Monday, August 24, 2009

Self Education

We can say that Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.
I strongly believe in the value of higher education, but it's just a guidance and support network. The real motivation and effort must come from the learner. As such, I also support autodidacticism, the practice of self-directed learning. I don't just link Wikipedia pages as an academically offensive form of citation. They contain information that's genuinely useful and accurate more often than not for people who want to learn more.

There are famous autodidacts in virtually every field of mathematics, science, music, and the arts. The list includes Albert Einstein and Frank Zappa, for example. That suggests there are no subjects a self-learner couldn't learn to master. The barriers are just natural aptitude and motivation, not field of study. Of course not everyone can understand quantum mechanics. But I suspect more often than not, people are held back by a lack of motivation, not a lack of aptitude.

That's not to suggest raw talent isn't important. Famous self-learners are famous explicitly because they happened to be so excellent in their field. Of all the people in the world, on those who both try to learn physics and have the talent will become the next Einsteins. Isaac Newton is famous for his work on Mathematics, Gravity, and Optics. But he also spent years working for the Royal Mint. We remember him most for the areas he excelled at.

I don't think it much matters if you try something new and aren't amazing at it. As long as you enjoy it, it's worthwhile. Over the past few months I've been teaching myself how to play classical piano. I'll never be Bach or even just a concern pianist. But I will be good enough that I can play some of Bach's works and that's all that matters to me. More than latent ability, I believe the most important factor is the audacious belief that you can teach yourself sometime new. BrainWorks itself is the result of that belief. I started with no relevant formal training in artificial intelligence and produced some pretty groundbreaking game AI.

You don't have to pick classical piano or AI research if you don't think you're up to the task. But surely there is something you don't know but could. Can you solve a Rubik's Cube? What meal do you enjoy the most that you can't yet cook? Do you know how a television works? What about how the Enigma code was broken in World War II? Can you sail a sailboat? Do you recognize constellations in the night sky? Have you ever made a piece of pottery? Repaired an automobile? Written a short story?

Humans are far wealthier now than at any previous time in history, and the mere fact that you can read this on a computer proves it. The latest Wall Street fallout is a drop in the bucket compared to the technological gains of the past century. More wealth converts itself to more leisure time if you want it to. That makes this coming century the setting of the greatest potential renaissance ever. Don't waste that time on television or Facebook. Find something you don't know you love and master it!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Follow Your Dream

I've been watching some presentation videos on from their yearly conferences and as I scientist, I've found them very inspiring. There was a demonstration of a cheap water filter that could be deployed across the entire globe and seriously reduce infectious diseases that billions of humans are currently in danger of. Deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie talks about music and listening. I watched a video of Elaine Morgan talking about the major differences between humans and other great apes. She makes a compelling argument for humans evolving from a species of apes that lived in water.

But most of all I appreciated this talk about living a passionate life. The speaker tells a story of a Yugoslavian Jew who escaped Nazi Germany and at every stage in his life found the resources to make a profound impact on the region he was living in. After watching these videos, I found myself very motivated to make an impact on the world at large. I believe that in several decades, I too could present something of value, and if I don't do that, then perhaps I'm not living up to my potential. But then I wondered if my motivation was misplaced. Michael Pritchard worked on a water filter because he was dismayed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, not because he wanted to "make an impact on the world".

I rethought all the presentations, trying to find the common thread. What did these these people have in common that helped them accomplish their dreams? They all have some raw talent, but primarily I got the sense they were strongly motivated, and their motivation was directly for the the task they wanted to accomplish. Evelyn Glennie wanted to be a musician even though she is deaf. Through this she has become inspiring, but her motivation wasn't to be an inspiration.

Rather, I see these characteristics making up their stories:
  • Be motivated by the dream itself, not the result of the dream
  • Make plans on the scale of decades but don't follow them exactly
  • Don't ever give up when facing opposition
All of these people are somewhat talented and have a clear wealth of motivation. There weren't any presenters who were totally brilliant but only somewhat motivated. Success is about persistence. Each person had enough motivation to focus on something that would take years or decades accomplish. They all got discouraged and did not quit. When something stood in their way, they changed their plans to get around that obstacle. This leave us with two questions to answer:

What things do I care about?

How can I increase my motivation?

No two people have the same answers for these questions, and I believe you can only find these answers through introspection. In general though, people are motivated by positive feedback, concrete objectives, and small, discrete tasks. Things get hard when there aren't any positive results, the objective isn't clear, and the tasks can't be easily divided into portions.

This suggests that successful people are intrinsically optimists with a healthy dose of realism. They need to believe things will work out even when there's no feedback suggesting that while remaining grounded enough to change plans to get around adversity. Too much optimism and you'll stubbornly try the same thing and fail. Too little optimism and you'll just quit.

The good news is that this provides a metric for determining what you need to change to achieve your dreams. If you try things and then quit, then you need to become more optimistic. If you keep trying the same thing and it doesn't work, you need a healthy dose of reality to see why your original plan didn't work and how to revise it. If you try different things and they don't work, expand the realm of your search. But don't ever give up on the things that truly matter to you.