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On the Dangers of Potential Energy

February 07, 2018

My last goal of 2018 was to focus on doing, and to revive the joy of doing, without regard for the outcome. I’ve been trying to understand for myself exactly what this means. It’s been a struggle to formulate the idea properly - it’s kind of complex - but I think I have a metaphor for it that fits.

That metaphor is the difference between potential and kinetic energy. Potential energy can be dangerous, while kinetic energy is generally fruitful. I want to focus on kinetic energy.

What?

If you remember your basic science classes, potential energy is the kind of energy that is stored in an object based on position, stress or other things. A ball at the top of a hill has potential energy. So does a compressed spring and a taut crossbow. They’re ready to unleash.

On the other hand, kinetic energy is in motion. The ball rolling down the hill. The compressed spring bouncing out. The crossbow firing it’s bolt. It is active and working, literally.

The scientific definition of work is force over distance. You literally get shit done (work) by moving with effort.

This translates surprisingly well when thinking about what it is you want to achieve:

  • Want to be stronger? Technique is important, but you need to literally expend effort to move a lot of weight over and over. The amount of volume (total lbs. moved in a workout) is one of the keys to gaining strength.
  • Want to be faster? Technique helps, but focus on combining speed workouts with endurance training.
  • Want to be a better writer? Eschew books about writing, and just write on a daily basis.
  • Want to learn a math subject? Build up enough knowledge (potential energy) to start practicing. Then do problem sets. Lots of them.
  • Want to code? Start with println "Hello World!" and iterate. You can learn algorithmic complexity notation later.

This idea describes where I want to be: working.

Why is Potential Energy Dangerous?

But it’s not just that I want to be working. It’s that if I’m not working, bad things happen. Skills diminish and knowledge atrophies. And this is where the danger comes in.

See, building up your potential energy is very easy relative to the equivalent output of kinetic energy. Reading about physics is far easier than doing physics. Researching the right algorithms to use in a purely functional language is easier than building something in a purely functional language. Learning about running technique is easier than practicing running technique. Whatever the kinetic equivalent is, it’s harder.

And there’s relative differences in acquiring potential energy too. Watching an hour-long documentary on Great British Castles is easier than reading a history book detailing them. Is it less valuable? For living a good life, I think you could go either way. But if you want to translate your potential energy into kinetic energy, then yes it’s less valuable.

Sitting in an Armchair

And this is where the really real danger enters. It’s not just that the buildup of potential energy is easier.. it’s that it doesn’t necessarily lead to kinetic energy. You can build up potential energy around a subject forever and never use it. And there’s a name for that phenomenon: the Armchair Expert.

The Armchair Expert knows a lot about something. They may have incredibly in-depth and detailed knowledge about the inner workings of their expertise. But they can’t do anything with it. They can’t build, create, implement or otherwise change the world. They are effectively a curator of glass castles in his brain that either don’t exist or were created by True Experts.

A True Expert on the other hand can translate potential energy into kinetic output. Or, possibly more likely, a true expert focuses on kinetic output.

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” — Anon., not Yogi Berra

An armchair expert is an expert in theory. A true expert is an expert in practice.

I’m not trying to bash Armchair Experts. I actually think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing, as long as we’re aware of the distinction. Over time, most of us become armchair experts in a bunch of different subjects. We need to be careful with this kind of expertise though, and treat it humbly. This is especially true on subjects that marry expertise to identity, like religion and politics.

Choices

We all end up making choices about the subjects where we have armchair expertise and the subjects where we have true expertise. This can be a difficult choice and, unfortunately, is usually made unconsciously.

I developed, for awhile at least, a real expertise in vehicle dynamics and racing. I was at the top of the game as far as being able to hop in a car and drive it faster than other people. Sure, there were some people who were consistently better than me, but you had to have a certain level of knowledge to even understand the difference between us.

This was an expertise I developed completely unconsciously. I just did it because I loved it. And so, I did it over and over and over. It became completely second nature.

I loved racing (and still do!), but I wish I would have made that decision more consciously. This is a difficult concept, because the subjects in which you have more passion inherently become the subjects in which you do more work, but it seems important to me to try. Actually, passion is probably the chief indicator that will drive you towards kinetic energy and true expertise. Maybe it’s simple enough to follow your passions and enjoy the ride.

The road to wisdom? Well it’s plain and simple to express: Err.. and err.. and err again.. But less.. and less.. and less.

One key I briefly mentioned earlier is not to tie your identity to the subjects where you remain an armchair expert. When the question of who you are gets wrapped up in this whole equation, the ability to learn and develop your expertise tends to go sideways. Learning is a continual process of getting it wrong over and over and over.. until you get it right. So tying your sense of self to some halfway, iterative point in that learning process means that it becomes harder (or impossible!) to detach yourself from the knowledge, principles, theories, and applications that you espouse. No matter what our expertise, no matter how broad or deep, there’s always more to learn.

Listening

There’s another useful way to use the distinction between armchair experts and true experts. It’s a very useful guide for who to listen to with authority.

More specifically, you should listen to people who are true experts in something - hopefully something you find useful and interesting. You should not listen to people who are only ever armchair experts. To put it another way, when you build potential energy, build it from the example of those with kinetic energy.

I love listening or reading anything Carl Sagan or Freeman Dyson or Richard Feynman write or speak on, regardless of the subject. Not because they’re experts in that specific field (often they’re not!), but because they have such an incredible pedigree of driving further down the expertise spectrum than most of humanity. Learning from people like that is always a privilege.

And this works on any subject too. Jeff Bezos has a recipe for success that outlines why:

“Success is going to require talented experts, a beginner’s mind, and a long-term orientation.” -Bezos

True expertise often maintains a beginner’s mind, enjoys the process, and focuses on long-term orientation.

How to Move with Effort

One of the things I like the most about this metaphor is how it translates the focus away from ability, and onto effort.

Effort is the key. Expend energy. Do things. Don’t worry too much about where it will go. Even Brownian motion (random motion) will eventually get you going somewhere.

I mentioned recently that Johnny von Neumann has become one of my personal heroes. The guy was just on top of everything.

John von Neumann … was incomparably intelligent, so bright that, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner would say, “only he was fully awake.”

One of Johnny’s seminal works that goes often overlooked is Probabilistic Logics and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms from Unreliable Components. In it, he described a mathematical approach for managing failure and error so that the desired logical outcome can still be achieved. One of the keys to this - at a high level - is to stop relying on exactitude and to instead focus on probability. In this way, there’s a strong relationship with Monte Carlo methods as well, which von Neumann was also intimately involved in.

When von Neumann’s team was building the ENIAC in the 40s they had to use these ideas too, although they weren’t yet formalized. One of the main vacuum tube components of the ENIAC computer was the 6J6, a cheap, easy to purchase, and mostly reliable tube. But errors and failures still happened frequently, to the point that one guy remarked that “the entire computer can be viewed as a big tube test rack.”

The entire idea that a machine with thousands of vacuum tubes could be used reliably was new. But it worked. It spit out fantastic results to problems that were otherwise intractable. And that idea, and that first computing machine, ended up as the beginning of our entire modern world.

Tropes

These processes are fascinating to me, because they provide provable mathematical theories and thoughts as an allegory to the idea of focusing on effort. And however much I’m bastardizing them, I still feel more strongly attached to them then the more typical lines we hear sometimes, because they tie the idea of working hard to provable mathematics that work in a similar, confusing, and somewhat opaque way.

But the tropes work too:

Quantity over quality. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice. Practice makes perfect.

Just remember that there’s legitimate mathematical theories that seem to align to this line of thinking.

Humility and Fear

On a day-to-day basis, kinetic energy and “quantity over quality” are the general ways I’m thinking about this. Continual effort is a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) condition for expertise.

Thinking this way has some psychological benefits as well. It is far easier to stay humble when you’re just focused on working out the details of one little scene and not the grand arc of the next Great American Novel.

It’s less fearful too. I talked a bit about Oeuvre a while back and how it’s something you should only consider occasionally. If we simply use “moving with effort” as our metric, we’re less fearful of being wrong. We know we’re going to be wrong, all the time. We’re trusting that we can build reliable systems out of our wrong, unreliable every day ideas, thoughts or practice. One of the biggest dangers of expertise itself is arrogance, and this provides a mental construct to eliminate it.

The Best You Can

I don’t like tropes, but there’s something to them. One of my closest friend gave me an offhand piece of advice about a decade ago when I was clearly worrying about the deficiencies in my ability and my knowledge. He said:

Just do the best you can, every day.

Move with effort. Over and over and over. Sisyphus might have a repetitive job sometimes, but I bet he’s a strong motherfucker.


My friend Matt offered a useful criticism. He said “I don’t think you can get to expertise just by doing. Eventually you start wasting time with trial and error and hit diminishing returns. And that’s when you need to stop doing and reflect. So my new theory is that the best way to learn is through a cycle of action and reflection.”

I agree completely. The title of this was On the Dangers of Potential Energy intentionally. It’s not that potential energy is inherently bad; it’s that it can lead to laziness, stagnation or an illusion of progress. It’s still completely a requirement to gain expertise, but must be tempered in the forge of action.


Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.ArchiveTumble