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.