The Art of Learning by Joshua Waitzkin is the kind of book we won’t hesitate to call enduring. It contains insights on a theme that is urgent now and we believe will acquire more urgency in the years ahead. Waitzkin, as a child, was acknowledged as a chess prodigy. He doesn’t play competitively any longer, is trained in the martial arts, and offers much wisdom through the pages of this book.
“Developmental psychologists have done extensive research on the effects of a student’s approach on his or her ability to learn and ultimately master material. Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, makes the distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. Children who are entity ‘theorists’—that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner—are prone to use language Iike ‘I am smart at this’ and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning—let’s call them learning theorists—are more prone to describe their results with sentences like ‘I got it because I worked very hard at it’ or ‘I should have tried harder.’ A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped step-by-step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.
“Dweck’s research has shown that when challenged by difficult material, learning theorists are far more likely to rise to the level of the game, while entity theorists are more brittle and prone to quit…
“In fact, some of the brightest kids prove to be the most vulnerable to becoming helpless, because they feel the need to live up to and maintain a perfectionist image that is easily and inevitably shattered. As an observer of countless talented young chess players, I can vouch for the accuracy of this point—some of the most gifted players are the worst under pressure, and have the hardest time rebounding from defeat.”
In this issue
- How to support a team
- The hedonic treadmill
How to support a team
No prizes for guessing which side most readers of this newsletter may have supported in the match yesterday between India and Pakistan. Assume for a moment though there’s a compelling game on and you don’t feel passionately for either team. How do you then choose which team to support? This is a theme Jon Davey, an event photographer and football fan, attempts to deal with in The Guardian.
“All sport, almost by definition, is adversarial. The same activity, without the competitive objectives defined in the rules of the game, is simply exercise or leisure. We don’t even need to know that much about the game to be swept along by the narrative.
“I remember flicking through the channels during the London Olympics in 2012 and stopping to watch what the commentator said was likely to be the last few points of the men’s volleyball final. Brazil were leading Russia 2-0 and 22-19 and had just brought on their soon-to-be-retiring captain, who hadn’t really featured in the tournament but they wanted him to be on court for the victory. Except Russia weren’t prepared to give up. They dived around the court and blocked everything before finally winning the third set 29-27. By then I was hooked and rooting for the team in red who turned the match around completely, winning in the deciding fifth set and becoming the first Olympic champions to come back from two sets down.
“Over the course of a football season, every match has some significance on where our team will eventually finish. Picking a side in a game in such circumstances is therefore merely an extension of supporting our team. What I find more interesting is how we choose who to support when there is no direct effect on the fortunes of our team.”
The hedonic treadmill
A friend of ours pointed to an interesting podcast with Justin Kan, an American internet entrepreneur and investor, where he talks about what he learnt about the pursuit of happiness. “Happiness,” Kan says, “isn’t a hunt for something out there, it is a long process of internal discovery.” But he discovered this the hard way after getting on the “hedonic treadmill”.
“I experienced this when starting in the industry. I was constantly surrounded by people who I perceived as more successful than me. I saw my friends, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian (founders of Reddit) sell their company. I’ll never forget what I told Michael Seibel, my Twitch co-founder: ‘one day, we could each make a million bucks!’ At the time, even the thought of that was wild.
“But we eventually blew past this goal, selling Socialcam in 2012 for $60 million, and then Twitch in 2014 for $970 million. The funny thing was that even after exceeding my wildest expectations, it reset me to a new standard and I wasn’t any happier—I was just holding more things. My own accomplishments were not enough, as I looked around me to my friends who had founded Dropbox and Airbnb.
“After a year-and-a-half at Y Combinator, I started to get restless. It had been a couple years since we had sold Twitch and exited Exec. I wasn’t hitting new heights, and I felt as though my fame and fortune had plateaued. Selective memory kicked in and I forgot how stressed and unhappy I was as a founder. I started looking at some of the founders we had backed at YC, who were raising money for their companies at valuations in the hundreds of millions or billions. They weren’t any better than me! I should get back in the game, start a new company, build something new. In my mind, the next company would be the success story Exec hadn’t been. It would be even bigger than Twitch. This time will be different.
“Before I knew it, I was back on the treadmill. Sure, I’d done well, but I had friends who had done even better. My ego was hungry and wanted to be fed. The desire for more nagged constantly at me… Once again, my dreams were full of insanely large numbers. A ten-billion-dollar company. A hundred-billion-dollar company!
“What I want to impart here is that the Hedonic Treadmill is not always obvious or trivial. We may not even be aware that we are caught on it, and many of us struggle with getting on and off throughout our lives. Ironically, the pursuit of happiness can lead us into the eternal trap of chasing unhappiness.”
- Chasing unhappiness (Podcast)
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