Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Someday it might be important

with 2 comments

You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready?

—David Mamet, Spartan

When you’re raising a toddler who can’t wait to exercise her little legs, it can be hard to teach her to stop when you say so. If you’re anything like me, you find yourself shouting “Stop!” when she gets within fifteen feet of the curb, even if there aren’t any cars for miles. The trouble is that you end up repeating yourself so often that any particular instance doesn’t carry any weight. (I’ve since learned that I get a faster response when I say “Freeze,” which is what her coach says to her at gym class.) About a year ago, when my daughter consistently refused to listen to me, I tried to explain why it mattered. There wasn’t any danger now, but if there were, there wouldn’t be any time to talk about it, so she had to get used to doing what I said—which is the same logic, I gather, that underlies much of basic training. In a lot of ways, it’s the best reason why we should try to teach our kids to obey at all. Nine out of ten times, it doesn’t really make a difference, but the tenth time, or the hundredth, it might. This obviously applies to issues of safety, but also to social behavior. I tell Beatrix, truthfully, that she can’t make me like her any less, but that may not be true of everyone, so she might as well practice being nice to me. I provide a rationale whenever I can, but I also try to make the case that she needs to do what I say immediately, and that we can discuss the reasoning later. It doesn’t always work, and like every parent, I often find myself laying down arbitrary rules. But as I’ve said to Beatrix more than once: “Someday it might be important.”

And for whatever reason, the notion has stuck with me. We spend most of our lives preparing for a future test or trial, and we don’t know in advance what it will be. Thomas Henry Huxley once said:

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and, however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.

He’s right, of course. But it’s even better to do the thing you have to do before it ought to be done. Education itself is a kind of guess about what we think will be useful down the line, and it’s almost never valuable in the moment. (If it is, it isn’t education, but on-the-job training, which is a very different concept.) In many cases, it never becomes applicable at all. It’s often been said that a liberal education is more about learning how to think than about mastering a particular body of information, which is true enough. But it’s also a justification, imposed retroactively, for the fact that we have little idea what a particular human being will need to know. This is even true for fields outside the liberal arts, which is how we get such dubious screening methods as the whiteboard interview, which is a sort of ritual performance that has nothing in common with how coding actually works. If we knew what we needed, we’d test for it. But we don’t.

As a result, much of life comes down to a series of judgment calls about how best to prepare for whatever might be coming. You could even say that this is why most of us prefer to work for money, which can be stockpiled and exchanged for future needs that we can’t predict. Money is useful because it partially absolves us of having to foresee everything. A surprising number of issues can be resolved by throwing money at the problem, and if you’ve ever thought about stocking a survival retreat, even as a daydream, you know how difficult it can be to anticipate your needs for even a year in the future. But it’s also a choice that we make constantly when it comes to the information we acquire. Some of this material we can safely outsource, and there’s no particular reason to stock our brains with facts, like how to get the length of a Python string, that we can always look up when necessary. As Indiana Jones’s dad once said, I write it down so I don’t have to remember it. (You’ll occasionally hear arguments in favor of rote memorization as an educational tool, but its value seems to lie mostly in giving students something to do while they mature in other ways, and there are probably better uses of that time.) But some forms of knowledge need to be internalized, and it can be hard to know how best to allocate our limited energies. I was going to say that it never hurts to learn how to write, but you probably shouldn’t trust me. Anyone who gives you advice in print presumably thinks that writing is important, and maybe we should pay more attention to those who don’t write down what they have to teach us.

And a lot of it comes down to whose advice you’re willing to take. When it came to choosing a college major, I depended on a piece of advice that seems pretty shaky in retrospect. More recently, I spent a month doing CrossFit, mostly because a studio had opened a block away from my house, and its pitch comes down to the idea that someday it might be important. As its official description states:

Overall, the aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness supported by measurable, observable and repeatable results. The program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too. Our specialty is not specializing.

The premise of CrossFit—which, incidentally, is obsessed with whiteboards—is that you’re subjecting yourself to pain in the present to avoid a moment of regret later on, when you’re stuck, say, in a burning car. I respect that, but I also quit after a few weeks, after deciding that its expected value wasn’t high enough to justify it. Maybe I’ll be sorry later. But risk, by definition, is predictable in the aggregate and utterly unforeseeable for any one individual, and it rarely takes the form for which we’ve been practicing. Some of our hunches on the subject are better than others, and it makes sense to prepare for risk in a way that enhances the present. (As I’ve pointed out before, the consolation prize for failing to become an astronaut is a really good job.) But you never know. And when I tell my daughter that this might all be important one day, I’m really talking to myself.

Written by nevalalee

March 10, 2017 at 9:23 am

2 Responses

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  1. Memorisation is crucial because you can’t put the pieces together in new and interesting ways if you don’t have them in your head. Even rote memorisation is valuable because it reduces cognitive load. A good example is times tables. If you ‘just know’ them, you can do far more maths in your head than if you have to work them out as part of a bigger calculation. If you have memorised them by rote, your brain just inserts ’54’ when you think ‘9 x 6’ and you can use your real thinking for the tougher problem of which 9 x 6 is just a component.


    March 10, 2017 at 11:51 pm

  2. @Darren: I think it comes down to a distinction between rote memorization and access to information. To take a personal example, I can’t say that I’ve “memorized” the dates and data for the Campbell book, although I’ve certainly internalized a lot of it, and I’ve spent enough time with the material to recognize connections when they arise—even if I often need to look up the exact details.


    March 27, 2017 at 10:18 am

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