Learning to process your rocks

It’s not good to consume too much information, to be bombarded by articles after articles, podcasts after podcasts, or videos after videos. By consuming so much, you can actually lose your ability to think and create, and that’s what happened to me a while back.

Sure, you need input in order to make output, and these inputs generally come from the ideas we’re exposed to and the information we consume. But they don’t come directly, do they? There’s no way you can write a good blog post by copying, almost word for word, the content of another blog post.

The thing that will make your work interesting is your own spin, the way you synthesis the different ideas you’re exposed to into something seemingly original. The way you build upon existing ideas, or the way you provide an alternative interpretation or viewpoint for something seemingly conventional.

Most people forget that between input and output, there is another critical process that needs to happen, and it’s called processing. Remember the age-old input, processing, output model?

Most people spend far too much time on the input spectrum. Some people, like myself, try to spend more time on the output spectrum, exploring the world of daily blogs or recordings, trying to regularly create something out of nothing. But that never works, you can’t create something out of nothing, you just can’t. You can only create something out of something else.

Everything starts with something, and in the world of content creation, that something is usually an idea. And ideas are like rocks, each might be a different color and you can’t make much just by collecting them. People like me fall into the trap of collecting too many rocks and trying too hard to make something out of them. What we all too often forget is the critical step in the middle, the processing part.

Rocks need to be melted so you can extract those little colored particles trapped inside them. It’s called processing, and there’s no way you can process your rocks if you keep looking for new rocks to collect. It’s also called thinking, you know, the thing you do when you’re all alone and bored to tears. You can’t think when you’re consuming new information, you’d just be busy looking at colorful rocks to do any processing.

And once you have enough rocks processed, you might end up with things like “iron” or “aluminum” to work with, and with enough luck, you might end up creating something better than that “titanium” thing someone else made.

The bottom line is this, stop collecting rocks and start spending more time with them. Spend some time alone with the rocks you already have and just stare at them. Get bored and enjoy your rocky companions, your mind will start processing them into something else to try and escape the boredom, and before you know it, you’ve invented a new iron-aluminum alloy that’s as strong and light as titanium but at 10% the production cost.

What is education about?

I like to look at the flip side of things, when someone says A, I can’t help but think about anti-A, especially if A is conventional wisdom or considered by many to be common sense.

Recently, I did this with independence and interdependence, living in the moment and living in the past, with logic and delusions and who’s actually right, the concept of debt and savings, and etc.

There’s just so much value in considering the less popular opinions or the flip side of things, denying conventional wisdom and trying to work out for yourself what you think the correct answer should be, instead of just going with the crowd and following the instructions of conventional wisdom.

Perhaps this is what education should be about, the ability to consider and develop your own ideas, synthesizing them from all the ideas already out there, forming your own opinions and reaching your own conclusions as an independent thinker.

The value of learning facts

Something struck me a while ago. In an age where everything is just a google search away, why would anyone bother memorizing any facts? This is basically the Google effect in action, why remember something when it is so readily available online?

But here’s a question for you. Sure a lot of stuff is readily available on the internet but how often have you looked something up online? And how confident are you that it is correct?

You may have heard that George Washington had wooden teeth, but have you ever checked that claim? The oatmeal made a nice, albeit NSFW with its language, comic strip on this. Go read it now, I’ll wait.

So how do you feel after reading it? Shocked? Interested? Enraged? Indifferent? I knew it all along?

With everything just a quick google search away, more and more people are quick to believe what they read, especially with facts that don’t trigger any emotional responses. And when it does trigger an emotional response, they fight it and try to dismiss the fact in any way possible because it doesn’t sit well with their beliefs.

We are also becoming more and more ignorant of the world. Without knowing any facts, without being able to see the world for what it is, how can we make any rational judgment? How can we have any proper opinion if we can’t even tell fact from fiction?

I’m not saying you should use rote memorization and cram as many facts as you can. The point I want to emphasize is to learn how to see. To be able to see a fact and check that it is true, to challenge the source and ensure its credibility, and to teach your mind how to evaluate ideas.

The value of learning facts is that it gives you a foundation to stand on. The more you learn, the better you are at discerning facts from fiction. Knowing something also helps when you’re trying to form an opinion or make a decision. As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

The worst way to make a decision is to ask the internet. You don’t know much so you actually don’t know what you don’t know. That’s a terrible state to be in if you want to make any decision and you will just be swayed by whatever you read in the internet.

It’s much better to learn how to develop your own opinions and learn how to decide for yourself. That is the value of learning facts, so you have a foundation to stand on and a reference to make your own judgments.

Are you thinking too fast?

Here’s an interesting math problem I came across some time ago. Multiple times actually, in real life.

Suppose you and a friend are going to the cinema and each ticket costs $6. You arrived early so you paid for both the tickets. When your friend arrived, you both went to get some popcorn and saw the combo meal consisting of a bag of popcorn and two drinks for $6 dollars.

Since your friend owes you $6, is it fair for your friend to pay the $6 combo meal and call it even?

You might be tempted to say yes. After all, your friend owes you $6, and now he’s paying that $6 for the combo meal. Why not just call it even?

You’re thinking too fast. It’s just like the bat and the ball problem.

If a bat and a ball cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball costs?

It’s very tempting to answer $0.10, isn’t it? But that’s wrong. If the ball costs $0.10, then the bat, costing $1 more, would cost $1.10, giving a grand total of $1.20.

The correct answer is $0.05, which means the bat would cost $1.05, giving the correct total of $1.10.

Similarly, in the previous example, you paid a total of $12 for both the tickets. Your friend only paid $6 for the combo meal, so no, you can’t call it even. To make it even, your friend has to pay you another $3 so that both of you paid a total of $9 each.

Anyway, that is the mathematically correct way of splitting the bill. If you don’t mind paying for your friend, then you are free to split it however you wish, as sometimes, you might be in a generous mood.

Or perhaps you might want to test how mathematically-minded your friends are and inform them of this fallacy, preferably when you are the one paying for the $6 combo meal.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking too fast. Like the two above math problems, there can sometimes be an intuitively wrong answer that we fall prey to if we’re not careful.

To pull something out of thin air

Remember that time when your mind drew a blank and you had to pull something out of thin air, fast? I think you might have learned a valuable life skill back then. It’s called, the art of bullshitting. Or put it more nicely, the art of pulling something out of thin air.

Supposed someone asked you this, how many piano tuners are there in Chicago? How would you answer? Or how many eggs are sold every year? How do you measure the speed of light? How would you answer the famous barometer question?

There is a lot of value in being able to answer questions you don’t know the answers to. Sure some of these answers can be found online but that’s not the point. Heck, the answers don’t even matter.

The thing that matters is, how do you answer a question when you don’t have enough data to answer it? How comfortable are you at making estimates or coming up with answers that aren’t correct?

Or put it another way, how do you think? How well can you pull things out of thin air?

Don’t think outside the box

Just don’t, there’s nothing there.

The old advice goes like this, we are too confined by what’s inside the box that we fail to think creatively. So think outside the box, explore the unconventional and see what’s possible.

That kind of thinking won’t get you anywhere, let me explain. Suppose you were a caveman some millions of years ago. You spent your life hunting, socializing with other cavemen and trying to not get eaten. It’s a simple life but you yearn for more.

You’re pretty smart for a caveman so you think outside the box. What if we have these things called in-cave plumbing (doors haven’t been invented yet so…) where water can freely flow in and out of your cave. How convenient would that be?

Or perhaps you thought of a giant brain somewhere in the clouds and everyone would have this rectangular piece of rock. You could ask the rock and it would magically tell you what you want to know. Which plants are edible, how to survive lion attacks, step by step instructions on how to go to Tom’s cave, and so on.

Sadly, all the other cavemen think you’re crazy. Your thinking is too outside the box, it simply doesn’t exist yet. It’s too far ahead of its time and won’t help you in any way.

What you need to do is think along the edges of the box. That’s where you can make creative breakthroughs. Make a bridge from where the box ends and where the outside begins.

The wheel is a great example. As an early caveman, one of your problems is moving heavy objects from one place to another. It’s tedious and takes a lot of work. One day, you accidentally kicked a bunch of rocks and noticed some of them traveled further than others.

You became curious and noticed that some are rounder than others. You kick them again, they roll further than those squarish ones. That’s interesting, isn’t it? The more you thought, the more you see it, the solution to your moving-heavy-object-from-point-A-to-point-B problem.

Eventually, you discovered that you can use tree trunks as rollers to transport heavy objects. You simply put a few tree trunks on the ground, put the heavy object on top of the tree trunks and push. Then, keep putting more tree trunks in front of where you want to push the heavy object. Viola, you just invented a simple conveyor belt system, but without any belts.

A far cry from thinking outside the box, which would lead to thoughts about a piece of animal-powered box that can carry and transport stuff. Or worse, a shiny box made from an impossibly strong and light material that can easily move ten times faster than the fastest animal you’ve seen! What’s worse, it’s powered by either lightning from the sky or some sort of magical water that burns. Talk about some crazy out of the box thinking here!

So I hope you learned your lesson. Never think outside the box ever again, it doesn’t help. Instead, think along the edges of the box for that’s where creative breakthroughs lie.

Don’t think, just do

I don’t want to think anymore, thinking makes things complicated. It creates unnecessary stress for us. Things are inherently simple, it is our thinking that makes them so complicated.

Should I get dessert? On one hand, it’s delicious and I really deserved it. On the other hand, I’m broke and really need to watch my calories. What to do, what to do.

Should I buy this printer or that printer? On one hand, this printer has insert-list-of-features-here. On the other hand, that printer has insert-other-list-of-features-here. What to do, what to do.

When we think, we compare things with so many criteria and list out all the pros and cons. We make things so darn complicated, for what? There’s a saying my old chemistry teacher used to say.

Don’t make your life so complicated.

Yes, I have a tendency to overthink things. Yes, I’m indecisive precisely because I try too hard to weigh things. For what purpose did I do all that for?

Why can’t I just pick one criterion and base my decision solely on that? Choose the cheapest, or the biggest, or the fastest, and be done with it. Or maybe two or three criteria, say within this much cost, must have this feature and be within this size range.

Don’t think, just choose already. It might not be the best advice but most of the time, it doesn’t matter what I choose so why not. Better be decisive on things that don’t matter and spend my time elsewhere.