My current blog is epistem.ink. This one is here just for archival purposes.

If you've learned from the best, you're doing it wrong

i - Working out

Say you've read up on the studies about exercise and you've decided to dedicate 30 to 90 minute of every day purely to improve your body. You like the CV benefits, but also, you agree that strength, stability, postural awareness and whatnot play an important role in optimal functioning, even if that function is sitting at a computer writing code.

How do you proceed?

Well, there are many ways, but the worst possible way would be to look for someone that looks to be very physically fit, is scoring amazingly well in sporting competitions and is known to perform feats of strength, endurance and agility.

Why?

Envision a few examples of this type of person. I'm envisioning Lance Armstrong, the guy who played The Mountain in Game of Thrones, and Royce Gracie, the guy that won the first UFC (the one that was actually fun to watch).

I've no idea how they would act as coaches, but their path to success certainly involved training for 6 to 14 hours a day, every day of the week, for more than a dozen years. It presumably involved a lot of weird meal plans and sleep plans and investments into a bunch of expensive devices. It certainly focused on minimizing accidents, but in the now, not in the 50 years from now. On top of that, it probably included a mix of exogenous HGH, IGF, Testosterone, EPO and many other compounds I wouldn't be able to name.

None of those things are bad if your goal is along the line of:

I want to become the strongest/fastest/powerfulest/sportiest/bestest

But they are horrible ideas if your goal is exercising as a health-enhancing addition to a lifestyle focused on other things.

ii - On Nobel laureates being mediocre teachers

There's a classic problem that you've heard of before along the lines of:

Yeah, he's an amazing researcher, but a horrible teacher. Go figure, it's probably the very mental quirks that make him so smart that give him a hard time with explaining the field to anyone else.

While the thing I'm trying to expand upon here is correlated with this, it's not the problem I'm trying to get at.

Say you've got someone very good at material science and physics in general. She's highly cited, coordinated a bunch of experiments at CERN, appears in the author list of a bunch of major papers, has various patents, is paid to advise major manufacturers, the bunch.

If you take this person and tell her to teach physics 101 she might indeed perform quite poorly, since physics 101, for her, is basically second nature.

But the thing that she has to teach, physics 101, is still part of what she knows. At some point, she learnt it, and while it might be embedded in her brain in a somewhat different way from mine or yours, it's still the same physics.

What the above working out example showcases is not teachers forgetting or having a weird perspective on the thing they have to teach, but teachers never having learnt that thing.

Our sports champion haven't forgotten how to maintain a health casual workout regiment, they never knew how to do it nor did the thought cross their mind.

iii - Uneven starts

The workout example is the mistake that "being the best at a sport" is a path that goes through "learning how to have a healthy moderate workout regiment". Much like "becoming a Nobel laureate physicist" goes through "learning physics 101".

Another case of "mistaking the field", might be you listening to a naturally talented musician from an upper-middle-class background saying "overcoming stage fright is one of the most important steps to success". This may indeed be true for him, but for most people "securing financial stability" and "becoming musically talented" are going to be 100x times more pressing and time-consuming than overcoming stage fright.

Similarly speaking, if you want to start a business and take the example of someone that started from the background of "youngest son of a powerful gem mining magnate", while your childhood was spent in a trailer park, you're probably going to miss out on some critical steps.

Just to be clear, I think that thinking about this issue as mere "inequality" is silly, I'm giving black and white examples here just to make things obvious. While some "starting points" for learning are arguably worst, different starting points usually come with a mix of advantages and disadvantages towards learning anything.

iv - Corrupt polymaths

Even worst, to be considered "the best" in something often involves a bunch of signalling, actually, a lot of signalling.

I think this is a controversial statement, and the rest of my views here stand without it, but just on an intuitive level, I really doubt most "famous experts" are the best in the field, or even the 10th best, or the 100th. Sure, they are in the top 10% or 1% of expertise, but they aren't optimizing for that alone.

The "top experts" are good at a mix of politics and signalling that makes them appear as and be recommended as "the top expert". Dr Fauci is probably a really good immunologist, but he's probably an even better politician and a Nobel laureate equivalent in bureaucracy.

So learning from the "top expert" in {X} might be good if you want to become a "top expert" in {X}, but not if you want to become the best there is when it comes to {X}. Since the person that is best when it comes to {X}, almost by definition, did not have the time to learn how to signal this and how to navigate the politics that come with the title.

v - Force of habit

I don't want to start quoting William James, and most of you probably know the gist of it when it comes to habits and environment:

Most people that are really good at something got there using habits. Habits that may or may not be desirable or easy to imitate.

I find it surprising how many good programmers default to being DIY minimalists. This is probably not a good choice unless you already are a good programmer, but it forces you into an environment where only a good programmer/techie can prosper.

For example, Arch Linux has the virtue of teaching you server-management 101 while you're installing and using it one can become quite the UNIX specialist. But unless your specific goal is to hone those skills, Arch Linux is quite cumbersome, I wouldn't recommend it to my dad or use it myself nowadays.

The best way I've seen people learn anything "techy" is by being thrown into an environment where that thing becomes useful, where the environment encourages you to learn it.

But the best people aren't in an environment that encourages learning so they've thrown away "learning-friendly" tools for "efficient" tools.


There are many things that I "learned" which I can no longer even distinguish as "a thing that can be learned". I remember there was a time when I didn't know how to use python, I see other people not knowing how to write a simple imperative program, but for the life of me I can't figure out what bridges the gap between that mental state and where I'm at right now.

However, I am 99% certain, barring a weird DMT-aline style hypothesis, that there was a time in life where I had those same issues writing simple imperative logic. Whatever I am doing that young me failed to understand feels like walking, I get at a rational level that it's a very complex skill and that it took me years to learn, but if an adult-brained baby asked me how to do it I'd be lost trying to explain it to them.


I will be an even better programmer 10 years from now but by then my environment and habits will be so highly specialized that I will be useless as a teacher. Now I can at least point people to solutions like using Arch Linux, or a few beginner books in python and javascript that seem like the kind of thing that can get you started. But in 10 years time, I will not even know what the equivalent of Arch or python is, nor be able to judge tools on their teaching merit more broadly, for I will never again be able to place myself in the shoes of someone that didn't know how to code.

Much like with the other examples, I chose programming to illustrate this point, but I think it's more general.

vi - Learn from the same

All of which is to say that I don't get why one would ever want to learn from the best, they are:

It seems obvious to me that I'd want to learn from people that are "the same" as myself, the best imaginable teacher would be a perfect-clone of myself that had a few weeks extra to learn something I don't know.

More broadly, a good teacher is one that is close to me on many demographic metrics. Ideally, someone that has a "skin in the game" way of proving they know the things I don't.

Is there something to be said for learning from a genius? Maybe, but I doubt it, it seems to me that most geniuses are known for producing good but unremarkable apprentices. Anecdotally, I do have experience learning (C++ programming & working with computers in general) from someone that I consider to be a bit of a savant, and it accelerated my learning a lot, but I'm fairly certain it was more so because of a spirit of competition and companionship than any particular teachings.

There are probably traits that make for a good teacher but they likely have to do with memory and mindfulness. A good teacher can remember "not knowing" and able to pay close attention to this environment and automated actions to discover teaching instructions.

Barring the ability to find those traits in someone good, or to find someone similar to myself, it might be wiser to learn from the mediocre while they still have something to teach, though I admit this particular recommendation is strange enough that I'm not sure I myself can fully accept it.

Then again, if you don't believe in learning from the mediocre nor do you feel any kinship to my other ideas, you may have wasted a lot of your time because I am no expert in any of the branches of psychology that study learning.

Published on: 2021-03-08










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