zealous for the obscure: thoughts on learning and friction

From philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human:

"Twofold misjudgment:

The misfortune suffered by clear-minded and easily understood writers is that they are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them.

And the good fortune that attends the obscure is that the reader toils at them and ascribes to them the pleasure he has in fact gained from his own zeal."

The Wise Man, The Wizard

Some wise man said something or another, I can't remember when or why, that went to the effect of: tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. 

The wise man was my optometrist, and he asked me whether I had changed my diet significantly since my last checkup (it had been a full year).

"Yes, I stopped eating meat."

"I knew it. Your macular pigment density drastically increased. Probably from all that kale and spinach."

"What else can you read about me based on my eye health?"

"You stare at a computer all day, and you exercise regularly. You also don't seem to like wearing glasses because you overwear your contacts."

"You're a wizard, Dr. Solomon."

"Well, that's why I'm in this line of work. Tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. For most people, that's diabetic, malnourished, and sedentary."

Tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. I wonder if Dr. Solomon is aware of how often I reflect upon this memory. When a particular set of ideas invades my mind, it bleeds into the things I notice in the world around me.

This is not rare by any means; everyone does it, to varying degrees. The pattern of things we notice becomes the fabric of our reality. Learning something new is "simply" the creation of a new pattern of observation. Maybe that's why kids learn so readily and adults don't.

A Series of Observations

That child was trouble until the teacher learned he was a "sneakerhead." The teacher handed him some historical data on the resale price of Air Jordans, and he started figuring out for himself how slopes and linear equations work.

She doesn't read much, but her best friend contracted cancer, and so she engrossed herself in The Emperor of All Maladies. She buried herself in that book during her spare moments.

A prolonged period of disillusionment from Islam meant he refused to fast during Ramadan. But he read studies linking "intermittent fasting" to improvements in cardiac health, fat loss, and muscle growth. So he started fasting again. And then he started paying attention to religion again.

Motivated Reasoning & The Case for Friction

Dr. Solomon may have been discussing eye health specifically, but "tell me what you see and I'll tell you who you are" sounds suspiciously like motivated reasoning.

Generally speaking, motivated reasoning is "When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence." More broadly and colloquially, I view this phenomenon as the "people see what they want to see" effect. The things that "motivate" them to evaluate their environment in a particular way end up shaping how they see the world.

Modern times have reshaped how we "optimize" our media for consumption. There's been a steady march towards the more easily swallowed and immediately palatable. The theory is that, by reducing the friction behind consumption (by making everything a textual/visual/sensual snack), we get smarter and wiser.

This theory misses a crucial point that psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi touches on in his famous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In the line of research, he found that: a) that we can only focus on a finite number of things at a time, and b) that our learning faculties are at their most intense when we are fully absorbed and focused on a single activity. Finding flow is more important than finding ease.

The sneakerhead pores over numbers and equations despite not liking math. The friend of a cancer patient tears through relatively dense passages of medical history despite not being much of a reader.

Koan Contemplation in an Attention-Starved World

There's an old Buddhist saying that goes like "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." There's also an old Sufi saying that goes "The soul covers its own truth with a thousand veils from its own eyes." Both convey more or less equivalent ideas.

The funny thing about these sayings is that they sound quite obvious. To each, we may naturally roll our eyes at their self-evident nature. And then we proceed to directly contradict in our own lives what we thought was so obvious.

Words can "make sense", but if we haven't done the very difficult work of integrating them into our patterns of observation of reality, then these beautiful turns of phrase become fodder for yearbooks and status updates.

Two Breeds of Culture: On the Obscure and the Inaccessible

Clarity might be overrated, and it's our fault. I'll try and illustrate what I mean with an example. (Ironically, by trying to make myself clear, I may be defeating the purpose).

There is a breed of writer that focuses on clarity. Economical in expression; wastes no time in indulgent narrative. Oftentimes, these writers are able to whittle down to the essential. A small subset of readers can take these simple phrases and impart their own dense imagery upon them. My brother is one of them. They can take a small phrase and chew and ponder over it for days, weeks, months, years even.

The problem with this koan breed is that their work gives a topic a veneer of easy digestion: finish the book (and listen to the accompanying TED Talk) in an afternoon, and change the world! But in this ease of digestion, perhaps the meanings are not drilled home effectively. To reiterate Nietzsche, these thinkers "are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them." Like a snack.

There is a second breed of writer that focuses on the details and minutiae of their study. Their works serve as frantic messages: "This is all that I have acquired, and I'm not sure I can quite distill them down to the size of my fist. So here's my entire universe." A small subset of readers find these dense, obscure texts and lose themselves in them. These consumers emerge with new patterns of observation. The fabric of their reality, after an epic struggle, transforms. As Nietzsche says, these obscure texts are attended to by "a reader [who] toils at them and ascribes to them the pleasure he has in fact gained from his own zeal."

The problem with the obscura breed is that their work is often dense, confusing, and tough to follow. Their works are the financial analyses, the primatologist's notebooks, the observations of the practitioner of some obscure art or craft.

Zealous for the Obscure

In an ideal world, the clearly and plainly written would win out - that we're all koan enthusiasts, taking small, clear nuggets of thought and chewing on them to understand them.

In an ideal world, clear communication is about ideas and conveying them in a way that seamlessly integrates them into people's daily lives.

But we know that's not how we work. Many studies have showed how audiences remember very little about the content of a "strong" communicator's speech. But they do remember how great and insightful the communicator apparently was. 

We aren't as ready to learn as we think we are, and we aren't as rational as we think we are. So all those easily-digested thought pieces might not actually be teaching us much. They might just be reinforcing our existing views because we'll just notice what we already want to notice. We seek out experiences rather than truth. Hence "shoot the messenger" and so on.

The trick to understanding something in a different way appears to be finding something so impenetrable and so obscure that if you are still drawn to it, you will actually learn something significant. The friction that you are willing to endure means that you care enough about the ideas held within to keep banging your head against the wall.

For many people, the path to "Zen clarity" goes through a twisting, winding, dense foliage of narratives we zealously chase despite their difficulty. That is because, as the Buddhist and the Sufi would say, the knowledge we seek is often already held within ourselves. We just need the right lights to reveal them.