What Do They Know That I Don't

Published: 2024-07-1
Tagged: essay learning thoughts

Alexey Guzey tweeted this recently:

I'm terrified of old people.

I used to be extremely confident in myself.

I was barely 20 years old and I would tell people how to sleep, how to make friends, and how to live their lives. I started a nonprofit aiming to literally rebuild the institutions of science from the ground up. I was dismissive of everyone who didn't impress me in the first 7 minutes of talking to them. I was especially dismissive of old people.

I'm 26 years old now, I (hope that I) got a tiny bit wiser but I'm pretty sure I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm embarrassed for having published all of these articles giving people advice on how to live their lives; I'm amazed that the nonprofit actually managed to run great programs and fund dozens of young scientists; and I'm absolutely terrified of old people.



I was like that too, though certainly not as productive and successful. My "success" lay in downloading facts into my mind via HTTP and using them to point out flaws in what people around me said--especially if they were older. That, of course, made me sound like an arrogant little shit. But inside, I didn't feel smug or special; rather, I felt worried and pessimistic. For nobody knew what was going on and everybody was simply winging it.

Anyway, the tweet is worth reading in full, but in short Alexey says that experience teaches an enormous amount of "simple technologies"--for example how "to stop the brain when it gets into over-analyzing spirals. [How] To error-correct appropriately when things go wrong. [How] To ask for help."

Other such technologies that come to mind are:

When I observe myself doing anything, I can overlay memories of having done it, or something similar, a hundred or a thousand times before. There's no mastery hiding there--just small actions done day in and day out, each one a single swipe of a whetstone. Taken separately, they're almost unnoticeable, but together these micro-skills define the interface between me and the world.

I suspect these micro-skills cannot be transferred through textbooks or instructional videos. Maybe the basics can. But there's too much context, too much local texture at play. The only way to learn them, that is, to get that fingertip feel, is to grind it out. Life will provide enough opportunities to do so. The only prerequisite is curiosity and attention--especially about the small things. The small things repeat often, giving you a chance to really observe a microscopic sliver of the universe.

Like Alexey, I can't really fathom the superpowers wielded by folks older than me. If just a few years of exposure to adult life feel like eons of learning, how does someone in their 50s feel?

It surprises me that we don't see more instances of the old exploiting the young. The former's advantage is simply incomparable. They're playing with chess pieces while here I have only checkers. I guess it goes to show how much civilizational effort has gone into our laws and institutions to minimize this kind of exploitation.

I suspect there is also another, more powerful, factor. Something like: wisdom doesn't simply increase with age. At the risk of channeling my younger arrogant shithead, I know plenty of older people that don't appear to grok too much. Maybe it's the lack of innate skill or the right kind of environment that would allow them to exercise the curiosity and attention I mention above. I don't want to get into the whole nurture-vs-nature debate, but part of my own experience tells me many old timers are not a threat.

Apart from my own inner reflections, an observation affirms me in the belief that such superpowers Alexey gestures at exist: I see them being imprinted onto kids' minds through carefully designed experiences.

You see, a while back I moved to Park Slope, a New York City neighborhood known for its family-friendly atmosphere. The sidewalks here choke up with kids on weekends and holidays--sometimes literally. This gives me a window into how the better-off raise their kids.

Kids here are put into learning environments like baseball teams and ballet classes and French lessons and orienteering (there's a huge park nearby). In general, they're made to discuss things, disagree with others, work out group problems, hold conversations, make small talk, negotiate. Their own parents here serve as examples. Disputes here rarely, if ever, devolve to scratched cars or broken windows. What this curious observer sees instead is a carefully orchestrated game of moves and countermoves that ends with a subtle shift in social status.

In other words, these cute rascals are being taught how to interface with the vast machine of society. I suspect that this and not money is what real hereditary wealth looks like.

Anyhow. I'm 34 now. I'm curious if this wonder at old folks' superpowers will remain with me in the years to come. I can see, at least, no weakening of what seems like an adjacent feeling--the feeling of oh-god-was-I-really-that-dumb. I just have to pay attention, exercise my curiosity, and keep the small things in focus.

Maybe then, one may hope, I won't lose sight of what David Foster Wallace so beautifully described as water in his speech:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Video & transcript


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