Low-Risk Stupidity

Babies and toddlers learn a lot really quickly. I mean, they learn so fast you can watch it in real time. I remember the first time one of my kids learned how to get water into a cup and bring it to her mouth, it was like watching the Moon Landing. And suddenly they go from not even being able to pick up an object to being completely proficient in its use in about 5 minutes.

The other day I was teaching my 3-year-old knife safety. Minute one, she was timid about holding the knife. Minute four, she was slicing up vegetables like she’d been a professional chef for years.

Little kids can learn so much so quickly for two reasons. First, they don’t know anything to start. That’s important, not only because it means there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit of knowledge and plenty of space to put it, but it also means they’re clear of a lot of misconceptions or prior bad habits that would prevent learning.

The second reason is because most parents keep their kids in relatively low-risk environments. There’s almost zero risk to failure for kids. Not only physical danger, but social danger – no one is making mean-spirited fun of a baby for failing to grab a spoon correctly and getting applesauce in her hair.

Humans deeply care about both kinds of risk, and that often prevents us from doing the kinds of stupid things that would actually lead to really rapid information-gathering.

If you want to learn something quickly, first build an environment where you have little risk. This isn’t hard! In front of your computer, by yourself – boom, you’ve done it. Once you have that, get stupid.

You don’t know how to use a new piece of software that your job is introducing? Open it up, and just hit random buttons on your keyboard until something happens. Something will! And your proficiency will grow rapidly from there.

Imagine how quickly and easily you could learn to drive a car if it were impossible to hurt yourself while doing so. Like, imagine they made a virtual reality driving simulator that was so accurate that it really felt like you were driving in real life, except that you could be by yourself, immune from harm, and totally invisible to other people. You could be an expert driver in hours.

Well, we’re not there yet with driving. You still have to learn to drive slowly, because there’s risk involved, so you can’t be stupid. But with a lot of things, that’s not the case. Lower your risk, and then goof around. You’ll have fun and learn quickly – just like those kids do.

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