How to learn through failure

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

George Bernard Shaw

I recently read this blog post by Jim Nielsen where I learned how to notice if I’m actually learning or not.

Like everyone else I’ve read ad nauseam about how important failing is to the learning progress. I’ve become convinced that this is true, but I find myself unable to explain how does that work?

I can’t just attempt to fail, fail repeatedly, and magically improve?

So when I read Jim Nielsens piece Learning and Being Wrong I was ecstatic to find a description for what failure and learning feels like in practice.

The post is based on notes from Adam Grant’s book Think Again, which I haven’t read (yet).

In a series of quotes and notes Jim describes what it feels like to learn.

“If you don’t look back at yourself and think, ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year.”

All that time we spend regretting past choices and missed chances are actually a proof that we’re making progress. How wonderful! And it doesn’t stop there.

He’s also found this amazing quote that describes what learning looks like in practice.

“Being actively open minded means “searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right” because “the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.””

This quote is almost a step by step instruction on how to learn. Whenever I learn something new, I should actively look for ways to be wrong. This seems counter intuitive. But doing it this way I will much quicker understand if I am mistaken, or end up not being able to find anything wrong, and proceed knowing it’s true enough.

This process lets me trust what I know a lot more, as well as gives the right kind of attitude about knowledge: it’s never absolute truth.

A thought that struck me when I got this far was: Would that process work for new knowledge as well? Things where there is no one to ask, or no existing reference material? 

Let’s say I do some test or look at something and formulate some naive idea about how it works. I write that down and then start looking for ways I might be wrong. I will probably keep discovering edge cases and ways my theory is incorrect. But iterating on that process, I could end up discovering completely new knowledge.

So here’s a three step process for learning anything through failure, based on the above insights:

  1. Form a hypothesis based on your observations. Ex: React is the most popular framework for new digital businesses.
  2. Actively look for ways to be wrong. Ex: Ask around for startups looking to hire for alternative tech stacks. Check google trends and news trends for competing frameworks.
  3. Either reform your hypothesis based on new information. Ex: React is the most popular framework in new VC backed digital businesses.
    Or realise that you can’t invalidate it, and act as if it’s true.

I have no idea if this is true or not. But I’m mightily excited to try and disprove it!

I’ll end this post with another brilliant insight from this post, what knowledge feels like:

“being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”

Let me know if I’m wrong, please. And enjoy being wrong!

Living fully committed

Listening to Steli Efti talk about avoiding having a half-assed life by committing fully to whatever we’re doing. Being ready to give it our all, not hedging the bet, and letting something fail if it doesn’t work out.

It’s a powerful message, and I’m feeling very inspired to be less distracted and hedge less. The idea ties together really well with Derek Siver’s axiom Hell yeah or no.

Here’s the original tweet Steli is talking about:

Why smart people come up with bad ideas

I recently made an observation, a very smart person I know blurted out an idea in a meeting and was convinced the idea ended the conversation.

The person who blurted out the idea is very smart, but the idea was not very good. I’ve seen great organisations implement bad ideas many — many — times. But this time I asked myself: why does this happen? What causes brilliant people to jump on bad ideas, and take decisive actions that are clearly not great?

My hypothesis was that stress causes us to believe that the real linchpin in a situation is having an idea, any idea, of what to do next. As if an idea was all it took to solve problems.

I wrote a Twitter thread about it to see if anyone else had similar experience. It turns out a lot of people do.

I’ve made an observation recently, and I’d love to hear if you’ve seen the same? People who are stressed (very busy) tend to believe ideas are more valuable than they really are.

Jesper Bylund
Turns out a most people see this behaviour

Some very smart people chimed in with their own experiences and it seemed like I had stumbled upon an important insight. Then my friend Fredrik offered this insightful reframe of the behaviour:

It could be rephrased like this, people who are very busy think in basics. Speed at the cost of depths and I wholly agree with your observations

Fredrik Paulin

This reframe is powerful because it removes the emotional component from the idea completely. This behaviour is not something that some people do. It’s not an error that pops up as the side effect of fuzzy thinking. It’s a classic error that is innate to humans, blank and white thinking.

To avoid this behaviour myself in the future I want to define this problem as follows.

Tl;Dr

Stress causes humans to think in basics. Which means we’re grasping for straws, and an idea that seems to solve the problem, no matter how badly, is preferable to not making a decision.

A side effect of this behaviour is a tendency to believe ideas are more valuable than execution. Because by choosing an idea, the stressed human believes they have taken action.

Ten days without coffee

Last year my fiancé Agnes lived without caffeine for 10 days to see how it would affect her, I wanted to try it myself.

Her research showed that 10 days should be enough to go completely off caffeine, including withdrawals.
This intrigued me, as an avid coffee drinker since high school. I’ve never thought of giving coffee up, I haven’t seen the point. But I have to ask myself, am I really enjoying coffee, or is it an addiction? Can I even function as a human without caffeine, or will I get terrible withdrawals? Time to find out.

I’m doing this during the darkest months of the year in Stockholm (Sweden), so we only get a few hours of light every day. Will I stop being productive? Will I snap at people? I’m a little worried to be honest, but also excited to find out!

Day one, Monday 2021.01.18

Almost lunchtime and so far so good. The morning wasn’t bad at all but I’m feel a little drowsy and slow.

To be clear, I’m not naturally a morning person, but I am really strict with my sleep schedule because I had insomnia growing up.

Afternoon meetings were really hard to focus on. Felt oddly warm and comfortable, and almost dozed off more than once.

Day two, Tuesday 2021.01.19

Morning felt fine. Felt sluggish at lunch, but that could just be my normal lunch time coma.

Feeling some slight headache coming and going. And warmer than usual. I’m naturally always cold. Temperatures under 25C is just not for me. But I don’t know if caffeine withdrawal can have this effect?

The headache persisted the entire day. Just getting slowly worse until I went to bed.

Day three, Wednesday 2021.01.20

Not a great day. I woke up at 4am from a headache and couldn’t fall back asleep. Felt ok all morning, but then after lunch something strange happened…

I feel great. I feel awake. Like I’ve just had a pot of coffee without the jitters. This is really odd.

Day four, Thursday 2021.01.21

I feel great! Not what I’d call energetic, but I’m not tired at all. I feel calmer, and warmer, than usual. This is actually quite great, though I do miss drinking coffee.

I can’t believe how many drinks have caffeine in them. The only warm drink without caffeine I’ve found was some fancy red tea that smells and tastes like bubble gum. They haven’t been a great substitute… Also its warmer today which helps.

Day five, Friday 2021.01.22

I don’t feel as good as yesterday. But I still feel surprisingly springy in the morning. I discovered they serve decaf espresso at a local coffee shop, which really helps still the hunger for drinking something warm.

Day six & seven, weekend

I felt great. Energetic, focused, and calm. Woke up hungover one morning and that was annoying but still no real craving for coffee.

Day eight, Monday 2021.01.25

I slept well. Woke up early and had a massively productive day. Was focused without hardly a break from 8am to 9pm. And I felt great!

Day nine, Tuesday 2021.01.26

Slept badly and really feeling like I need a coffee. But oddly, as the days goes on, I need it less and less. Actually feeling pretty springy and energetic now at 2pm. This was rarely the case when I was drinking coffee.

Day ten, Wednesday 2021.01.27

That’s it, this is the last day. I did it! And it’s strange.

Feels like this wasn’t as hard as I had thought it would be. Almost like I wanted there to be more problems? Which is a strange thing to want.

I feel great though. I feel rested, and despite a few bad nights I’m not very tired during the day.
When I do get tired, it feels more like a calm sleepiness rather than the abrupt mental cliffs I experienced before.

I’m excited about having coffee again. But also kind of worried how it will make me feel. I’ll have to follow this up with a post about going back on coffee.

Watching films

For the last two years I have been trying to be mindful about what media I consume. I’ve been trying to only watch, and listen to, what I want to. Not because I should keep up, or because it’s routine, or because I need the distraction.

This has resulted in less podcasts, turning off my Netflix subscription, and instead coming back to classics. Or sometimes, simply not doing anything.

I’ve seen more black & white films these last two years than I’ve seen Netflix shows. And I think it’s been good a thing

Yesterday we couldn’t find “Blood and Sand” with Rita Hayworth. While searching we realized we hadn’t seen “Parasite”, the Korean film that took the word by storm in 2019. So we saw it. And I’m extremely happy we did. It’s an amazing film, and work of art.

Time is a great judge of what is worth your attention, and what isn’t. But the Lindy-effect can’t filter out what is great today.
I think I might need to sample a bit more current culture.

What are we consuming that broadens our minds?

Something the Farnam Street newsletter got me thinking about today. Read the whole thing here.

““[M]y worry is that … you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff. The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming. … In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks. Have you ever noticed that 70 percent of the people you know are more boring at 30 than they were at 20?.””

— A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person

2019 in review

2019 promised to be a year of celebration and positive change. It turned out to be tumultuous in the extreme. This has .been among the hardest, if not the hardest, year I’ve even experienced. Strangely, it also contained some fo the happiest moments of my life.

I’ve never cancelled so many trips. I’ve never had so much cause to celebrate. And I’ve never been this close to death, both literally and figuratively.

Timeline of Events

What I learned

Fitness & Health

Timeline of Events

Spring

January started with the most extreme event. I was rushed to the emergency room, diagnosed with a blood cot around 30cm (a foot) long. And I don’t believe I would’ve gone to the emergency room if Agnes had not insisted. I tell her she saved my life, but she doesn’t believe me.

February was uneventful and a bit scary.

March disappeared in prepping for the years big adventure.

April we went to Tokyo for 10 days. To see the cherry blossom, celebrate my birthday, and fulfil our shared lifelong dream of visiting Japan. I also took the chance to propose. Luckily she said yes. And suddenly the year didn’t seem so bleak any more.

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Summer

May brought the first wave of summer northern Europe, we hung out on the balcony. Took extra long walks with the dogs. Saw more friends and even visited Berlin together for the first time!

June was spent working hard, visiting outdoor bars, and rushing up to the northern parts of Sweden to prep and then celebrate Swedish midsummer. Despite a lot of bad planning, we had a great time!

July was vacation time. Desperate to rest up from a stressful first half of the year, we tried to do too much and ended up tired like never before. We also spent a ton of time watching old movies on our balcony and people watching on rooftop bars. So it was not a bad time.

August already started turning cold. Spiff, our dog, had a terrible month health wise. We spent a lot of time in the archipelago, enjoying the last of summer.

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Fall

September turned out beautiful. So we spent more time in the archipelago, with Agnes’ parents and their new puppy. I also joined the bachelor party for my dear old friend Douglas. Sadly, we also had to say goodbye to our little dog.

October was mostly about work, Stockholm was already cold, but beautiful. Oh and Douglas got married, which we celebrated in style.

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Winter

November went by in a blur. Tons of work. We did manage to hang out with my parents a bit though. And on the tail end, we saw the years first snow.

December was a month of celebration this year. Agnes turned thirty, which we celebrated at least three times. We also went full on Christmas mode and loved every moment of it. Oh and I published my first book.

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What I Learned

It’s hard to even know where to start after a year like this. With so much death, and so much celebration, I should’ve learned a ton of things I guess.

Truthfully. I haven’t had much time to think deeply about things. So I think I learned less this year, than last year.

I did relearn, or unlearn, a few things of note:

Life really is short. Every time you talk to someone, it may well be the last. So don’t rush it, brush it off, or force yourself through it. Every Christmas is the last Christmas like it. Really listen. Do the thing properly or not at all. And hug your loved ones.

Focus means doing the boring thing. Fun and stress are distracting, and yourself is the easiest person to distract. Do the boring thing. The slog. What is meaningful long term is what you’ll look back at as meaningful.

Take risks. This is the only way we grow. Rest, yes. But don’t get comfortable. Nothing happens when you’re comfortable.

Health & Fitness

No photo this year. Because of the blood clot I’ve trained a lot less this year than I would’ve liked to. I’m also the fattest I’ve been for many years (which is stil pretty thin). And this is affecting my mental state way more than I like to admit. It’s strange how discretely vanity builds up in ones own self image.

I have on the other hand started drinking way less, and slowly becoming more mindful of how I’m dealing with stress. So the year is not all wasted. And I’m looking forward to training harder in 2020.

Who you travel with

In life, it’s not where you go – It’s who you travel with.

— Charles Schulz

I’m starting to realise this is true more and more. Not only does this apply to my own ideas about applying minimalism in relationships (keep the ones that spark joy perhaps?), but also to what sort of person I want to be.

I will be a part of hundreds of lives during my time, some shortly for a dinner or a smile in a store, some deeply, it’s worth really thinking deeply about what sort of person I want to be in those lives.

How does Focus work?

If you’re interested in personal performance like me, no doubt you’ve read a lot about focus and energy management the last few years. New Studies claim that focus and willpower is like a tank of gas that runs dry if you use it to much during the day. Other New Studies shows that meditation (the practice of focusing and refocusing for short periods of time) increases focus.

So which is it? How does focus work? I think their both right.

Focus seems to work very much like a muscle, if you deliberately practice it, you can focus deeper and with more control (i.e. it gets easier to start and stop focusing). But it also seems to work a lot like endurance, the more time you spend focused, the less mental energy you’ll have at the end of the day.

Which is why I try to focus deliberately, constantly nudging myself when I get distracted, and take resting very seriously. You can’t work with perfect focus forever. You might be able to effect how much you can focus, but always be aware of your limits. When I step beyond my limits, I get annoyed, cranky, feel frustrated about not getting anywhere, and spend even more energy that I don’t have. It’s a slippery slope.

How do you manage your focus?

Blood clot watch

In January on 2019 I was shocked to find myself with a foot long blood clot in my upper thigh to lower abdomen. Deep vein thrombosis usually affects people in their senior years, and correlates pretty well with being overweight and smoking.

I’m fitness athlete thin and I’ve never smoked. I was 34.

I’ve been on blood thinners ever since, and my body is supposed to solve the issue without any direct intervention. Since the blood clot is a partial blockage of a vein, we apparently don’t measure the clot itself, that would be too costly for the free healthcare system of Sweden. Instead we measure the circumference of the leg. The swelling should correlate pretty accurately with the remaining size of the clot.

Being the person I am, I naturally measured my leg every morning to track any progress. I figured it’s worth sharing. This is my blod clot watch, updated daily. When the blue line hits the bottom of the chart, I should be back to normal. The red line is a trailing average of 7 days to help show the progress.