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The Bitter Truth of Learning: It’s Tough, Unpleasant, and Often Pointless (shubhamjain.co)
207 points by shubhamjain on March 24, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments

This just in, water is still wet and cows moo. I don't get the profoundness here. I mean, if you're one of those stereotypical hollywood jocks from the 50s that's never read a book in his life until the age of 60...I mean sure... you found a "bitter truth". Yea, learning at a level beyond your local pub's trivia tournament or beyond the 5 minute youtube tutorial video is difficult and takes time. Most importantly, it takes effort. Always has been, always will be... until we get the Matrix style brain downloads to learn kung-fu. No one great in any field, that's worth looking up to, just dances around saying it's as easy as ordering a big mac from mcdonalds. They have more self-doubt and introspective analysis in an hour than most of the population has in a month, myself included.

Plenty of dead ends too when it comes to the path of greater knowledge. Learning and doing new things that you never needed for your goal. Welcome to scientific research of any caliber in any field. If you're lucky, you recorded the Earth shattering kabooms though. If it were easy to be "smart", then don't you think everyone would be "smart". Obviously we all define the terms smart, educated, learned, intelligent and !dumbass differently. But (I hope) you get the point of the context.

Anyways, I'm sure as shit late to the party by a few thousand years (at least) saying this since I've been hearing this from the time of... I don't know, forever in any field I gandered into more indepth. To recognize someone else as above average, or at least capable, they have humility and diligence towards educating themselves. Not complaining that it is difficult, but striving towards it because it is difficult. Most of us have heard similar at the projectile level of ad nauseum. Now I'm thinking it's not really said enough if people still think "learning is hard" after the age of 9 is news worthy. Getting really tired of teens with their "unique profound insight" that's been published since Socrates' time.

This is definitely not "water is wet" levels. "It is obvious to me that this is true" doesn't actually mean it is true, and it definitely doesn't mean that other people think it is true. The jury is out on both of those, and I would say learning in general is an exceedingly poorly understood subject mostly based on very questionable school environments.

It's pretty hard to even talk about this issue without crashing into nature vs nurture immediately, and that's a gargantuan question in itself. For example:

> If it were easy to be "smart", then don't you think everyone would be "smart".

This statement entirely depends on a nurture-based interpretation of the above gargantuan question.

I've met lots of smart, accomplished people who believe that if learning becomes difficult or tough or grueling, you're "doing it wrong". The kind of people for whom talking about "T-shirt turning" is their idea of fun. Hard to argue with them when they know more than I do, isn't it? Yet, for some people, banging their head against something to understand it seems absolutely necessary and they can't really avoid it. And so two people learn the same thing, one carefree, one with a great amount of pain. What's this about?

I've had my own personal experiences where I was working on something, and found it rather easy, and assumed it wasn't really anything complicated, but got feedback which was the opposite of this. On the other end of the scale, I had times when I was working really hard and felt like I was using everything I had at my disposal to do the task... and then got feedback that I was performing extremely poorly, and was missing something fundamental that would have made my life easier if I would have just known.

"learning is pointless" is often very much about hard work not paying off. This has major social implications.

There's a lot of oddness that comes with learning things in general. People learn with far less effort if the task involved is actively enjoyable in itself. Other people learn better when the task has a return, such as a monetary one.

I think "learning is hard" is a very useful statement socially. I.e., for the average person, there's lots of resistance to learning things. But it is not a statement that can be made globally, i.e., that learning is always hard.

Difficulty in learning is mostly a function of age. I learned how to make game hacks, x86 asm, pretty much 90% of the software engineering knowledge I possess before the age of 15. Now I am learning higher level mathematics because I want to solve some specific problems that have million dollar prizes attached (but I am not doing it for the money.) Fortunately, I never felt like I was doing something for a distant goal when I was young - I had awe and envy as if I was constantly saying Ahhh! This next bit of learning is arduous and often times detached. At least my early learning was in programming, something I still love and find useful. But learning late will never be as easy as curious youth learning. What we learn as youth seems to be unguided and incidental. While reasons for learning as adults are mostly consequential and dependent on some other thing that we desire. Secondary dependencies are frustrating to the brain. Sometimes you can feel like that awestruck kid but itll never match being in that state 24/7. Being precise and directed in ones' goals is almost like a death knell and anhedonia for enjoyment and ease. Oh well..


"All good advice is obvious". Repeating obvious things helps you remember that they're true, because there's a surprising number of obvious things we forget on a regular basis.

to me it's not that learning is difficult, is that society incarnation of learning is a bit blurry if not twisted: in school there's social pressure and single point of explanation for a mass; not optimal but somehow necessary. Then there's competition in jobs.

About the pointless part, sometimes learning something means killing its magic. Or at least you end up in plato's cave, with your expertise surrounded by people mania. It's not a great joy to render a piece of knowledge dull.

And a meeting point between the last two paragraphs. Society teaches you things so you can work but in the end it's also to help/serve others; which makes your knowledge valuable by giving something to someone. And a lot of value in knowledge is when you can share it.

μὴ εἶναι βασιλικὴν ἀτραπὸν ἐπὶ γεωμετρίαν.

Background and alleged author since my parent failed to provide both:

There is no royal road to geometry. (μή εἶναι βασιλικήν ατραπόν επί γεωμετρίαν, Non est regia [inquit Euclides] ad Geometriam via)

Reply given when the ruler Ptolemy I Soter asked Euclid if there was a shorter road to learning geometry than through Euclid's Elements.

Proclus (412–485 AD) in Commentary on the First Book of Euclid's Elements as translated by Glenn R. Morrow (1970), p. 57. ἀτραπός "road, trail, track" here takes the more specific sense of "short cut". The Latin translation is by Francesco Barozzi, 1560)


So, you insult the author as either a stupid jock or a 9 year old, and boast that it's not interesting because you already knew it.

Yet, apart from the put-downs and boasting, and saying "we've heard it ad nauseam", the main body of your comment is .. you repeating the same content you just said wasn't worth saying?

There is an important heuristic to make it much more pleasant though: do the things you like and celebrate the successes. Looking back at some of the things I learned, yeah it was tedious and downright frustrating sometimes. But doing these things now I also feel the reward. Pick the things you think are fun and enjoyable, there is no greater frustration than learning something that ultimately doesn't pique your interest. In my case, especially in high school, I disliked learning foreign languages (apart from English, of course), but I enjoyed chemistry and philosophy. Obviously I put more time into the latter, and worked through all the hurdles and headaches, but it was fun getting to know that stuff. I still only speak two languages. If figuring out T-shirt math isn't your cup of tea, then just don't.

I often feel that people see hardship as a virtue. You /must/ feel shitty, otherwise you're not worthy. And, I don't think that's even remotely true in the long run.

Really my only advice to anyone who wants to learn a new skill: if you start to feel reluctant; just stop. Really. Only do the things you ultimately enjoy. Why put yourself through tedious things in your adulthood. The world is a big place, I'm sure there is something you like doing. Just do that. Don't beat yourself up over it. I've never learned to play an instrument, and suck at countless things; and that's fine. You'll notice that you will quickly become better at the things you enjoy, compared to the tedious ones.

> Only do the things you ultimately enjoy. Why put yourself through tedious things in your adulthood. The world is a big place, I'm sure there is something you like doing.

It’s too easy to interpret that advice as doing things that are easy. Easy things don’t require effort, and people who are not inherently driven to explore or be creative point to advice like this as ways to justify spending all day watching Netflix or posting on Instagram. Those things are easy and give some level of enjoyment, but they are ultimately empty and eventually result in deeper sadness.

Hardship is not the right word but struggle is. Struggle is not pleasant but leads to deeper satisfaction, and that’s what people mean when they talk about “hardship” as a virtue.

I am definitely on the side of “do the things you ultimately enjoy.”

If you don’t enjoy something, ask yourself if you really have to do it, and if you do, ask yourself how you can enjoy it more. And I say this as a dad who has changed hundreds of poopy diapers and resolved thousands of toddler requests and minor conflicts. Learning French is not “better” than watching TV. There are lots of pointless, impoverishing hard tasks and meaningful, enriching easy tasks. Any value judgments on struggle will make this harder to see.

Agreed. I was not trying to imply watching Netflix or doing heroin is the correct way to go about this. But I sorta implied the context of learning a new skill. Like the sibling-post to this indicated: it's about the reward mechanism. But all too often I see people struggling to do something and not really get any satisfaction out of it. The key to learning anything, for me at least, is that it has to be self-rewarding or at least be self-motivating. Just today I did some SMD soldering to try and fix my SO's old discarded Macbook Air, will it fail: probably. Is it hard? you bet ya. At least for me right now. But, I thought it was fun to learn and fiddle with it. I could just as well have decided to learn to play the Cello, or some other thing. Which would probably have been equally "hard", but not as enjoyable for me. And that's the thing I guess: find some heuristic or compass for things that make you go "hey, that would be fun to be able to do" and then push through it. The reward will be greater, and ultimately the energy spend will feel less. For me personally, I know I have very little energy in me. I get 2-3 hours of good concentration per day. Tops. Then it's back to solid sleep. I don't know how people can do hard things for 8 hours straight, but I know it's not for me. (tangentially I think most people can't, they just lie or goof off, and sleep deprivation/burn-out/depression is I think the biggest culprit in our modern society). So I've become very aware of the things I'd like to put my energy in. Like fiddling with electronics, machine learning, philosophy, or astrophotography. But I bet most people would find those things tedious and annoying. So it's up to you :-)

Ultimately this whole issue of "what action to perform for deepest satisfaction" comes down to the brain's reward system. Actually tangentially related to ML.

I am in the process of withdrawing from opiates that were prescribed for an injury. Over time I realized that my wear-withall to do hard and long term rewarding tasks was being degraded by the opiates. I still have pain but narcotics training my brains' reward system are so much worse than pain can be.

We all have seen movies and have that visceral image of the executive or city slicker who does hard drugs but still has drive to take care of their family, pay the bills, and do the hard things -- as if they lived in two worlds and were somehow hardened against mixing the pleasure rewards of drugs and the real rewards of life. Well it is pure bullshit. For only one reason if any: the brain physically changes..no matter how tough mentally a person is.

Ultimately, if one doesn't reinforce medium length promises of rewards and doesn't de-emphasize short term rewards like Netflix, drugs, and other consumables..then the brain has much larger of a reward gradient to scale..a steep cliff that is likely to require mental reserves that are likely to be exhausted, failing to push through. The only way to do long and hard tasks that have worthwhile rewards is to...train for them..by consistently going against the empty vapid consumption culture. It is just dopaminergic biology. Don't get used to easy and hollow pleasures. Because though day to day pleasure might be dictated by simple chemical concentrations of catecholamines, happiness is a complex thought..a function of memory and past effort... nothing easy gives real happiness. Only pleasure. And cheap pleasure is something we end up becoming stale and miserable over, wishing we hadn't reinforced our weakness to fleeting and short term, short sighted, moments of incredulity.

Happiness comes from knowing we did the hard things that went against our feeble reptilian neurological reward system. That we truly defeated easy and thoughtless inclination.


That's actually bad advise. Nothing worth learning will be finished learning before you run out of joy for it.

The best example from my experience is learning songs in a foreign language I'm studying. First you listen to a song you really enjoy and partly understand. Then you sit down and translate it. For most songs this will not just be tedious work, but also take out some of the joy of this song, because if you understand it you realize some of the text is outright stupid. That's normal.

Then you go and learn the song. That's not hollywood romantic stuff, with exciting background music and action heavy cutscenes. That is sitting down and repeating line 1 until you hate it. Then repeat it a few times more. Then do the same with line 2. Then do the same with the combination of lines 1 and 2. Then line 3. Then line 1+2+3. Then line 4. Then line 1+2+3+4, [...] then repeating line 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8 but sadly by doing that you completely forgot line 2 and you always reorder line 5 according to your mother language's grammar instead of the one used in the lyrics.

In the end, you really hate the song. And you sing it quite badly if you just spend time learning the lyrics and no time on the melody and composition of the whole thing. When you can really sing it for other people to enjoy listening, even the slightest bit of magic for it will be gone for you.

And only after you done this multiple times and you start to have a collection of songs, ready to apply to different circumenstances, able to apply the feelings of the moment for a unique interpretation of your own, then you will find joy in it again.

And I can promise you, if you can get to that point it doesn't really matter anymore if in the beginning it was something you enjoyed or not. You made it your own, and that is what is much more enjoyable.

I agree in principle that learning things can be tedious at times, but... learning, memory retention and reward system are very tightly integrated. It's almost laughably ineffective to learn despite pain, relative to learning with joy. You know there are people who could complete your song-memorizing ordeal in 1/10th of the time, not feeling any major frustration? Because most of the work is happening effortlessly, the song being sung in their heads on autopilot, reconstructing and optimizing?

I won't claim that toughing it out isn't worthy or that there always is a better way, however it seems clear that top performers in every field tend not to have to tough it out very much. This is unfair but not smart to ignore.

For an expert in the language I would agree with your statement. But language is a complex task, like juggling. And you don't start with throwing three balls up. You start with one, and then when you can handle it you add the second, etc. It's way more boring that way, but it greatly reduces the time needed to get to the more complex topics.

I would argue that someone around A2 level in a language (where most hobby learners are) will take 10x longer in learning a song, when applying the method proposed by you. And many people won't ever finish learning one song, because before they finish other topics, songs, activities become more interesting.

I'm sorry you had such a bad experience learning things. Really, that's probably the worst way to learn a language. Ideally language is acquired, not learned. It's a passive process governed by exposure, rather than repetition. http://www.utesinternationallounge.com/language-acquisition-...

But even with skills that do require solid spaced-repetition (like factoids, and probably only factoids) if you run out of joy: what even is the point. Maximize misery in life?

Please stop talking. It really hurts.

Personal attacks will get you banned on Hacker News. Please do not do this again, regardless of how annoyed you are by another comment.


I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. I do feel "Nothing worth learning will be finished learning before you run out of joy for it." is terrible advice and reinforces a believe that's non-congruent with my life experience. But that's my life, and your life is yours. I am trying to let your knee-jerk offensiveness slide, because you obviously feel strongly about the topic; but out of context it almost reads like a threat which I do not appreciate.

If you watch a dog happily run in front of a car it's empathy that hurts not your emotions.

Again with the offensiveness. I'm not sure why you're like this because you have not given any argument to your strong reactions, and are apparently judging me on a myriad of things (even equating me to a dog ffs) without even a shred of explanation. Fyi I live a happy life and am successful at what I do. I'm seriously beginning to doubt that for you; if so I do really hope you'll find happier times. That's what empathy is.

Exactly! I think the OP read a comment that was really just encouragement in the form of, “You may not understand any of this now, but any time and energy you put into learning more will be rewarded with greater understanding; good luck!” which was not meant to be pressury or judgmental or moralistic, and read his own meaning of “no pain no gain” into it.

In my own experience as both a young software developer and now as a more experienced leader, the work of learning isn’t unpleasant at all. Is it hard to find the motivation to learn at times? Certainly! But afterwards I’m never regretful because I feel as if I’ve gained a new superpower. I spent the last 3 months or so ramping up with a company working with half a dozen technologies I had no experience with, and today I feel capable enough at each of them that I could run the product myself without too many hiccups (though albeit at a much slower pace). The skill of learning is by far the most valuable in this field.

The main factor I've noticed having an impact on the enjoyability of learning is: do I feel I have to learn the thing, or am I just choosing to?

It seems like the unpleasantness emerges from anxiety about potential failure to learn the material. If you don't actually need to (not just in terms of external things, but personally, too), then there is no need to fear failure.

The more necessary it is to learn the thing and the more uncertain you are of your capability of doing so, the more unpleasant it's going to be.

Yet your anecdote is within a domain you are already familiar with and strong in. Rather, it depends on the difficulty and the how far the material is from your comfort zone. Never studied math? Take on the state of art in AI research. Never played the piano? Learn a Chopin ballade. Never read much? Consume the cannon of a Joyce or James.

Extreme examples, yet I believe it applies to formidable gaps within fields too, knowing a number of PhDs and what they went through: learning things that are both outside of your comfort zone and considered difficult will almost certainly require a significant amount of discipline and head-banging.

I agree, and I’d add that I find learning to be like any other activity, in that practice makes me better at it. I’m also not infrequently surprised by connections to “useless” learned material that only crops up months or years later. As far as motivation, I think practice helps too; you get used to gathering yourself and pushing forward or you get used to giving up, and I prefer pushing on.

I also just enjoy learning, I love making new connections and synthesis of existing knowledge with new information.

> If you want to learn, you have to try harder.

Rather than learning being pointless, I would focus on this.

In a world of instant gratification we are fed the idea that if learning isn't fun and easy, then you are teaching wrong. Granted, a lot of material can be optimised, but I concur that people should expect to have to make a bigger effort once you pass the superficial stage.

That's the problem that I've always had with the "learning should be fun" slogan. Yes, a lot of teaching isn't well done and ideally it would be a lot more individualized. But learning a topic to any real depth is also a lot of work which is absolutely not going to be "fun," at least as the term is usually used, all the time.

I have always questioned claims that “learning should be fun” for many reasons, but I think it would be a fallacy to think learning cannot be fun. The exception I experience regularly involves curiosity. When I am curious about something, learning it is usually fun. But, this is a fairly personal process. I’m not sure it can be inherently encouraged through teaching methods. The Socratic method seems to reflect this notion but is more a useful tool for guidance than for exciting curiosity.

I still remind myself regularly that learning without the push of curiosity is necessary, and a path to that next burst of curiosity.

Oh learning can absolutely be fun (and exciting etc.) And some types of learning activities can be genuinely fun in the playing a game sense of the word. I just think that there’s a problem with the mindset that if you aren’t loving every minute you’re learning there’s something wrong.

I also enjoy writing. I can also assure you that looming deadlines are not fun by reasonable definitions of the word :-)

>Oh learning can absolutely be fun (and exciting etc.) And some types of learning activities can be genuinely fun in the playing a game sense of the word. I just think that there’s a problem with the mindset that if you aren’t loving every minute you’re learning there’s something wrong.

Spot on, IMO. That mindset is encouraged or aggravated by kind of e-learning startups that seem to want to kidify / gamify / dumbify all their content. I've had interactions with some of them when they approached me for partnerships of some kind, or for content creation, often in Python. Have had to say no to some of them due to that mindset, which I do not think is good for either the students or the instructors / companies providing the instruction, from both a pedagogical and a business (profit) point of view.

Like I said, “I think it would be a fallacy to think learning cannot be fun.“

I believe that it may be more useful to figure out what makes learning “not fun” than to try to find ways to make it “fun”.

For me, this largely boils down to whether the subject is being taught within an applicable context or not – for instance, I find it quite dry and unfun to try to learn CS concepts for their own sake, whereas if I’m learning them because they’re needed for my current project they’re quite interesting.

This varies from person to person but my impression is that many people are like myself in this aspect.

You are on to something. Learning is incompatible with instant gratification mass consumer society. I was just at udemy event and online learning is shifting from gamification to social activity. And there is new research behind this that studied decade of online learning services and students at universities and private companies.

In short personal small projects and big group projects good. Campaign learning and just reading PDFs bad.

But big shock is that group learning with clear goal is so effective it dwarfs every other method. One graph showed like 5 to 1 better retention then gamified or solo learning.

When I was teaching English in a Japanese high school the other teachers often took the approach of "This is not going to be fun, but you have to apply yourself in order to get the rewards later on." In my own study of Japanese, I found that I really enjoyed learning -- which was diametrically opposed to my experience of "learning" French when I went to school. 13 years of classes and I still can't speak French. In contrast, I did complete self of Japanese and I'm totally functional in normal Japanese society.

Often the teachers would ask me to make an entertaining class, but I eventually decided that the fun of learning would be at least 10x better than any entertainment I could provide. At about the same time I was working with a teacher who urged me to start giving out surveys to my students to find out what they enjoyed most in my classes. Even I was surprised to find that my daily quiz was the most popular element by a huge margin.

I completely restructured my classes so that students had much more opportunity to apply their learning, rather than focusing on shovelling an endless stream of content into their heads. I think it's that realisation that you went from not knowing something, to understanding it and being able to use it easily that's fun.

Yes, as you get more advanced, there is considerably more grind, but I think if you build techniques to enjoy the process you are going to have much more success. Especially for languages, it's going to take a long time and you have to be consistent. If you are just grinding it out and pushing yourself every day, I think it will be very difficult to make any significant progress.

One of the things that I found illuminating was that the satisfaction of my students (as measured by my surveys) pretty much mirrored their performance. The better the average class grade, the more satisfied the students. This is all anecdotal, but at least for me it made up my mind that there is a relationship. All kinds of success is fun and learning is a kind of success.

Edit: I should point out that there is nothing conceptually difficult in language learning -- even exceptionally stupid people are fluent in at least one language. So the above may not apply to something that is really difficult as opposed to really big.

I hated math in high school. Sitting in that desk with an overhead projector and a textbook was torture. I never groked basic trig, just memorised. And then a few years ago I made a dumb little space shooter video game. The trig clicked and I was instantly in love. And then came vectors and I was even more in love. It's left me yearning for the free time to go back to school and very angry about all that missed opportunity in high school.

I've wept at the reflection of how awful math class was, and how amazing it could have been.

I used to think that home schooling was a travesty, but now that I can reflect on how useless school was, maybe it isn’t so bad after all. The #1 most useful piece of all my pre-university schooling was the socializing. Academics were consistently subpar

Agreed. I've always felt that K-8 is basically, "learn social skills and while we're here, learn the basics." High school is more about learning pre-college skills, learning skills, study skills, discipline, and how to survive puberty.

> In my own study of Japanese, I found that I really enjoyed learning

I've been learning Thai for a few months. Realistically, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to use it but it doesn't matter as the mere process of learning is enjoyable. I commit myself to 30 min of focused work each day. I've noticed that it helps me relax and clear my mind (especially writing).

An excellent point. See also The Case Against Education: https://jakeseliger.com/2018/03/12/the-case-against-educatio....

I'll also observe that many fields have an unpleasant introductory learning curve in which one must memorize lots of random-seeming and unpleasant things, before one can operate fluidly in that field and do anything interesting.

That's sort of the opposite of the original author's statement: "Learning is fun, but often as it happens, the fun parts start drying up as you delve deep," but it may be that there are un-fun parts on both sides of the curve, so to speak.

Yeah, in a lot of technical fields in particular--especially early on--you just have to take a lot of facts as given, memorize formulas, etc. because you just don't have the background in that subject or related subjects to understand the underlying mechanisms or derive equations from fundamental principles. For example, as I recall high school physics, you memorized a lot of formulas because most students wouldn't have the calculus background to derive them.

I'm not sure what I think of this article though. I read what he's saying as along the lines of a lot of people who find essentially pop science about some subject interesting would find developing true expertise about the topic a real slog. That's doubtless true but there are relatively few things that any of us have the time or interest to go deep on.

Thinking here about programming language acquisition. Some languages are harder to learn, and it's not necessarily directly related to the complexity of the language. It is harder to learn Rust than C++, but Rust is simpler - it's just that Rust key concepts have to be internalized earlier (e.g. C++ copies its way out of sticky situations by default and assumes that humans can do their own borrow checking). Python is by no means a simple language but the basic dialect is straightforward and learners get a sense of power early. As a tweet put it about the idea of Rust as a first language for CS students: "Learning curve too steep, no euphoria"

I know I'm learning when I get this feeling like.. mental pain. Still, its a brilliant thing to do consistently.

Eg. Running is pointless, you're not running away from a predator, or a foot-messenger delivering a message or anything; but you are maintaining your health, fitness and quality of life.

The paradox of the experience of learning is that I feel drained and unintelligent when I'm actually going through the work to understand something new. It's only some time after I start really understanding something that I also feel the mental expansion from the new skills I've acquired. If I wanted to feel knowledgable all the time, I'd be better off not trying to learn new things other than what I acquire incidentally around my already-honed skills. I've experienced this cycle enough times to know that I should keep going even when I feel worn down. I agree that it's a lot like physical exercise -- it brings tremendous benefits, but it's also unpleasant enough in the moment that it's hard to act in your own best long term interests.

The complement to this is that after you've learned something it is easy to forget the pain you went through. Empathy can be a powerful tool for pedagogy. If your learner can see that you understand the struggle they are going through it can help remove a layer of shame and self-doubt. If, on the other hand, an educator regularly calls things easy, basic, trivial, or simple (or worse demeans someone for not understanding) the lack of empathy will be apparent and learning will be impeded. One thing Sal Khan has said is that video lessons are uniquely effective because there is no chance the educator will become frustrated with the learner even if they need to repeat the lesson a dozen times. In person and in our writings it can be hard to remember the struggle, but it can be one of the most helpful things we do as we train someone new to any task or concept.

I think there's an inverse to be wary of here. If you keep talking about how difficult something is, and tell someone how this is really complicated, their expectation can shut them down to understanding something that really is as simple as it sounds.

So, two points:

First of all, clickbaity title as he says it might be "pointless".

Secondly he is talking about topology. I find it to be a very hard subject. If you pick up most topology books you will find an area of math that most people have never really been prepared for and the books themselves start with some concepts that are very abstract. Now depending on what you are interested in, Topology can provide many insights into the shapes and constructions of spaces. Things like metric topology tie into how vector spaces are constructed. Things like n-dimensional manifolds can be related to aspects of machine learning.

I recommend The Teaching Company’s Shape of Nature videos for learning some general ideas about topology.

Just a disclaimer, I am not a mathematician, so I might be off on some my perceptions. Also no pun intended on pointless.

> Learning new things can be exhilarating, but it can get tough, and unpleasant, too. Explanations can be dumbed down, but the effort involved to grow further is unavoidable.

Anything rewarding demands something from you, otherwise it wouldn't be rewarding. Pain, discomfort, and adversity are good for the soul. If you want instantaneous gratification without sweat, do heroin or play video games.

> If you want instantaneous gratification without sweat, do heroin or play video games.

I'm not sure heroin offers a sweat-free experience ….

Well yes, and it's exactly the same for video games, which almost always are about making the player overcome obstacles to achieve rewards.

I'm not sure about heroin, but there's a bit of an obstacle in getting that into one's system too, no? And then usually in getting additional funds to acquire the next fix?

Life is a struggle.

> Well yes, and it's exactly the same for video games, which almost always are about making the player overcome obstacles to achieve rewards.

Video games are about creating the perception of challenge and the perception of reward, both of which are calibrated to maximize user engagement and enjoyment. I don't dislike games as a form of entertainment, but let's not pretend they're in any way an analogue of real life.

Is there a difference between perception of challenge and a challenge? Either way, I do think that some video games are challenging. On the other hand, some games, particularly freemium mobile games really do just hijack your brain.

I don’t think the reward from heroin is in any way related to the struggle of aquiring it, whereas the reward from the other examples largely comes from overcoming the struggle.

Like exercise. It's hard, unpleasant while you do it, exhausting, and ultimately pointless. That's not an argument against either exercise or learning though.

(Oh, and it feels great afterwards.)

I would take a pill that will take care of your muscles in background any day when it's offered.

I.e. why does it even have to require input from my side? You don't have to train your peristaltics, why are other muscles different? I guess it just boils to a mutation 100 thousands years ago which decreased default muscle power to save on energy, we could roll that back, get extra colories burned as a bonus.

Animals don't work out. They also don't push the envelope every day.

Animals constantly 'work out'. If you've ever had an indoor cat they seen as generally one of the lazier creatures but they will every once in a while just spaz out and start bouncing off the walls. It's not just for fun - it's an instinct that helps keep them in shape. It's the same for all animals. They will constantly work out. It looks like play, but it serves a valuable purpose -- somewhat like how young predators will regularly play fight with each other. That's not just for fun.

Evolution and life is primarily an optimization game. And our bodies are product of that. When we do things, we tend to become better at them. When we don't do things, we tend to lose our ability to do them well, hopefully in lieu of new focuses. Even the brain works this way - as becomes readily apparent when you age and can see in your acquaintances who continues to work with their brain, and who instead spends their time watching television and imbibing.

Not really. Cats do "spaz out" episodically but a typical human with the same amount of exercise would probably be a flabby sack of fat with cardiovascular issues. The activity isn't predictive of the rate of muscle atrophy to the same degree across species, because loss of muscle is mediated by a specific, variably effective biochemical cascade and is not a consequence of inactivity per se. Similarly, loss of memories or cognitive skills is an active process that may have negligible speed even without much utilization.

But I'm nitpicking.

One just has to look at Chimpanzees or Gorillas to know that this is true. I suspect that it stops being a signal of sexual fitness though once it becomes effortless, and therefore worthless.

Speak to yourself. Lifting weights and running are few of the most enjoyable things out there.

No wonder you don't enjoy exercising if you frame it as 'ultimately pointless'. You need to change your internal dialogue.

Things that people enjoy are incredibly subjective and condescension towards people who don't enjoy the same things as you do isn't going to change that. If exercising were truly at the top most enjoyable things for everyone then we would not have an obesity crisis.

OP points out how pointless exercising is however I'm the one being condescending? Anyone can change if they are hurting enough or find the future outcome alluring to work towards it.

> If exercising were truly at the top most enjoyable things for everyone then we would not have an obesity crisis.

Exercising itself has little to do with obesity. It all comes down to eating healthy and restricting your caloric intake.

Healthy food is cheap af when you prepare it yourself and don't buy into every trend. You don't even have to exercise if you don't want to but obviously it's good for your overall health and mind.

Much like learning anything else, physical exercise seems pointless and unnecessarily difficult at first. Once you start to put things together, understand the way your body works, and see yourself make progress over time, it becomes fun! I've gone through that process myself, and I remember when exercise was a chore. It's unfortunate there isn't an effective way to communicate this to people who haven't been through it, because life on the other side is just so much better.

I've been working out on and off for 10 years, had a climbing gym membership for six months, and run with a dog most weeks. I have never ever stopped absolutely dreading every moment of exercise and I have never looked forward to it ever. I fucking hate it and I have always fucking hated it, and if the current trend continues, I will continue to fucking hate it. I now run 4 miles, 4 times a week and I fucking hate it. How many decades before it becomes enjoyable?

It will never just "become enjoyable". What may happen, if you open your mind to it, is you might realize that the discomfort you feel (which is different from pain! if you feel a lot of pain, get it checked out) is just a question from your body. It's asking you, do I really need to do this? Because animals have evolved to conserve energy whenever possible. If you can learn to mentally answer your body, yes, this is something we need to do on a regular basis, you'll learn to move past the agonizing over discomfiture. With time, you'll realize discomfort isn't a useful factor when it comes to exercise (although, again, pain is). As you discount it towards zero, you'll be able to focus on other things when you exercise (how's my body doing? what's my effort level? am I going faster than yesterday? what about that project at work? what's the meaning of life?). It may start to help you think, and you'll start to improve (that hill used to be tough, but now it's a piece of cake!). With time, you may look forward to exercising.

It's a process you need to work at, but it will enrich your life in so many ways if you can get past that tricky mental hurdle. I truly hope you do!

Probably until about 6 months before your knees finally give out. Have you considered eating cake on the beach instead? It will probably only shorten your life by around the same amount of time that you spend running.

You have no idea how much I've considered it. I walk through the bakery section while grocery shopping sometimes and fantasize about eating ALL of it. Even the cheap store brand stuff looks SO GOOD.

In terms of health and longevity, I suspect the vast majority of the benefit is in just not being sedentary and not eating all of the cake. Nearly all of the very old people I know have had the habit of taking long walks, but I cannot think of any who were athletes.

How can you not have fun running with a dog?

Mine can keep up with me on a bike so on foot I constantly throw sticks to him and make him swim while I run in the opposite direction.

Also, maybe try THC I hear it brings on the runners high immediately.

I feel exercise and practicing. usic are both very, very simikar. In the beginning they both really, really, really suck. You have no endurance so exercise is literally painful and it feels like you cant run anywhere or lift anything. playing an instrument in the beginning sucks because you have no ability so practice is awful and your music sounds like garbage.

Once you have at least some ability practice amd exercise isnt nearly so bad befcause it doesn’t feel like a waste of time.

In "Peak" by Anders Ericsson, he alludes to a few principles that makes learning into deliberate practice: setting small goals, getting expert feedback, focusing and removing distractions, and being somewhat discomforted. This article is familiar to that last point. To get the most out of learning, according to Ericsson, you should be in the 'yellow zone': not where you feel comfortable and easy, but also not reaching fight-flight-freeze mode either.

Getting in depth with a subject is painful. And its easy to waste time and effort. But it can be less painful if you're smart about it.

If you're tracking your progress, and you're aware what that next 5% looks like, that's much easier than trying to go for 100% each time. Getting feedback is critical too, and having that person help you set short, challenging but achievable goals makes a big difference so you aren't moving too quickly or slowly. Having peers who you can relate with and socialize your challenges with makes motivation easier. And you really need to set a time and place on a recurring basis, where the physical environment sets you up to be successful.

Disclaimer: I'm working on sagefy.org

“Ownership not as a percentage of equity, but as a measure of your ability to change things for the better.”

This is wishful thinking. This is how you wish the world was, and, as a child, you demand it to be so.

Such a small article about such a big topic. Yes, real learning takes a lot of time and energy. You might think that solving problem X, really solving it, might be done after a few hours. And in the end, after you really done it, you realize you spend two years.

However, that doesn't mean it's worthless, or that you should apply it to stuff that doesn't matter (like the math of t-shirt turning). If you do that it's really a waste of time.

But there are endeavours that are totally worth it. For instance really spending the time to learn the movements of quick folding t-shirts might bring more order to your life, increase your dressing and save quite some time over the years. And there are other endeavours that are really, really profitable. For instance learning another language well enough to read good books in it. It will not add +X value to your life, it will add another dimension. Think about turning a 2D person from plane world into a 3D person. How much more vast would his understanding of the world be? While the price of learning that much of another language might be incredibly high, the value is even higher.

So, how do you discover these profitable learning experiences? By looking at all the Cool New Stuff that all the kids are learning, figuring out what is the "magic ingredient" that enables everybody to just get the job done without learning this one skill that is a lot of work, seemingly has not many benefits, that everybody in the industry should know but for some reason most people don't know. And then, instead of using the Cool New Stuff you go and learn that basic skill. You will be surprised that in the end, when you really mastered that one skill, you are not just able to handle all the Cool New Stuff of the next 10-500 years, you won't even need it to solve your problems.

In writing that might be learning all the different words and applications, grammar and punctuation. In software development that usually means studying ascepts of unix (parallel processing, package management, data storage, text processing, binary processing). In business that means learning balancing the books and taxes. In soccer that means shooting straight curves, basic stamina, dribbling.

You will be surprised how many partners and competitors you will beat just with mastering these boring basic skills.

If I'm viewing learning as pointless, I'm forgetting about how learning anything is a practice in learning how to learn.

The need to learn how to learn is so important and poorly taught in society. There's a great online course on the subject here:


This is very true. When I was in grad school I made a group to teach data vis to grad students. The distribution of learning, in retrospect, was super lopsided: almost everyone who did our activities wasted their time; a handful became obsessed and are now professionals who use those skills and many others constantly.

Am I the only one who found the referenced essay by Isaac Asimov on creativity much more interesting than the article? It seems like that essay deserves a HN thread of its own!

The first thing that came to my mind after reading the post was this book -

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner

The second thing was - he used "cul-de-sac" instead of "dead end" :)

You turn a T-shirt inside out the same way you do a plastic bag. The fact that there are a few extra holes makes no difference. I suppose someone could bring a whole lot of fancy mathematical thinking to this, but why?

Math and physics are hard[0], but the rest of stuff is fairly easy. You can infer 80% from logic and experience, start learning from a high base. In any area.

[0] so you should avoid trying to reinvent the wheel here

Ah. That explains the beautiful explanations given time and again on HN, where somebody utterly clueless derives a field from first principles, and proceeds to make an utter fool of themselves.

No, you cannot infer 80% from logic and experience. It might look that way, but mostly you'll be hopelessly wrong and and entertainment for anybody working in that field.

Do the hard work, or be a clown. In any field.

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