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Too Clever By Half: Don’t Become So Smart That You Forget the Blindingly Obvious

“I decide to continue my own study of human behavior in the Mensan game room, which is down the hall in something called the Verrazano Room. Here I find an impressive stack of games: Scrabble, Boggle, Taboo. You name it, they got it. I watch a game where a gray-haired man is trying to get his teammates to guess a word.

“It’s a space between two things,” he says.

“Interstitial!” shouts a woman.

“No,” he says. “A space between two things.” “Interstices!” she tries again.

“Interstitial! Interstices!” “No!” he says.

Time’s up. The word was “gap.” This makes me happy for some reason. This woman is throwing out foursyllable Latinate words, and the answer is the beautifully simple “gap.” Some people, I conclude, try way too hard to be smart.”

[Amazon | The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World | A. J. Jacobs | General]

There’s a lot to this AJATT site. And I’m beginning to agree with Matt: if you want to truly understand it, you need to read it all. You need to digest it all.

At the same time, in all our timeboxing, our critical frequency-ing, our multiplexing, our MCDing, with all these hacks, it’s easy to become like an over-sophisticated investor.

What do I mean?

Just this.

One gets lost in so much talk of hedging and spreads and IRAs and tax deferment and margin of safety and supports and resistance and legs and breakouts and earnings per share and return on capital and implied volatility and so much other stuff that we’re not even going to get into, that one can forget the simplest, most fundamental truths:

The point of investing is to take out more money than you put in.

The point of budgeting is to spend less than you have (or make more than you spend, take your pick).

That’s literally it. Everything else is far king decoration. And if you’re not doing these two things (which are arguably really just one thing), if you’re not producing a positive balance over time, then it literally doesn’t matter what you do; you’re literally better off doing nothing.

If you’re going to pull a Niederhoffer and blow up, losing all the money you made plus all the money you had and then some — twice! — then you might as well go and…I dunno, go try to get aroused by Jenna Jameson (who is very attractive and no doubt a nice person, but never quite hit my sweet spot; she’s so “normal-looking” that I can’t…like, for me, the girl has to either be or act weird, like Ann Coulter, who was saying mean things almost two decades before it was cool), because it’s an equally valid use of your time.

A child’s lemonade stand might literally be more profitable than you, and thus, dollar for dollar, a better investment of your time and money, if all your erudition and sophistication doesn’t lead to profit. Even panhandling might have a better ROIthis isn’t even conjecture: panhandlers make bank, although many if not most are also drug addicts, so…it’s a bit of a wash — having said that, they’re playing the game tax-free, using all OPM and no leverage, so, they still kinda “win” 😉 .. These are extreme examples, but no less correct for their extremity.

Now, what does all this speculating and panhandling and lusting after womenfolk have to do with getting used to Japanese, or any other language?

Just this.

In all your cleverness, in all your strategizing, in all your thinking, in all your scheming, in all your Wile E. Coyote-ing, don’t forget that, when it all comes down to it, at bottom, you still literally just need to come into massive contact with the language. And if you don’t do that, then all your efforts are for naught.

In other words: don’t get so clever at investing that you forget to not lose money. This is why online fora (forums? no love for them Latin plurals, eh? lol) be so bad for ya: it’s painfully easy to talk so much about Japanese that Japanese herself gets neglected; it’s too easy to become the local priestspending so much time fixing other people’s families that you neglect your own.

Here’s the thing.

Japanese people are not better than you. Japanese people are not smarter than you. Japanese people aren’t even (necessarily) more Japanese than you.

But guess what? It goes both ways.

You are not better than Japanese people. You are not smarter than Japanese people. You are not (yet) more Japanese than Japanese people.

“Omnes legum servi sumus ut libere esse possimus” (We are all slaves to the law so that we may all be free.)
Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Art is a vast democracy of habit”
Twyla Tharp

Learning is a democracy of practice. We are all free to learn whatever we want to learn. But our collective and individual freedom is, ironically, built upon our collective and individual slavery. We are all slaves to the laws of practice. We are all slaves to the law of language exposure. This law is brutal; it is primal; it is some Hammurabi Code-level shiz. It must be obeyed. It punishes anyone and everyone who violates it — no questions, no exceptions, no shades of grey, no special pleading, no sentencing guidelines, no parole.

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
John Broadus Watson

This is the law. If you do not come into contact with Japanese, you will not get used to it. If you stop coming into contact with Japanese, you will stop getting used to it. And if you are not used to something, you are, by definition, not good at it. This law is true for you; it’s true for me; and it’s true for every person on Earth, no matter the blood or tongue of their ancestors. Wapende wasipende.

Back in high school, my last and best English teacher, a lovely man with a terrible drinking problem, called me an iconoclast. And I’ve worn that label proudly in the years ever since. But you know what? I’m not really an iconoclast. What I mean is, I’m not an iconoclast for the sake of being an iconoclast. In many ways, I am deeply — and I mean deeply — conservative, almost to a fault. I only rail against schools because they disobey all the laws of learning. Like my namesake Katsumoto from The Last Samurai, I rebel for the emperor. I rebel for the laws of learning, not against them.

Unlike Katsumoto, however, I have zero heroic impulses. Unlike Katsumoto, I would totally sell out for fun and profit (gotta be both though) lol. As I loved to joke as a teenager: I am a man of my principles! I cannot be bought!…But I can be rented… 😉

Again, the point of investing is to take out more money than you put in. And in order to do that, you need to, first and foremost, not lose your money. In a similar vein, the trick to learning Japanese is to know more Japanese today than you did yesterday. And in order to do that, you need not lose — i.e. not forget — the Japanese you already know.

Now, we do allow some losses. Some trades/investments go south. And SRS allows us to, statistically, forget some things in order to remember more of everything. Indeed, trying to be totally perfect can prevent us from doing anything at all; it slows us down and limits us too much. Perfectionism is a druuuhg and that makes it baaaad, mmmkaaay? Seriously, though, performancewise, being a perfectionist is just as bad as being a pothead.

Failure is not only permissible for success, it is essential. But this success-producing failure must needs be cheap, never catastrophic. Thus, the overall trend we want to be in is one of not losing the plot, of not allowing mistakes of the blindingly obvious variety to be made, repeated or compounded.

How do you raise a kid? Well, first, you keep them alive. You prevent them from dying. Everything starts there. It’s all about the basics; it always comes back to the basics. The rest is details. There is not a single femtosecond in the life of a parent where keeping the child alive is not important. There’s certainly more to parenting than preventing death, but none of it negates the basics; none of it can even happen without the basics; you can’t boost your kid’s confidence if you don’t keep him alive first.Arguably, all child-rearing is death prevention: you prevent their bodies from dying, then you prevent their minds from dying and finally you prevent their souls (here “soul” = happiness, innocence and sense of wonder) from dying. As a childfree man, my child-rearing ideas are pleasantly abstract, unburdened by the clutter of actual experience, so take it all with many grains of salt 😉 .

Have fun. Be smart. Be intelligently lazy. Be mischievous. Be scrappy. Be a maverick. Be a trickster god. Be Loki. Be Bugs Bunny. Be clever.

But not too clever.

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