On Being A Failure

I was reminded yesterday of a friend who, a few years ago, who didn’t pass her grades. She was distraught.

“I’m a failure!” she cried. I’ve always had an adversity to calling someone a failure. It’s so absolute. Just as when some annoys you, you shouldn’t say, “you’re annoying,” you might say, “you’re annoying me right now”. The first is absolute, The second is temporary. You don’t get annoyed by their very presence (well, I hope no-one has that effect on you). The annoyance comes and goes.

“You’re not a failure, you’ve just failed this time around,” I replied. I was told that I was an optimist (dubious). I didn’t say anything back, but I wish that I had replied that, rather, I was just a rationalist.

We are born without any knowledge bestowed to us – other than the unconscious neural patterns and cognitive biases that allow us to survive as a baby (breathing, shitting, forming attachments with our mothers): which could arguably be said to processes rather than knowledge. As we get older, we accumulate more and more knowledge. After a time, we start testing our knowledge. Sometimes we pass, sometimes we fail. But should we blame ourselves for the knowledge we haven’t yet come across yet and acquired?

Yes, sometimes all of the knowledge is laid out in front of us, and the reason for why we fail is simply that the rate of knowledge acquisition wasn’t good enough. But even then, the skills of acquiring knowledge need to be taught. We need to learn how to learn. And some of us may learn in different preferential ways. Can we be blamed for not coming across a method that suits our style of learning?

I believe that all we can do is to try. Focus our attention at different levels: work at learning how to learn, then on learning. This is a balancing act; there’s no point planning our revision strategies if, by the time we’ve finished planning, we’ve given ourselves no time left to actually revise. Yet still, all we can do is try. When we fail, we highlight our absence of knowledge in certain areas. Failure is a useful learning experience that will help us succeed in the future. With each failure, our chances of being a winner in the future increase, as long as we learn from the failure.

Ultimately, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win. The only time we are ever an absolute failure is when we give up. Because every individual instance of when we fail is an opportunity to glean one more hint into how to succeed next time.

How Our Feelings Can Mislead Us

I’m all up for “following your heart” sometimes. But sometimes… we just shouldn’t. There have been a few instances recently were I’ve relied on my intuition – my feelings – to make decisions and after weighing up these decisions in hindsight, I’ve realised they weren’t the best option to choose. I’d like to share these instances with you to highlight how easy it is to make flawed decisions.

1.  I went to a conference recently to learn about Vacuum gauges, vacuum pumps, how to create a vacuum etc. The conference was given by one of the experts in the industry (who was high in the hierarchy of a vacuum company) so I thought it would be worth-while listening to the conference. I brushed up on my knowledge with a pdf I found on the internet by the company this guy worked for before the talk. It was pretty comprehensive – 134 pages (I didn’t read all of it), but it perfectly explained everything I needed to know. So I read this pdf for a few hours and then set off to the conference. When I sat down and the expert started talking, I realised he was using slides almost directly taken out of the pdf. However, this information now was coming from an expert: he would still fill in a few interesting bits here and there, right? And I didn’t know it inside out. At the end of the day, I felt like I had got a lot done: I had gone into Glasgow Uni, made it to a vacuum conference to listen to an expert talk. Productive day!

In hindsight, though, it took about an hour to get from my room to into the conference hall (so 2 hours travelling there and back). Commuting somewhere might feel like getting things done – “I’m moving forward!” – but actually it’s sunk cost that you accept because the value of the thing you’re travelling to is still greater than the cost. Parking cost £4.40. And I listened to this lecture for about 1.5 hours. So that’s 3 hours of time for 1.5 hours of learning. Compare this to the amount of time I could have spent learning the information at home – 3 hours for 3 hours, it starts looking like I should have stayed at home. The weird thing is, I don’t feel like I get a lot of stuff done if I’ve just sat at my computer all day. It doesn’t have the gravitas of telling yourself, “I went to a conference to listen to an expert.” The problem is that I’ve attached some inherent value to “listening to an expert,” where really there is none. The value is in the content that the expert can get into our heads. I somehow feel that because this guy is an expert, he can teach me more content than just a pdf. And the conference makes it seem important. I’m an important person with all these other important businessmen, gleaning some knowledge from an expert. You can’t feel that important sitting at your computer at home, reading a pdf.

2. My route home can take me either two ways: a longer route where I can move more quickly, or a shorter route that goes through a road with huge speed-bumps that I need to take at around 5 mph. I always go the fast route: it just feels like I’m getting home quicker: I’m going faster, after all!

I recently found out, though, that the speed-bump route is quicker. Even with this new information, I still sometimes don’t believe it and go the route where I can travel quicker – it just feels quicker.

I’ve even heard of some people, waiting for a late bus, who actually walk to the next bus station so that they can get the bus further down the line. So that that they can catch the same bus just from the next station… only the walk to the next bus station makes them feel like they’ll get to their destination quicker.

 

Our feelings/intuitions can be sneaky. And maybe the most sneaky thing about them is that because they’re decisions made on feelings, we don’t consciously realise we’ve made them. We don’t rationally study the decision making, because it’s a case that’s been opened and closed within the intuitive realm. It’s only when we either catch ourselves making them, or look back in hindsight, that we can see.