1. Alberto says:

    Hey there, it’s Alberto the philosopher from the Paris meeting, hope you are fine :)

    Interesting post…but I am not enterely convinced by this way of putting things.
    Aptitude (the technical/procedural part of a skill) is of course complex and contextual, that is, there is no easy set of “if-then” procedures to follow. A lot of sensitivity and wisdom is required.

    You say that also the attitude part of a skill is complex. This seems counterintuitive to me. Take advice for social skills & relatinship such as “genuinely care about everybody”. Is it complex? it is obviously complex to know how to act on it, but this is covered by the complexity of procedures (the aptitude part).

    As for the problem with attitude, another possible explanation is attitude/beliefs holism. The attitude can be in fact simple (the advice on caring about everybody really simply states that you should care about everybody) but you can’t internalize it (and really act on it) unless it is supported/consistent with your mental ecology.That is to say unless, at a given moment, 90% of your existing attitudes/beliefs are compatible with it. If that is not the case, you don’t fail to internalize the supposed “complexity” of the attitude: instead, you just don’t have full 100% compliance with it. You just won’t do it.

    This explains better why self-help work mysteriously does not work for some people. It is because the obstacles to having a mental ecology that support the attitude can be highly idiosyncratic. It is possible that a person has a unique set of experiences, traumas, beliefs that is highly incompatible with the attitude of caring about everybody. That is, this unlucky person will have a set of existing attitudes 10x more resistant to universal caring than the average. Nothing that usually unlocks and persuades the average guy will remotely work with him. Self-help advice that became famous and is culturally transmitted is by definition advice that helped many persons: so, by construction, the case of the unlucky guy is not covered.
    In the end, the problem would be persuasion against mental obstacles to complete internalization, not understanding the subtleties of the attitude.

  2. Ben Linus says:

    Your math is a bit wrong, it should be 20x, not 50x…

  3. Scott Young says:

    Ben,

    Whoops–I’ve fixed it now!

    Alberto,

    That’s why I discussed the problem of AI research in developing computers who have “common sense”. In my mind, a life philosophy is like common sense–it has contingencies and is often local, if it weren’t then it probably wouldn’t be very effective.

    You’re right in that this is counter-intuitive, researchers were surprised at just how difficult it is to build computers to do simple “human” tasks, because they realized to perform them effectively they would require an entire set of world knowledge. These are called “hard AI” problems in more technical terms.

    You could argue that life philosophies are very different from commonsense (more axiomatical, less local), but I’d argue that isn’t how it works in practice (I’m distinguishing here between the operating rules of thumb people have from formalized philosophy, which may indeed be simple and axiomatical).

    Relationships are a perfect example. Take the axiom “Don’t lie.” But what if you are served a terrible dinner and don’t want to hurt the hosts’ feelings? What if revealing the information would result in someone else being hurt?

    The reason this contradiction within an apparently straightforward rule doesn’t cause problems is that people automatically reason which are the correct situations and which are the incorrect situations.

    However, if you’re lacking in an area from not having the correct life philosophy, then you necessarily also lack most the “commonsense” associations implicit in the idea.

    I could still be wrong about this idea, but I use my blog more to explore hypotheses and get feedback than anything else. I appreciate the discussion.

    -Scott

  4. Jeremy Day says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve been pondering these ideas a lot lately because I am writing a book to help people with their personal finances.

    I truly believe that if you have the right mindset you are going to make better decisions about your personal finances then if you don’t have the correct mindset.

    And I really enjoyed how you said having a certain mindset is an attained skill, often drawn from local experience and knowledge. I have to think about this more but I wonder if it is even possible to teach that sort of mindset in a book?

    Hmmm.

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  5. Aurooba says:

    Scott,

    I’ve been reading your blog for ages now, and I have to say that this is one of the most thoughtful and brilliant pieces I have read so far here. As a compsci student, I can agree that it is amazing how complex the simplest decisions we make are. I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

    Thank you,

    ~Aurooba

  6. Scott Young says:

    Thanks Aurooba!

    Jeremy,

    Well there certainly is an art to communicating mindset. There will probably be large, general distinctions which operate in most cases. Benny’s advice to just “start speaking” or my advice to “learn by connections” is that kind of broad brushstroke designed to cover a lot of the cases.

    What’s challenging is to try to pick the defining points of a life philosophy that are clear enough to cover the most local differences in someone’s mind.

    So, in writing a book to give a mindset, it’s critical not to just give principles, but also to try to look for the most common glitches people have so you can correct them.

    -Scott

  7. Tim Bray says:

    Scott,

    This is the first time I have visited your site; it was passed along to me through a colleague at my school. I have to say that I’m impressed; especially as a teacher, I find your website fascinating. My guess is that you have been attacked or criticized by people (probably many in education, sadly) based on the disclaimer just above the comment area. I love the fact that you have taken complete and total responsibility for your own learning and are sharing that with other people. Please continue to share this type of information with the world. With current technologies and some passion, people can achieve anything they decide they want to do. Your website is testimony to that essential fact of life. Congratulations on living life to the fullest of your ability and desire. I only wish that more people would make the same choice.
    Thanks for sharing your learning journeys,
    Tim

  8. I enjoyed this article Scott, thoroughly.

    I believe the concept of attitude can be approached from personal experience. For example, I sometimes find it hard to apply your principles to my life because I cannot relate it to my daily activities, and how I can improve.
    Sometimes I have to calm down and really think things through.

    I think the moment we can relate to a certain principle via via applying a model of personal experience or an underlying framework of paradigms and philosophies, then accepting new principles becomes much more easier because by then we would have “personalized” it. It is no longer a foreign body, it is now part of our internal thought-needs-priority ecosystem.
    I guess we can conveniently say that even our thoughts have an immune system that actively fights against foreign bodies (thoughts, concepts, paradigms) from entering and taking root. We reject before we can accept.
    Thinking of this, I think this could be the main reason why learning new principles of thought/action is hard. It isn’t because we lack the ability and intellectual capacity or mental discipline needed to learn it, but because we fail to see the need for it. People instantly learn how to send text messages on new devices because of the apparent and inherent need to communicate with their social community, and they also learn new songs immediately because they connect to that song through their emotions. But bring in something of an esoteric value, and they suddenly become “dumb”. When in actual fact the methods needed to learn the principles of the esoteric subject are no different from the methods required to learn how to sing the latest Justin Bieber song or navigate the complex menu system of an iPhone or a BlackBerry.

    So it all boils down still to the end user. How flexible is their underlying belief system?

    Well, that’s just what I think, academically of course.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Tim,

    Well I wanted to clarify that my comments on genes and clarifying what researchers mean when they say things like heritability and IQ aren’t directly coupled with my specific philosophy of learning. I have a good hunch about most things, but I certainly haven’t reached the level of empiricism to defend a PhD thesis.

    -Scott

  10. Sarah says:

    @Alberto – you make some interesting points but I’m not sure I understand your definition of an attitude. According to you, attitude and aptitude are separate such that you can have an attitude but without the aptitude to execute it. But then can it actually be claimed that you have that attitude? Isn’t the definition of attitude that you have an internalized set of beliefs that motivate your actions/decisions?

    You bring up an interesting point regarding a person’s existing status of their mental ecology and how receptive they would be to internalizing a new attitude. But in fact, I think your point supports Scott’s argument that attitudes are skills that need to be practiced. The more you understand the terrain of a new attitude and the subtleties that accompany internalizing a new attitude, the more contrast it will provide for understanding the current attitudes you have. Given this contrast, you’ll have more insight and possible solutions to make the shift – in my opinion.

    I think both sides of the equation are important: understanding the collection of attitudes that make people resistant to change and a clearer understanding of the complexity of the effective attitudes and how they can be integrated into an existing set of beliefs.

    Scott – this is really interesting. I would be very interested in posts about your experience and insight into changing your own attitudes, developing those ‘attitude’ skills, observing attitudes in others and how you choose to internalize them etc.

    Thank you as always for your precision, insight, and creativity.

    Warm regards,
    Sarah

  11. David says:

    Pretty much how I think about it too. Many people seem to think that those who become successful, got there by the click of a finger. It’s all about having the correct mindset and aligning that towards the task at hand.

    It’s self-development all over again. If you’re trying to improve your life with an attitude of hate and disgust for your body, then you’re just going to get frustrated every time something doesn’t go your way and inevitably fail.

  12. [...] if said advice giver had the best intentions and reputation in his field, his experiences and life philosophy is likely significantly different from your own.  He would be speaking to you as if he were giving [...]

  13. Tim says:

    Nice site, Scott.

    While I agree the curse of knowledge makes it more difficult to communicate ideas, I think your explaination of the curse of knowledge is a shade off, or at least incomplete. Perhaps you are suffering from the curse of knowledge.

    In your example, the curse of knowledge does not make it harder for the tapper to communicate the song. The success rate for the tapper would be the same if he were working off a rhythm encoded on sheet music but did not know the song. What the curse of knowledge is doing is robbing the tapper of the ability to judge how easy the tapping is for someone else to understand. The tapper doesn’t have to sort out the rhythm from the myriad of possible answers, but instead only hears the correct answer in his head (and likely the supporting music and words as well). Because of this, the tapper is deaf to other possbile ways (both correct and incorrect) of interpreting the taps.

    When teaching, the curse of knowledge makes it hard to see other ways of interpreting what is being presented, makes it hard to judge the completeness of what is being presented, and makes it hard to see alternatives. Incidentally, this contributes to why revolutionary ideas often come from outsiders or relatively new participants in a field, because they have not yet been blinded to alternatives by the curse of knowledge.

    With regards to teaching and the curse of knowledge, Eric Mazur, a physics professor at the University of Maryland (USA), has been experimenting with ways to teach better. One of his methods uses peer instruction, with the rationale being that new learners are more aware of the hurdles to grasping an idea than those who learned long ago. There is plenty of information on the web about his methods as well as an NPR piece earlier in 2011.

    An interesting complement to the tapping experiment is that when people were first working on artificial speech, the inventors discovered they could cheat when presenting their work by communicating a song instead of strictly spoken words. The reason is that by hooking into the familiar pitch and rhythm (easier for the computer to generate), they could make the listeners’ brains discard other interpretations of the noise and hear the words. This made it sound more understandable than it actually was. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is also the curse of knowledge or the opposite.

    Finally, it seems like the above has much in common with some of the learning techniques you promote. In the unlikely event you want to learn more about it this example to use as a story for your site, I think it was John Kelly and friends at Bell Labs.

  14. Nahyan says:

    Very insightful article, especially the point of “attitude as skills” and the complexity behind the simple/obvious.

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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