Sharper mental models and seeing better
What’s the point of an education? What does it mean for one to be educated? I am attempting to distill what I think of education in this post. I feel this exercise is quite subjective, and so I am eager to know what you think as well.
You get a degree
Traditional education bestows you with a degree or two. A degree is simultaneously the most useful and least useful aspect of education. A degree is useful because it opens doors and helps you land a job. Because, like it or not, that’s how the world works.
But a degree is just a piece of paper you get from a school that certifies that some people think you did what they believe is necessary to get that piece of paper. You could truly learn or figure out ways to ace the tests to satisfy them. Having a degree is usually a reasonable proxy for ascertaining whether someone knows something, but not always.
There are a lot of people out there without a degree who could be considered more educated than those with multiple degrees.
Education is an everyday endeavor
Learning doesn’t stop once you finish school and get your degree. You are of course learning every day. This includes learning at the work, learning by reading books, blogs, talking to people etc. All of these should be considered part of getting educated (again, education doesn’t mean fancy degrees).
Some people put in conscious effort to ensure they keep learning, and at a healthy pace, while most others do no such thing and take a passive approach.
For the vast majority of people, one or both of the following ends up happening:
They are learning in domains that may not help grow them as much or may not help them in their career (e.g., learning and building better mental models about celebrities). Please see curves of competence on thinking about what you should learn next.
The rate at which they learn slows down drastically.
This is merely an observation, and there is nothing wrong with the above. I like to take a different approach, one that of lifelong learning and curiosity.
Education gives you better Mental Models
A very important aspect of education is building as accurate mental models as possible and using them to infer things. The better your education is, the better your mental models will be. Again, many degrees doesn’t automatically mean someone’s mental models are better.
An aside on mental models: A mental model is just the model you have in mind about something specific. Mental models help you answer questions. Can you dip your hand into boiling water? You have mental models about boiling water and how much temperature your skin can handle well, so you use these mental models to answer the question. Read more about mental models in my previous post:
When you learn Physics and Chemistry, you learn mental models about how things behave in the real world. What’s the maximum weight I can place on a concrete block before it gets crushed? Again, perhaps you can look this up, but if you are building a bridge, you need to have this understanding and be able to answer this question.
Similarly, by reading history, you learn how we have behaved in the past. This understanding helps build mental models that allow you to reason about the future (e.g., whether two countries will go to war or what will happen when the next pandemic hits).
You are also learning about other people and building mental models on how others think (this is called Theory of Mind) and using this to figure out how they will respond and react.
But such learnings “on the fly” start to slow down, unless you are deliberate about it (see my previous post on deliberate practice). You can always pick up a book or take a course and accelerate your learning and sharpen your mental models.
Education bestows you with knowledge
Knowledge is what you have stored in your memory, forming the basis for understanding and reasoning. Knowledge can be about a fact (who is the president of the United States in 1970) or about a mechanism (how does a car engine work) which is directly connected to mental models, which we discussed above. So let’s talk about facts.
A lot of people think you don’t need to remember facts anymore since you can always look it up using Google. But that’s not how it works.
As a computer scientist, I have to remember several facts to be effective at my job. For example, if each time I have to lookup how many bytes make a Gigabyte, there is no way for me to think clearly about computer systems. It will be debilitating.
The problem with our schools is that we get taught stuff that feels useless. That’s because we get taught disconnected facts. If you are a historian, there is no need for you to learn about gigabytes. It will feel disconnected. Unless of course, you are writing a book about the history of computers.
Good memory of facts makes learning easier. For example, I felt my lack of knowledge about American politics in the cold war era made it a bit more challenging when I was reading Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben Rich. Had I had a better picture, this book would have flowed better for me and would have complemented the facts I knew.
Here's a few examples of the kind of question I entered into Anki at this stage: “What's the size of a Go board?”; “Who plays first in Go?”; “How many human game positions did AlphaGo learn from?”; “Where did AlphaGo get its training data?”; “What were the names of the two main types of neural network AlphaGo used?”
Education equips you with skills
Another important aspect of education is equipping you to translate your learnings into action. I call these as skills. Skill can be anything. If you had learned civil engineering, you would have built very good mental models of buildings and other structures. But presumably, you should be able to build one as well. Just having mental models about things is not enough.
One issue I have with traditional education is that it doesn’t equip us with skills that are very much necessary to thrive outside school. For example, there is a whole bunch of skills like how to plan and execute, how to succeed in ambiguity, grit, and putting up with all the real-world nonsense, of which there is plenty. And then some soft skills concern dealing with people, such as leadership, how to collaborate, influence, and sell something, etc.
In my case, my education was all about hard skills and very few soft skills. I realized the importance only later on and how underprepared I was for the real world.
Curiosity and Lifelong learning
This is going to be a personal take. There is so much to learn in this world, and I pity that we have such short lifespans, for that matter. I think it is nice if you can find your own specific niche which opens up your curiosity.
For me, I am always fascinated by the ability to see beyond what’s visible. When I learned woodworking, I could look at a piece of furniture and glean a lot more than I could have previously. Similarly, I know that when Warren Buffett reads earnings reports, he picks up way beyond what is written. Maybe you purchased a house and in that process you learned stuff; and all of a sudden, you start seeing houses and neighborhoods very differently. What you have learned lets you see beyond what is visible.
So I periodically take something specific and try to learn more about it in an effort to “see better”, and have better mental models. For example, recently when I watched some great movies and this TV series “Curb your Enthusiasm”, I was dying to understand why the stories were so sticky and interesting. I knew there is something I couldn’t see. So that’s why I am reading a book now on how to deconstruct stories (Anatomy of a Story by John Truby).
So that concludes how I think of education. I am sure there is a lot more that I didn’t get to. Let me know what you think in the comments!
And here are some book recommendations:
The Startup of You (Revised and Updated): Adapt, Take Risks, Grow Your Network, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.
A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman. The book describes all the other learnings you must accumulate to survive in science, which are not taught in school.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. Well written book. It talks about the challenges that the author faces as a result of terrible mental models that her parents have (“oh, the government is trying to get you” and “western medicine is bad”) and her journey to get educated, which helps her see the world in a much more precise way.
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