Category: Learning

Why You Should Practice Failure

We learn valuable lessons when we experience failure and setbacks. Most of us wait for those failures to happen to us, however, instead of seeking them out. But deliberately making mistakes can give us the knowledge we need to more easily overcome obstacles in the future.

We learn from our mistakes. When we screw up and fail, we learn how not to handle things. We learn what not to do.

Failing is a byproduct of trying to succeed. We do our research, make our plans, get the necessary ingredients, and try to put it all together. Often, things don’t go as we wish. If we’re smart, we reflect on what happened and make note of where we could do better next time.

But how many of us make deliberate mistakes? How often do we try to fail in order to learn from it?

If we want to avoid costly mistakes in the future when the stakes are high, then making some now might be excellent preparation.

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Practicing failure is a common practice for pilots. In 1932, at the dawn of the aviation age, Amelia Earhart described the value for all pilots of learning through deliberate mistakes. “The fundamental stunts taught to students are slips, stalls, and spins,” she says in her autobiography The Fun of It. “A knowledge of some stunts is judged necessary to good flying. Unless a pilot has actually recovered from a stall, has actually put his plane into a spin and brought it out, he cannot know accurately what those acts entail. He should be familiar enough with abnormal positions of his craft to recover without having to think how.

For a pilot, stunting is a skill attained through practice. You go up in a plane and, for example, you change the angle of the wings to deliberately stall the craft. You prepare beforehand by learning what a stall is, what the critical variables you have to pay attention to are, and how other pilots address stalls. You learn the optimal response. But then you go up in the air and actually apply your knowledge. What’s easy and obvious on the ground, when you’re under little pressure, isn’t guaranteed to come to you when your plane loses lift and function at 10,000 feet. Deliberately stalling your plane, making a conscientious mistake when you have prepared to deal with it, gives you the experience to react when a stall happens in a less controlled situation.

The first time your plane unexpectedly stops working in mid-flight is scary for any pilot. But those who have practiced in similar situations are far more likely to react appropriately. “An individual’s life on the ground or in the air may depend on a split second,” Earhart writes. “The slow response which results from seldom, if ever, having accomplished the combination of acts required in a given circumstance may be the deciding factor.” You don’t want the first stall to come at night in poor weather when you have your family in the cabin. Much better to practice stalling in a variety of situations ahead of time—that way, when one happens unexpectedly, your reactions can be guided by successful experience and not panic.

Earhart advises that in advance, the solution to many problems can be worked out on paper, “but only experience counts when there is no time to think a process through. The pilot who hasn’t stalled a plane is less likely to be able to judge correctly the time and space necessary for recovery than one who has.

If you practice failing every so often, you increase your flexibility and adaptability when life throws obstacles in your way. Of course, no amount of preparation will get you through all possible challenges, and Earhart’s own story is the best example of that. But making deliberate mistakes in order to learn from them is one way to give ourselves optionality when our metaphorical engine stops in midair.

If we don’t practice failing, we can only safely fly on sunny days.

We Are What We Remember

Memory is an intrinsic part of our life experience. It is critical for learning, and without memories we would have no sense of self. Understanding why some memories stick better than others, as well as accepting their fluidity, helps us reduce conflict and better appreciate just how much our memories impact our lives.

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“Which of our memories are true and which are not is something we may never know. It doesn’t change who we are.”

Memories can be so vivid. Let’s say you are spending time with your sibling and reflecting on your past when suddenly a memory pops up. Even though it’s about events that occurred twenty years ago, it seems like it happened yesterday. The sounds and smells pop into your mind. You remember what you were wearing, the color of the flowers on the table. You chuckle and share your memory with your sibling. But they stare at you and say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” What?

Memory discrepancies happen all the time, but we have a hard time accepting that our memories are rarely accurate. Because we’ve been conditioned to think of our memories like video recordings or data stored in the cloud, we assert that our rememberings are the correct ones. Anyone who remembers the situation differently must be wrong.

Memories are never an exact representation of a moment in the past. They are not copied with perfect fidelity, and they change over time. Some of our memories may not even be ours, but rather something we saw in a film or a story someone else told to us. We mix and combine memories, especially older ones, all the time. It can be hard to accept the malleable nature of memories and the fact that they are not just sitting in our brains waiting to be retrieved. In Adventures in Memory, writer Hilde Østby and neuropsychologist Ylva Østby present a fascinating journey through all aspects of memory. Their stories and investigations provide great insight into how memory works; and how our capacity for memory is an integral part of the human condition, and how a better understanding of memory helps us avoid the conflicts we create when we insist that what we remember is right.

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Memory and learning

“One thing that aging doesn’t diminish is the wisdom we have accumulated over a lifetime.”

Our memories, dynamic and changing though they may be, are with us for the duration of our lives. Unless you’ve experienced brain trauma, you learn new things and store at least some of what you learn in memory.

Memory is an obvious component of learning, but we don’t often think of it that way. When we learn something new, it’s against the backdrop of what we already know. All knowledge that we pick up over the years is stored in memory. The authors suggest that “how much you know in a broad sense determines what you understand of the new things you learn.” Because it’s easier to remember something if it can hook into context you already have, then the more you know, the more a new memory can attach to. Thus, what we already know, what we remember, impacts what we learn.

The Østbys explain that the strongest memory networks are created “when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it.” They describe someone who is passionate about diving and thus “will more easily learn new things about diving than about something she’s never been interested in before.” Because the diver already knows a lot about diving, and because she loves it and is motivated to learn more, new knowledge about diving will easily attach itself to the memory network she already has about the subject.

While studying people who seem to have amazing memories, as measured by the sheer amount they can recall with accuracy, one of the conclusions the Østbys reach is “that many people who rely on their memories don’t use mnemonic techniques, nor do they cram. They’re just passionate about what they do.” The more meaningful the topics and the more we are invested in truly learning, the higher the chances are that we will convert new information into lasting memory. Also, the more we learn, the more we will remember. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on how much we can put into memory.

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How we build our narratives

The experience of being a human is inseparable from our ability to remember. You can’t build relationships without memories. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t remember the past.

The memories we hold on to early on have a huge impact on the ones we retain as we progress through life. “When memories enter our brain,” the Østbys explain, “they attach themselves to similar memories: ones from the same environment, or that involve the same feeling, the same music, or the same significant moment in history. Memories seldom swim around without connections.” Thus, a memory is significantly more likely to stick around if it can attach itself to something. A new experience that has very little in common with the narrative we’ve constructed of ourselves is harder to retain in memory.

As we get older, our new memories tend to reinforce what we already think of ourselves. “Memory is self-serving,” the Østbys write. “Memories are linked to what concerns you, what you feel, what you want.

Why is it so much easier to remember the details of a vacation or a fight we’ve had with our partner than the details of a physics lesson or the plot of a classic novel? “The fate of a memory is mostly determined by how much it means to us. Personal memories are important to us. They are tied to our hopes, our values, and our identities. Memories that contribute meaningfully to our personal autobiography prevail in our minds.” We need not beat ourselves up because we have a hard time remembering names or birthdays. Rather, we can accept that the triggers for the creation of a memory and its retention are related to how it speaks to the narrative we maintain about ourselves. This view of memory suggests that to better retain information, we can try to make knowing that information part of our identity. We don’t try to remember physics equations for the sake of it, but rather because in our personal narrative, we are someone who knows a lot about physics.

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Memory, imagination, and fluidity

Our ability to imagine is based, in part, on our ability to remember. The connection works on two levels.

The first, the Østbys write, is that “our memories are the fuel for our imagination.” What we remember about the past informs a lot of what we can imagine about the future. Whether it’s snippets from movies we’ve seen or activities we’ve done, it’s our ability to remember the experiences we’ve had that provide the foundation for our imagination.

Second, there is a physical connection between memory and imagination. “The process that gives us vivid memories is the same as the one that we use to imagine the future.” We use the same parts of the brain when we immerse ourselves in an event from our past as we do when we create a vision for our future. Thus, one of the conclusions of Adventures in Memory is that “as far as our brains are concerned, the past and future are almost the same.” In terms of how they can feel to us, memories and the products of imagination are not that different.

The interplay between past and future, between memory and imagination, impacts the formation of memories themselves. Memory “is a living organism,” the Østbys explain, “always absorbing images, and when new elements are added, they are sewn into the original memory as seamlessly as only our imagination can do.”

One of the most important lessons from the book is to change up the analogies we use to understand memory. Memories are not like movies, exactly the same no matter how many times you watch them. Nor are they like files stored in a computer, unchanging data saved for when we might want to retrieve it. Memories, like the rest of our biology, are fluid.

Memory is more like live theater, where there are constantly new productions of the same pieces,” the Østbys write. “Each and every one of our memories is a mix of fact and fiction. In most memories the central story is based on true events, but it’s still reconstructed every time we recall it. In these reconstructions, we fill in the gaps with probable facts. We subconsciously pick up details from a sort-of memory prop room.

Understanding our memory more like a theater production, where the version you see in London’s West End isn’t going to be exactly the same as the one you see on Broadway, helps us let go of attaching a judgment of accuracy to what we remember. It’s okay to find out when reminiscing with friends that you have different memories of the same day. It’s also acceptable that two people will have different memories of the events leading to their divorce, or that business partners will have different memories of the terms they agreed to at the start of the partnership. The more you get used to the fluidity of your memories, the more the differences in recollections become sources of understanding instead of points of contention. What people communicate about what they remember can give you insight into their attitudes, beliefs, and values.

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Conclusion

New memories build on the ones that are already there. The more we know, the easier it is to remember the new things we learn. But we have to be careful and recognize that our tendency is to reinforce the narrative we’ve already built. Brand new information is harder to retain, but sometimes we need to make the effort.

Finally, memories are important not only for learning and remembering but also because they form the basis of what we can imagine and create. In so many ways, we are what we remember. Accepting that our vivid memories can be very different from those who were in the same situation helps us reduce the conflict that comes with insisting that our memories must always be correct.

“Jootsing”: The Key to Creativity

Creativity can seem like a mysterious process. But many of the most creative people understand that you can actually break it down into a simple formula, involving what researcher Douglas Hofstadter calls “jootsing.” Here’s how understanding systems can help us think more creatively.

“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.” —G.K. Chesterton

We can break the creative process down into the following three steps:

  1. Gain a deep understanding of a particular system and its rules.
  2. Step outside of that system and look for something surprising that subverts its rules.
  3. Use what you find as the basis for making something new and creative.

It may not be simple to do, but it is reliable and repeatable.

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett describes this process of understanding a system in order to step outside of it as “jootsing,” using a term coined by Douglas Hofstadter. “Jootsing” means “jumping out of the system.”

Dennett explains that jootsing is the method behind creativity in science, philosophy, and the arts: “Creativity, that ardently sought but only rarely found virtue, often is a heretofore unimagined violation of the rules of the system from which it springs.” The rules within a system could be things like the idea that a painting must have a frame, a haiku must only have seventeen syllables, or a depiction of landscape must have a blue sky. But galleries hang paintings without frames all the time. Haiku without seventeen syllables win international contests. And landscape paintings don’t need to contain a sky, let alone a blue one.

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Creativity, as Dennett describes it, is not about pure novelty. The concept of jootsing shows us that constraints and restrictions are essential for creativity.

Breaking rules you don’t know exist is not a statement. It’s a common refrain that much of modern art could be the work of a five-year-old. Yet while a five-year-old could produce a random combination of elements that looks similar to a famous work of modern art, it would not be creative in the same way because the child would not be jootsing. They wouldn’t have an understanding of the system they now sought to subvert.

Limitations are essential because they give us a starting point and a shape to work against.

While amateurs may attempt to start from scratch when trying to make something creative in a new area, professionals know they must first get in touch with the existing territory. Before even contemplating their own work, they take the time to master the conventional ways of doing things, to know what the standards are, and to become well-versed in the types of work considered exemplary. Doing so can take years or even the best part of a career. Dennett summarizes: “It helps to know the tradition if you want to subvert it. That’s why so few dabblers or novices succeed in coming up with anything truly creative.”

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Understanding a system first is necessary for creativity for two reasons. First, it provides something comprehensible to use as a starting point, and second, it makes it possible to come up with something more interesting or useful. If you try to start a creative effort from nothing, you’ll end up with mere chaos.

Dennett writes: “Sit down at a piano and try to come up with a good new melody and you soon discover how hard it is. All the keys are available, in any combination you choose, but until you can find something to lean on, some style or genre or pattern to lay down and exploit a bit, or allude to, before you twist it, you will come up with nothing but noise.

Creativity often begins with accidents that end up showing a new possibility or reveal that violating a particular rule isn’t as harmful as expected. Elsewhere in the book, Dennett suggests that any computer model intended to generate creativity must include mistakes and randomness, “junk lying around that your creative process can bump into, noises that your creative process can’t help overhearing.

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Most of us say we want to be creative—and we want the people we work with and for to be creative. The concept of jootsing reveals why we often end up preventing that from happening. Creativity is impossible without in some way going against rules that exist for a good reason.

Psychologists Jacob Getzels and Phillip Jackson studied creativity in the 1950s. Their findings were repeated across many studies and described what was termed as the Getzels-Jackson effect: “The vast majority—98 percent—of teachers say creating is so important that it should be taught daily, but when tested, they nearly always favor less creative children over more creative children.”

Kevin Ashton, in How to Fly a Horse, explains why. Teachers favor less creative children “because people who are more creative also tend to be more playful, unconventional, and unpredictable, and all of this makes them harder to control. No matter how much we say we value creation, deep down, most of us value control more. And so we fear change and favor familiarity. Rejecting is a reflex.” Ashton notes that the Getzels-Jackson effect is also present in the organizations we are a part of in adulthood. When the same tests are applied to decision-makers and authority figures in business, science, and government, the results are the same: they all say they value creation, but it turns out they don’t value creators.

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If you want people to be creative, you can’t complain or punish them when they question a system that is “typically so entrenched that it is as invisible as the air you breathe,” as Dennett says. You need to permit a lot of exploration, including ideas that don’t work out. Not everything outside of a system proves worth pursuing. And often the rules that are most beneficial to break are those that seem the most load-bearing, as if meddling with them will cause the whole system to collapse. It might—or it might make it much better.

You also need to permit the making of mistakes if you want to foster creativity, because that often ends up leading to new discoveries. Dennett writes, “The exploitation of accidents is the key to creativity, whether what is being made is a new genome, a new behavior, or a new melody.” Most accidents never end up being profitable or valuable in a measurable way. But they’re necessary because they’re part of the process of developing something new. Accidents fuel creativity.

In the book Loonshots, Safi Bahcall explores, among other ideas, how to nurture and develop those seemingly crazy ideas that turn out to be paradigm-shifting innovations. He gives many examples of now ubiquitous technologies that were initially laughed at, rejected, or buried. He notes that it’s not easy to immediately buy in to radical developments, and if we want to have environments where creating is possible, then we have to give creativity space and understanding. “It’s worth keeping in mind,” he says, “that revving the creative engine to fire at higher speeds . . . means more ideas and more experiments, which also means, inevitably, more failed experiments.

As individuals, if we want to be creative, we need to give ourselves space to play and experiment without a set agenda. Amos Tversky famously said that the secret to doing good work is being a little unemployed so you always have hours in the day to waste as you wish. During that wasted time, you’ll likely have your best, most creative ideas.

If your schedule is crammed with only room for what’s productive in an obvious way, you’ll have a hard time seeing outside of the existing system.

Our Favorite Farnam Street Posts From 2020

At the end of each year, the FS team takes time to reflect on the work we did and what we learned from it. Here’s a selection of our favorite articles from 2020 – and why we think they’re worth a second read.

Much of what we do at FS is about reflection. Learning requires reflection; time to sit, think, and process. There is no doubt that 2020 was tumultuous and challenged us in unexpected ways. What we anticipated and planned for on January 1 was not what we faced the rest of the year. Many of us were busy adjusting and thus might not have had the opportunity to digest and reflect on ideas as much as in the past.

At FS, we know it’s hard to find a signal in all the noise we experience on a daily basis.

To close out the year on the blog, we have decided to look back and share our favorite posts, as well as why we connected with them or how they helped us. Here are each team member’s choices from our 2020 posts.

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Adam

In no way do I consider myself to be an athlete, but I do expect great results when it comes to my work. The article The Inner Game: Why Trying Too Hard can be Counterproductive brought to light some of the internal struggles I deal with when trying to achieve my goals. There are days when I can achieve a “flow-state” in my work, whether it’s shooting or editing video or something else. Other days it’s a battle with self-doubt and self-sabotage despite all the external obstacles I’ve overcome. Finding harmony between the two is on-going, and despite me not being an athlete I plan on winning the inner game.

‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’ – Jean-Luc Godard

As someone whose job requires creativity I constantly struggle with “Not Invented Here Syndrome.” Trying to come up with an original idea, a different angle, some never before seen concept was just how I assumed all the world-renowned doers and thinkers thought. I never really considered the concept of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants and drawing on our experiences and the raw materials around us to create something. Reflecting on my body of work, it seems obvious now that most of my productions draw from people who I admire, who have taught me, or inspirations sparked by someone else’s creation. Going forward I want to continue to create and who knows, maybe one day I can provide a shoulder to stand on. After all, I’m 6’4”, so I’ve got the giant part down.

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Vicky

One of my favorite articles from this year is Appearances vs Experiences: What Really Makes Us Happy. For me, this article tells a tale of what I try to embrace in my day to day life. Getting caught up in what we think will make us happy can lead us to bypass what truly will. Sometimes we can base decisions and choices on the immediate pleasure we get or expect without looking at the bigger picture or long-term effects. The experience can put things into a perspective we can grasp, while an appearance can just be an illusion.

How do you “win the game of life”? By deciding how you’ll play. In Finite and Infinite Games: Two Ways to Play the Game of Life, I love the perspective shift I feel when I think about how you can play this game. What truly measures success? Does the game end there? By setting new goals and thinking that life can be infinite, we can win by playing, instead of playing to win. For me, this brings on a great perspective of acquiring experience and knowledge over wealth and possessions so I can keep playing.

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Rosie

Daniel Kahneman has said that the main lesson we should learn from surprising events is that the world is surprising. Yet when disasters happen, we often focus on particulars and miss that wider lesson. In the article Stop Preparing For The Last Disaster, we discussed how we can respond to unexpected events by becoming more resilient in general. History may well repeat itself, but we never know which rerun we’re watching until after the matter.

One theme we explored on the blog throughout this year was community and the connections we form with other people. We looked at what brings us together and what drives us apart – as well as what that costs us, how we can make peace with solitude, and how we can rebuild connections.

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human is a personal favorite article from 2020. In it, we looked at William H. McNeill’s theory that dancing together to music creates powerful bonds between people, leading to social cohesion and cooperative behavior. I liked this article because McNeill’s ideas suggest a simple, free, universally useful way to overcome disconnection.

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Rhiannon

This year we started to write about more concrete examples of using mental models in common life situations. We so often hear from readers that they love the idea of mental models but have challenges in understanding how to apply them. Our first effort at exploring a situation through the lens of different mental models, how to use them in charged situations, was an exciting step in the evolution of the FS blog.

Like most people, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a backdrop to my year. The challenges were incredible, and the speed of the changes they required were sometimes overwhelming. It felt like so much uncharted territory. One of the reasons I enjoyed the article Why We Feel at Home in a Crisis, was the context it provided for tumultuous times. Reading about the Blitz, a period of history I have always found fascinating, as well as appreciating the good that can come from a crisis, was the perfect solution to the disorientation I experienced at the beginning of the pandemic.

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Shane

As much as this year was about responding to crisis, it was also a test of our resilience. It’s less about what happens to you and more about how you respond. At FS, I frequently thought about how well we’d built our margin of safety, and planned for a wide range of outcomes. 2020 reinforced how important it is to preserve optionality. In a crisis, the more options you have, the greater your chance of survival. Options are the most important resource you can store up.

As many of you know, one of our goals at FS is to master the best of what other people have already figured out. I drew inspiration from how others have kept their teams performing during challenges, including from this post on leadership lessons from Jean Renoir.

From the whole team at FS, thank you to all of our readers for your support and engagement! We know it’s been a busy year for everyone, and we don’t take a minute of the time you’ve spent with us for granted. It was amazing to know that, even in these times of uncertainty, you were on the journey with us to learn and grow. To become better people and live a more meaningful life.

How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking

There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, “The French Chef”, did throughout her career.

Following a recipe might get you the results you want, but it doesn’t teach you anything about how cooking works at the foundational level. Or what to do when something goes wrong. Or how to come up with your own recipes when you open the fridge on a Wednesday night and realize you forgot to go grocery shopping. Or how to adapt recipes for your own dietary needs.

Adhering to recipes will only get you so far, and it certainly won’t result in you coming up with anything new or creative.

People who know how to cook understand the basic principles that make food taste, look, and smell good. They have confidence in troubleshooting and solving problems as they go—or adjusting to unexpected outcomes. They can glance at an almost barren kitchen and devise something delicious. They know how to adapt to a guest with a gluten allergy or a child who doesn’t like green food. Sure, they might consult a recipe when it makes sense to do so. But they’re not dependent on it, and they can change it up based on their particular circumstances.

There’s a reason many cooking competition shows feature a segment where contestants need to design their own recipe from a limited assortment of ingredients. Effective improvisation shows the judges that someone can actually cook, not just follow recipes.

We can draw a strong parallel from cooking to thinking. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, you can’t just follow what someone else came up with. You need to understand first principles if you want to be able to solve complex problems or think in a unique, creative fashion. First principles are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundational understanding acquired from breaking something down into its most essential concepts.

One person who exemplifies first principles thinking is Julia Child, an American educator who charmed audiences with her classes, books, and TV shows. First principles thinking enabled Julia to both master her own struggles with cooking and then teach the world to do the same. In Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro tells the charming story of how she did it. Here’s what we can learn about better thinking from the “French Chef.”

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Gustave Flaubert wrote that “talent is a long patience, ” something which was all too true for Julia. She wasn’t born with an innate skill for or even love of cooking. Her starting point was falling in love with her future husband, Paul Child, in Ceylon in 1944 when both were working for the Office of Strategic Services. Paul adored food, and his delight in it inspired Julia. When they each returned to their separate homes after the war, she decided she would learn to cook. Things got off to a bad start, as Shapiro explains:

“At first she tried to teach herself at home, but it was frustrating to bushwhack her way through one dish after another. She never knew whether she would find success or failure when she opened the oven door, and worst of all, she didn’t know why this recipe worked and that one didn’t.”

Seeking expert guidance, Julia started taking cooking classes three times a week at a Beverly Hills cooking school. Even that didn’t help much, however, and after she married Paul a year later, her experiments in their Washington, DC kitchen continued to go awry. Only when the couple moved to Paris did an epiphany strike. Julia’s encounters with French cooking instilled in her an understanding of the need for first principles thinking. Trying to follow recipes without comprehending their logic wasn’t going to produce delicious results. She needed to learn how food actually worked.

In 1949, at the age of 37, she enrolled in classes at the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking. It changed her forever:

“Learning to cook at the Cordon Bleu meant breaking down every dish into its smallest individual steps and doing each laborious and exhausting procedure by hand. In time Child could bone a duck while leaving the skin intact, extract the guts of a chicken through a hole she made in the neck, make a ham mousse by pounding the ham to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, and turn out a swath of elaborate dishes from choucroute garnie to vol-au-vent financière. None of this came effortlessly but she could do it. She had the brains, the considerable physical strength it demanded, and her vast determination. Most important, she could understand for the first time the principles governing how and why a recipe worked as it did.”

Julia had found her calling. After six months of Cordon Bleu classes, she continued studying independently for a year. She immersed herself in French cooking, filled her home with equipment, and befriended two women who shared her passion, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. In the early 1950s, they opened a tiny school together, with a couple of students working out of Julia’s kitchen. She was “adamant that the recipes used in class be absolutely reliable, and she tested every one of them for what she called ‘scientific workability.’” By this, Julia meant that the recipes needed to make sense per her understanding of the science of cooking. If they didn’t agree with the first principles she knew, they were out.

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When Paul transferred to Marseille, Julia was sad to leave her school. But she and her friends continued their collaboration, working at a distance on a French cookery book aimed at Americans. For what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia focused on teaching first principles in a logical order, not copying down mere recipes.

She’d grown frustrated at opening recipe books to see instructions she knew couldn’t work because they contradicted the science of cooking—for example, recipes calling for temperatures she knew would burn a particular ingredient, or omitting key ingredients like baking soda, without which a particular effect would be impossible. It was clear no one had bothered to test anything before they wrote it down, and she was determined not to make the same mistake.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961. Shapiro writes, “The reviews were excellent, there was a gratifying burst of publicity all across the country, and the professional food world acknowledged a new star in Julia Child. What nobody knew for sure was whether everyday homemakers in the nation that invented the TV dinner would buy the book.” Though the book was far from a flop, it was the TV show it inspired that catapulted Julia and her approach to cooking to stardom.

The French Chef first aired in 1963 and was an enormous success from the start. Viewers adored how Julia explained why she did what she did and how it worked. They also loved her spontaneous capacity to adapt to unanticipated outcomes. It was usually only possible to shoot one take so Julia needed to keep going no matter what happened.

Her show appealed to every kind of person because it could make anyone a better cook—or at least help them understand the process better. Not only was Julia “a striking image of unaffected good nature,” the way she taught really worked. Viewers and readers who followed her guidance discovered a way of cooking that made them feel in control.

Julia “believed anybody could cook with distinction from scratch and that’s what she was out to prove.” Many of the people who watched The French Chef were women who needed a new way to think about cooking. As gender roles were being redefined and more women entered the workforce, it no longer seemed like something they were obligated by birth to do. At the same time, treating it as an undesirable chore was no more pleasant than treating it as a duty. Julia taught them another way. Cooking could be an intellectual, creative, enjoyable activity. Once you understood how it actually worked, you could learn from mistakes instead of repeating them again and again.

Shapiro explains that “Child was certainly not the first TV chef. The genre was almost as old as TV itself. But she was the first to make it her own and have an enduring societal impact.”

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If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia managed to do, and it’s part of why she stood out from the other TV chefs of her time—and still stands out today. By mastering first principles, you can find better ways of doing things, instead of having to stick to conventions. If Julia thought a modern piece of equipment worked better than a traditional one or that part of a technique was a pointless custom, she didn’t hesitate to make changes as she saw fit. Once you know the why of something, it is easy to modify the how to achieve your desired result.

The lessons of first principles in cooking are the same for the first principles in any domain. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself.

Being Smart is Not Enough

When hiring a team, we tend to favor the geniuses who hatch innovative ideas, but overlook the butterflies, the crucial ones who share and implement them. Here’s why it’s important to be both smart AND social.

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In business, it’s never enough to have a great idea. For any innovation to be successful, it has to be shared, promoted, and bought into by everyone in the organization. Yet often we focus on the importance of those great ideas and seem to forget about the work that is required to spread them around.

Whenever we are building a team, we tend to look for smarts. We are attracted to those with lots of letters after their names or fancy awards on their resumes. We assume that if we hire the smartest people we can find, they will come up with new, better ways of doing things that save us time and money.

Conversely, we often look down on predominantly social people. They seem to spend too much time gossiping and not enough time working. We assume they’ll be too busy engaging on social media or away from their desks too often to focus on their duties, and thus we avoid hiring them.

Although we aren’t going to tell you to swear off smarts altogether, we are here to suggest that maybe it’s time to reconsider the role that social people play in cultural growth and the diffusion of innovation.

In his book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich explores the role of culture in human evolution. One point he makes is that it’s not enough for a species to be smart. What counts far more is having the cultural infrastructure to share, teach, and learn.

Consider two very large prehuman populations, the Geniuses and the Butterflies. Suppose the Geniuses will devise an invention once in 10 lifetimes. The Butterflies are much dumber, only devising the same invention once in 1000 lifetimes. So, this means that the Geniuses are 100 times smarter than the Butterflies. However, the Geniuses are not very social and have only 1 friend they can learn from. The Butterflies have 10 friends, making them 10 times more social.

Now, everyone in both populations tries to obtain an invention, both by figuring it out for themselves and by learning from friends. Suppose learning from friends is difficult: if a friend has it, a learner only learns it half the time. After everyone has done their own individual learning and tried to learn from their friends, do you think the innovation will be more common among the Geniuses or the Butterflies?

Well, among the Geniuses a bit fewer than 1 out of 5 individuals (18%) will end up with the invention. Half of those Geniuses will have figured it out all by themselves. Meanwhile, 99.9% of Butterflies will have the innovation, but only 0.1% will have figured it out by themselves.

Wow.

What if we take this thinking and apply to the workplace? Of course you want to have smart people. But you don’t want an organization full of Geniuses. They might come up with a lot, but without being able to learn from each other easily, many of their ideas won’t have any uptake in the organization. Instead, you’d want to pair Geniuses with Butterflies—socially attuned people who are primed to adopt the successful behaviors of those around them.

If you think you don’t need Butterflies because you can just put Genius innovations into policy and procedure, you’re missing the point. Sure, some brilliant ideas are concrete, finite, and visible. Those are the ones you can identify and implement across the organization from the top down. But some of the best ideas happen on the fly in isolated, one-off situations as responses to small changes in the environment. Perhaps there’s a minor meeting with a client, and the Genius figures out a new way of describing your product that really resonates. The Genius though, is not a teacher. It worked for them and they keep repeating the behavior, but it doesn’t occur to them to teach someone else. And they don’t pick up on other tactics to further refine their innovation.

But the Butterfly who went to the meeting with the Genius? They pick up on the successful new product description right away. They emulate it in all meetings from then on. They talk about it with their friends, most of whom are also Butterflies. Within two weeks, the new description has taken off because of the propensity for cultural learning embedded in the social Butterflies.

The lesson here is to hire both types of people. Know that it’s the Geniuses who innovate, but it’s the Butterflies who spread that innovation around. Both components are required for successfully implementing new, brilliant ideas.