Seek to learn

Embracing a growth mindset means to get pleasure out of changing for the better (inward rewarding) instead of getting pleasure in being praised (outward rewarding.) […] to seek as many opportunities to learn as possible is the most reliable long-term growth strategy.

~ Sönke Ahrens from, How to Take Smart Notes

Ahrens of course discusses, and gives credit where credit is due, to Carol Dweck’s ideas. (See Dweck’s, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.) Her comment about “reliable long-term growth strategy” struck me as insightful. Her use of, “most reliable,” is an understatement. What other strategy would even be reliable?

If I want to grow, I need to learn. If I want to learn, I need to maximize those opportunities.

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Reading for ‘hunh’

But if you only remember six things after reading this article, it should be the following truths about reading:

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2021/08/remember-books/

Those six points are right near the top, too. It’s a great article about reading. —about a certain kind of reading. I’m not certain what to call the type of reading, but for today “reading to learn” will do as a label. Well, there’s another type of reading which I’ll call “reading for ‘hunh‘”.

There’s deep value in a ‘hunh’. When you find one, you can be sure you have just learned something. I spend a lot of time every day reading for ‘hunh’. I cast a wide net and then haul the contents up onto the fishing boat deck. I shuffle through the contents in muck boots; you don’t want to get this arbitrary stuff really on you. Using a squee-gee I push some of it around in an only vaguely interested fashion. I’m not super-focused. I’m paying attention for sharp edges but I’m not expecting any particular outcome. If I find a ‘hunh’ it’s just that; no more and no less than something simply interesting for the time it’s in my realm of awareness. And then I drop it back on the deck. Soon enough I wash it all overboard.

What kind of reading is that?

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Finding the balance

Too warm: Solve all the problems. Do all the things. Turn every idea into an action or object in the real world. And do it perfectly.

Too cold: Relax. Talk to people, occasionally. Read great books. Savor the moments between. How you do this one thing is how you do everything.

Just right:

…nope sorry I got nothing no way in the world I can possibly figure out what’s between these two extremes there’s nothing in the middle warm is perfect until it’s not cold is perfect until it’s not gee if only there was some way that one could find something that was hunh I don’t know maybe a little bit of both meh no warm is perfect oh wait no cold is perfect.

Right. It’s so patently obvious where the balance would lie. And yet, when I’m polarized one way or the other… now, where is that damn forest?! All these trees are blocking my view!

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Slight interest with a dash of surprise

There’s a special kind of slightly-surprised magic which you can reliably determine has occurred when someone makes the sound, hunh.

My grandmother was a sought-after seamstress who handmade custom draperies. Think custom home decor and hotel lobbies. As her eyesight diminished year-by-year, she eventually asked my dad to add a small attachment to her sewing machine: a clever little mechanism that is able to pull the thread through the eye of the sewing needle. Yes, there really is such a thing. It’s a brilliant little device. It works like magic and is strikingly-obvious once you see it in action. She hands my dad a few German-made sewing-machine parts; tiny little parts… a single tiny screw, a little doomathingus, and this third whatchamacallit. There are no instructions though. So my dad—an accomplished mechanic by trade—puts on his glasses and sits down with her Pfaff sewing machine, thinking, “how hard can it be to add these two parts to this sewing machine using this one screw?” I don’t know how long he actually spent trying. That detail was always suspiciously omitted whenever he told this story.

Eventually he gives up in failure and lugs the machine to the Pfaff sewing machine dealer. The dealer is old-school—located in a 100-year-old sewing mill building, with a little front-shop and with the real workshop in the back. My dad sets the machine and parts on the counter. This story is set in the 80’s, and although it was never mentioned in the telling of the story, I’m assuming the machine came from that shop 30 years earlier. I’d also bet that my grandmother called them [on her rotary phone] to order the clever little needle-threading-thingy from there too.

So the scene is set: One wizened, male mechanic with a sewing machine and some parts. Another wizened, male mechanic jaded by a century of stoopid sewing machine problems and questions.

“Hello, how can I help you?”

“I can’t get this attachment to… well… attach.”

“It’s easy. You just use that screw to attach that thingus and that whatsit to the arm right there where the sewing needle…”

“No, sorry, it’s not actually possible.”

It’s a classic show-down. In fact, you know it well. You’ve had this show-down yourself at the auto mechanic, in the grocery store, or on the phone with your Internet tech support.

The shop owner looks at my dad like he’s an imbecile and with a flicker of an eye-roll, starts to pick up the machine and the parts to go in the back…

“…wait! No don’t take it in the back. Let me see you do it.”

At this point it’s still a battle: My dad with a problem, and the sewing machine guy not truly interested in helping. The guy grudgingly gets his glasses and starts. …and the little whatsit falls out. …the little screw won’t quite stay in. Maybe if he moves his light this way, and tries reaching in from the other side… nope. Another try. …and a fourth try.

And then, “hunh.”

“…ok, now you can take it in the back.”

The moral is that any time you have a problem, and you have someone whose help you want, there is before-the-hunh and after-the-hunh. No one will truly help you—no one will truly own your problem—before they say, “hunh.”

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Slight surprise with a dash of interest

There are, I think, several reasons Hollywood movies often don’t get as much science input as they should. The first is that movie-makers usually just aren’t sensitive to the “science texture” of their movies. They can tell if things are out of whack at a human level, but they typically can’t tell if something is scientifically off. Sometimes they’ll get as far as calling a local university for help, but too often they’re sent to a hyper-specialized academic who’ll not-very-usefully tell them their whole story is wrong. Of course, to be fair, science content usually doesn’t make or break movies. But I think having good science content—like, say, good set design—can help elevate a good movie to greatness.

~ Stephen Wolfram from, https://writings.stephenwolfram.com/2016/11/quick-how-might-the-alien-spacecraft-work/

But first, how exactly does one represent in written from, that sound one makes upon encountering something both slightly surprising and interesting? “Huh,” seems more like the sound one makes upon hearing something about which one is incredulous. For example: “Your Goldfish is escaping on foot!” “Huh?” Instead, I feel I need a word with a little touch of an ‘n’ in it to downplay the puzzlement by making the word less punchy; “That spaceship hangs in the air much in the way bricks don’t.” “Hunh.” That reads better, yes? Obviously, this is easily resolved via inflection when spoken, but there’s no clear written convention. So, okay, I’ll go with “hunh” to express slight surprise with a dash of interest.

hunh. I stumbled over the movie Arrival in Netflix back in 2018, and sort of enjoyed it.

Say what you will about Stephen Wolfram. I’m not referring to the fact that he was directly involved as being a point for, or against, the movie. Rather, I’m interested in his point—which I’m loosely reshaping here—that people who have a good feel for people make good movies about people. Given that the vast majority of people are bad at science, then most people who make movies would make bad movies about science.

Ironically, I’d argue that Arrival is a good science fiction movie, but not a good movie about people.

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