Fire type learning, earth type learning

I went through life wanting to be a fire type. You probably know some. They’re your friends who quickly pass you up in video games. They’re some of the stars in your field with a deep knowledge and endless energy toward their projects. I wanted that relentless focus that would propel me to excellence. But when it came to practice I could never maintain my fire.

Then I discovered that I’m not a fire type but an earth type. What I always thought this was an issue of discipline — building “willpower muscles” or applying productivity hacks — is probably more a fixed part of my nature.

Fire and earth are two of the five Chinese elements, the others being wood, water, and metal. I actually heard about the relationship of these types to training styles through a French strength trainer, Charles Poliquin. I haven’t found any historical or scientific scholarship around them yet, but my results on online personality quizzes have at least been consistent (meanwhile I can’t even figure out if I’m Luke or Rory from the Gilmore Girls).

I think about the elements primarily as dynamics of energy allocation. In that area we tend to have a view that does little to differentiate individuals. We talk about needing to increase motivation for everyone and apply ideas that supposedly apply to the whole population, like favoring intrinsic motivation. Perhaps those are useful but we also should think about how different people respond to different energy demands.

In his book Scott Adams talked about this distinction though without using the fire/earth terms: “my observation is that some people are born with a natural impulse to practice things and some people find mindless repetition without immediate reward to be a form of torture.” He acknowledges that fire types probably aren’t even reading the book but for people like him, where there’s a better strategy: “I’m a perfect example of the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills. I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well.”

Lesson learned: when making decisions about skill development (and these decisions are really important) or taking life advice, remember that your personality may be quite different from others.

P.S. You may have seen the draft form of my last post. Go look now for the complete version that links to Alan Kay’s talk.

What isn’t remembering in context is invention

In his talk the Power of Simplicity, Alan Kay managed to express much more elegantly what I was trying to say in the last post:

  1. Most human learning is remembering in context
  2. Learning a new idea requires almost as much creativity as the original invention

In the Pythagorean example, we were asking students to remember Pythagorean theorem but the context was completely wrong. The context of two points on a grid is one that is totally unfamiliar to students hence there is nothing for them to remember (point #1).

The first act of applying geometric theorems to points on a grid was a legitimate invention by mathematicians — a blue escape from the pink world — and Alan Kay’s point with #2 is that for a student to rediscover it during an exam is a crazy standard.

An example from my own experience. I’m in my first month as an Android programmer so I’m in the process of learning a lot of new things. Last week I had some unexpected behavior in my program regarding a text edit field. Most of my effort involved looking at the values of certain variables at certain times. This was like better observing my context. My coworkers who have strong understanding of Android presented a few ideas that I could quickly eliminate. A coworker had the idea that there were two Views (a text edit field is a kind of View) with the same ID so my code was targeting another View. We actually rejected this idea for a while, but I used a tool called the View Hierarchy to find out that was true — another case of enriching my context.

The “missing” understanding behind my problem was that two views in a hierarchy have the same root. My coworkers certainly had this understanding but didn’t have the context to apply it immediately to a solution. This idea is really simple as an experienced programmer (hierarchies, better known as tree structures, are everywhere). But the difficulty came from lots of wondering around in the context to spot the issue. (Another insight from Kay from the same talk is that problem solving is a weak heuristic.) Finally we were able to target the point in the code that was finding the ID from the root of the hierarchy and fix it.

Top down understanding was useless here. There are way too many potential “tops”.

Does this apply to most tasks in life or is top down understanding useful if you’re in a field that is less pedantic than computer programming? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe I don’t have the top down understanding to problem solve this one.

Note: I originally accidentally published this as a partial draft. Apologies for the confusion, especially for misquoting Alan Kay and not crediting him.