Wisdom does not come with Age

I’m still on the younger end of the age distribution in the workforce, but I’m no longer on the youngest end, and as time goes on I will only ever move toward the right in the age distribution. As I make that move, one of my primary goals is to not repeat the mistake that has been, in my experience, common among my colleagues: assuming that age brings wisdom. This includes the assumption’s corollary, with youth comes lack of wisdom.

This assumption takes many forms, some consciously held and some unconsciously held: “They’re older so I suppose they know better than my idea.” “That kid has a lot of nerve questioning company protocol.” Or something like these.

This assumption does two things: it discourages young people in the face of more aged opposition, and it makes older colleagues blind to improvement opportunities just because they originate in a younger mind.

When I float this idea, the immediate pushback I receive is that older people generally do know more, because they’ve had a longer time to accumulate experiences and knowledge. After all, in many industries and crafts it simply takes time to develop as a practitioner. I don’t immediately disagree with that pushback, and I also don’t think it’s actually pushback. It fits with my preferred rework of the age/wisdom assumption: wisdom does not come with age necessarily, and wisdom does not avoid youth necessarily.

Wisdom is a set of thinking processes that more consistently generates outcomes that correspond with reality, and these outcomes tend to be integrated into an increasingly consistent whole body of knowledge. Time allows an individual to accumulate more knowledge and improve one’s thinking processes, but it does not guarantee that this will happen. The accumulation and improvement (“growing in wisdom”) only happens if an individual works at it.

Age—the passage of time—does not bring wisdom, it just potentially facilitates it. Whether an individual takes advantage of the facilitation is another matter completely.

In my view, I assign people “wisdom points.” You get a wisdom point if you improve your rational faculty, for example, by recognizing a logical fallacy you make and correcting for it.

Assuming that you don’t deploy knowledge in a mental state that is distorted by a terribly incorrect view of the world, you also get some wisdom points for accumulating knowledge and integrating it into your total sum. Clearly, the passage of more time potentially allows for more wisdom points to be accumulated, but the rate at which individuals accumulate wisdom points varies.

Using arbitrary numbers: if someone accumulates wisdom points at a rate of 1 per year after they turn 20, and someone else accumulates wisdom points at a rate of 3 per year after they turn 20, it’s clear that, even if the first person is much older than the second person, they will be outstripped in wisdom by their younger counterpart.

If someone who is 30 years old has spent all of their adult life reading 40—60 books per year (assuming they are good books that improve thinking and present well-ordered knowledge), trying different things, and generally engaging in active thinking all the time, I think that person will be wiser than a 50 year old who has read perhaps two books in their life and never engages in active thinking.

Potential pushback to the point above: but the 30 year old might still have things they could learn from the 50 year old. Even if the 50 year old has been accumulating wisdom at a much slower rate, they will have some experiences and beneficial insight that only (usually) come with age, like raising children to adulthood, experiencing the death of parents, &c. Again, I don’t disagree with this. But it doesn’t dispel my contention that age doesn’t guarantee special or superior wisdom. In general, any human can learn from any other human—there is so much knowledge generated by human society that a good insight can come from anywhere, since no one human can possess even close to all of it. So, yes, the 50 year old can still have things to teach the 30 year old, but the 30 year old might very well have more things to teach the 50 year old.

Even if you could measure the wisdom levels of different age groups, and you found that, in general, wisdom increases with age (which wouldn’t be surprising, given that the passage of time potentially facilitates wisdom), this still doesn’t tell you how wise any individual is based on their age. As with any statistical aggregate, it cannot be applied to individuals—each must be examined alone to learn about its particulars. To do otherwise would be like a man saying to a woman, “I have more upper body strength than you because I am a man.” Perhaps this is true in the aggregate, but one cannot possibly apply the aggregate trend to all men and women individually. There’s a large area of overlap where many women are stronger than many men. And, just as it would be sexist for the man to say that to a woman, it would be ageist for an older person to say, “I am wiser than you because I am older” to a young person.

Really, the only way to know if someone is wise is to talk with them and examine the products of their mind, whether those are creative products or perhaps a certain professional/vocational methodology. And some people, even if they seem unwise in various endeavors, might have very silo’d wisdom; they learn how to do something really well, but have either failed to generalize the principles from that thing to their life, or have just spent much more time with one particular craft or idea. For example, a lawyer who makes partner at a firm might know the law extremely well, and have great insight into structuring certain kinds of contracts—but this same lawyer will fail to carry over the “if x, then y” type of thinking that could improve their thought in a variety of other areas.

The point of this essay isn’t to say that the young should disregard the relatively older, or that the relatively older should give more deference to the young than they sincerely judge to be correct. It’s that everyone should recognize that wisdom is a process that proceeds at a certain rate, and that rate is different for individuals. Keeping that in mind, in addition to the fact that anyone could learn something from anyone else (potentially) because of the immense scale of total human knowledge, wisdom and age should lose their affiliation.

If you are wise or have better insight than someone else, justify it by demonstration or explanation. Making an appeal to age doesn’t prove anything, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what wisdom actually is.

A different take on this topic appears in the introduction to Dear Wayne County.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Cargo Cult Marketing

One of my favorite thinkers is the physicist Richard Feynman. He was a man who wouldn’t bow to majority opinion, and he was famous for being in the business of “Finding Things Out.” I highly recommend his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. In a commencement lecture he delivered at Caltech in 1974, he described what he called “cargo cult science.” When I first read it years ago, it clarified many immediate conceptual problems I’d been wrestling with, and it continues to be valuable to me every day, especially at work.

From the lecture:

“I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call Cargo Cult Science.  In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people.  During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now.  So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land.  They’re doing everything right.  The form is perfect.  It looks exactly the way it looked before.  But it doesn’t work.  No airplanes land.  So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

The error that the cargo cultists are making could broadly be described as “mistaking some of the processes provoked by a thing for the thing itself.” Feynman goes on to explain how the scientists of his time, and indeed still today, are making the exact same mistake. Instead of rigorously testing hypotheses with the scientific method, scientists go through the motions of setting up equipment and taking measurements, without properly evaluating their setup or the data they derive from it.

I’m not in the sciences, but Feynman’s observations are relevant for me every day, and for most people, I’d wager. My current work involves several different fields, but one of them is marketing. As a result, many of my co-workers have heard me rambling about “cargo cult marketing” for a while now.

To correctly market something, you first have to understand the preferences of your audience. In the course of doing market research, conducting data experiments, and more, your audience profile slowly starts to get built. You learn its preferences, and the best way to engage with it that is productive for all parties involved. That best way is not universal among audiences, and you will often find that many things vary from audience to audience.

But the mediums of audience communication overlap. Flyers, social media, and more are all used to communicate with many different audiences in many different kinds of marketing campaigns—but keep in mind, the medium is not the marketing. The marketing is the message. Apple’s “think different” was its message, and the channels it beamed that message out across were the mediums.

Cargo cult marketing means eschewing rigorous market research and getting to know your audience–and not really building a message. It means, after not doing those things well, simply pumping out information across a variety of channels, either online or in physical form (or: flyers = marketing). This process mistakes the medium for the message in the same way that Feynman’s islanders mistook the direction of causality between planes and runways.

Marketing mediums are determined and crafted once an audience profile and a message are established, and are, at best (although rarely) accidentally successful without them. You can’t have good marketing if you don’t know where to find your audience, and yet still insist on putting flyers and other physical promotional materials up just anywhere.

The lessons of “cargo cult [anything],” as I first encountered them through Richard Feynman, are useful to professionals across industries. Using the cargo cult lens allows me to more readily detect proper, well-defined processes, and ones that just superficially resemble them. I also became a better worker myself after internalizing the cargo cult lens—Feynman’s lecture continually reminds me to understand why I do what I do, and to never work blindly like the cargo cult did.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Discussing Politics is Like Discussing Calculus

This is a companion post to another I did. In both, I’m working to explain the mental tools that have helped me approach politics better in conversation.

Imagine the following scenario: you’re talking with a new acquaintance about politics, and then they say that first little thing that indicates that the two you are not on the same side of any number of political divides. Damnit, you thought they were smarter than that.

You gingerly submit some disagreement, hoping to correct their error, but it seems like they are—somehow—unconvinced. Their stated reason for remaining so actually reveals that they were dumber than you thought!

An hour later you’re still talking, and have gotten nowhere because this uncultured swine / this coastal elitist can’t see the obvious points that you do. They can’t be convinced. But that’s just how some people are—they bury their heads in the sand [insert a disparaging comment about Obama or Trump here, depending on who you are].

I have witnessed an innumerable number of encounters that follow this pattern, and, sadly, have also participated in them. Some last for ten minutes, some stretch for hours into the night. In any case, they tend to be counterproductive, and are the reason that many people try to avoid discussing politics in mixed company.

But I love politics, and political philosophy. I think they’re fascinating, and, despite anyone’s opinion about the palatability of discussing them, those fields determine how our world works. Politics is both interesting and directly related to how we can live our daily lives (just try not paying your taxes and see what happens). What’s not to love?

Apparently, so many things. So many things are not to love.

Because I enjoy discussing politics, I usually bring it up when others wouldn’t, and I usually proceed onward with the conversation when others would have heeded the signs reading, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But, after years of discussion, I think both my rhetoric and its content have improved dramatically. Like many activities, practice and refinement have improved my ability to discuss politics with a variety of people. Also like many activities, I can still improve.

One of the products of that improvement is an analogy. It has helped me to shed my frustration when I encounter political disagreement, even when it is based in ignorance, and has radically transformed the way that I discuss not just politics, but many subjects.

The analogy: politics is like calculus. Discuss it in the same way. And now here is a small dialogue about that:

Narrator: You’ve just completed your first year of calculus, and it is relatively clear to you (just pretend). You bump into a friend on the college quad, and sigh that you’re glad to be done with the class.

Friend: “Oh, which final did you just finish?”

You: “It was for my calc class. It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off—”

Friend: “Calculus? Ugh, how’d you get stuck with that? Was it a requirement?”

You: “No, I like it, I took it voluntarily. I’m actually an English major.”

Friend: “I’m an English major too, but I chose it so that I didn’t have to take any math. Calculus especially. All that 2x+y, and then find the value of y, just makes me want to jump out a window.”

You: “What? That’s Algebra. Calculus is the mathematical study of continuous change, like—”

Friend: “It’s all the same stuff. Algebra, Calculus, whatever.”

Narrator: You, our calculus fan (keep pretending), are likely now in a state of confusion and frustration. Clearly your friend has no idea of what calculus is, or the differentiation (ha) between the different branches of mathematics. You want to correct them. You want them to know what you know. You are very frustrated not only by their mistaken assertions, but the fact that they are assertions. How could this person be so confident in their ignorance??

After you return to your dorm room, you recognize the absurdity of your initial reaction. You were ready to dump an hour of your life into convincing your friend that calculus was different than algebra. You wanted them to know what you know, and for them to see the light.

But for your friend to know what you know, they’d have to understand mathematics as well as you do, and you have a firm grip on Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus. If they don’t even have a firm grip on Algebra, it’s foolish to think that you could endow them with your knowledge in an hour. Or even a year. Any conversation about mathematics would have to start with the arithmetical operations, and then move on from there. You now spread out on your bed, utterly overwhelmed by the task. It cannot be done. Your friend is doomed to innumeracy. The dummy.



I think it’s pretty clear that most people would not be able to learn the contents of one branch of mathematics in a short conversation, let alone several. If you set about trying to do that, you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Lesson: you can’t teach someone calculus in one hour, or even several. If you truly want them to learn the field, you have to first teach them all the prerequisite knowledge they’d need, and then begin on calculus—and this is assuming that you have some buy-in from the other person. It would take a dedicated effort from both of you over an extended period of time.

So why do we assume that we can teach someone else about politics in one hour, or even several? (Part of me thinks it has something to do with the idea that political philosophy/politics, a “humanity,” is not like physics, a hard subject, and everyone can take a very amateur crack at politics and come up with good results, but that’s a different essay.) Assume you have advanced knowledge of political theory, and a large amount of knowledge about current political events. Further assume that you encounter someone with neither of those things, who asserts something that contradicts your own thoughts. I bet this has happened, and I bet your reaction is one of frustration, and some version of “I must relieve this poor knave of their ignorance.”

Although this reaction is understandable, it can benefit from the reflection of our calculus student: it is unreasonable to think that you will be able to transfer years of hard-won knowledge about politics to another person in a short conversation. It is also unreasonable to start the conversation at an advanced level, and expect someone without any knowledge of the field to be able to engage.

If you want to have that conversation at all, you have to recognize the lessons of the calculus student:

  1. The conversation must start by establishing basic knowledge, definitions, and premises. Don’t come out of the gate asking what someone thinks about a complex piece of jurisprudence or legislation. Ask about basic ideas, like what the word “government” means to them, and hash that out. Or find a way to analogize more complex ideas in a simple way that doesn’t sacrifice key aspects of the complexity.
  2. One conversation is not enough. For someone to learn and understand advanced concepts in a field they’re new to, they will likely have to work for years. Your expectations about what one conversation can do, therefore, should be set accordingly.
  3. Being frustrated that a newcomer to a field of thought can’t meaningfully agree with your analysis of one of its advanced issues is…not helpful. Obviously, they won’t be able to do that. Getting frustrated helps no one.

When I keep the calculus analogy in mind, my political conversations go much better. And because they go better, I become more well-practiced. The more well-practiced I become, the better they go. You get it.

Now, I understand that politics as a field has different issues and is conceptually distinct from mathematics. Our society also has relatively stable agreement on what is “right” in math, where it doesn’t in politics. Even so, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “right” in politics. The moral there is that sometimes you’re the calculus student, sometimes you’re the student’s friend, and sometimes you’re somewhere in between. You’ll have to be circumspect and on your toes to try to determine which you are.

If you discuss politics with someone, and you think you’re in the position of the calculus student, be gracious and patient—but still check for holes in your own knowledge. Maybe you do actually understand the field, but maybe you only know how to manipulate its formulas, rather than derive them.

If you think you’re the friend, be attentive and inquiring—but don’t agree with something until you understand it. Just because you’re new to the field doesn’t mean you’re dumb—intelligence and knowledge are different things.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

More Books in 2018 (But Not Vampire/Werewolf Pseudo-porn)

Although I don’t endorse the concept of New Year’s resolutions as generally practiced, I have formed a plan to read more books. It happened to occur right as 2017 gave way and died, so it’s a superficially-similar-to-but-substantively-distinct-from New Year’s resolution for 2018.

The specifics are that I will read at least 50 books during 2018, but that’s a floor, not a ceiling. Ideally I read more, but we’ll see what happens. Since there are 52 weeks in the year, that works out to just under one book a week.

Why am I doing this?

In conjunction with other learning and knowledge reinforcement methods, reading books is the surest way for me to:

  • heap up knowledge,
  • integrate my acquired knowledge in various discrete subdomains together, thereby making the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and
  • learn and study methods to improve the way that I think, not just the contents of my mind. The aforementioned integration goes more smoothly and correctly with a more rational cognitive apparatus.

Assuming that I’m not half asleep or otherwise mentally inhibited (sleep-deprived, possessed of cognitive biases, &c) when I do it, reading books acts exactly like compound interest acts on money. The more book reading you do, the more knowledge you gain and are able to successfully integrate; the more money you have, the more money compound interest returns to you.

Gaining more knowledge in specific subdomains allows you to access increasingly complex knowledge in those domains, and gaining more knowledge across many subdomains gives you the polymathematic ability to access similarly complex knowledge in interdisciplinary domains—furthermore, you will also have the ability to bring the concepts and frameworks of one domain to bear on another.

(Good and easily accessible examples of this kind of analysis are Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics, which applies the conceptual frameworks of economics to a variety of personal and social issues, and Richard Posner’s Sex and Reason, which does the same with sexuality.)

For the same reason that it makes sense for me (or anyone) to take advantage of compound interest to earn money, it makes sense to read more books. But not all books are the same, just as all investment portfolios are not the same.

For my purposes, reading vampire/werewolf pseudo-porn, while enjoyable, is not helpful. Those books are not counted toward my total of 50. Similarly, books that are part of a series will only collectively count as one book, unless they are sufficiently distinct to generate the kind of thought that would have occurred by otherwise reading two unrelated books. As to what counts as distinct or some kind of pseudo-porn, I will be employing the same standard that Justice Potter Stewart used for identifying “hard-core pornography” in 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

Ideally, my targeted pursuit of knowledge and resultant cognitive development will be greater in 2018 than ever before. I guess we’ll see.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.