The Throughput of Learning

Is this post really about meditation? is realizing there is no ego the ultimate broken assumption?

Meta version of learning.

Praxis Blog

via Instapaper

Learning in the 21st century is not about acquiring more information, knowledge, or even insights.

The goal is to maximize the throughput of invalidated assumptions.

In college, if you make it that far, the bottleneck moves to insight generation. You start questioning the world as given, and find that the juiciest intellectual rewards are ideas that shift how you view it.

If you are lucky enough to go beyond this, the bottleneck moves once again: to your assumptions. They constrain your view, what you are allowed to see, and thereby the thoughts and actions available to you.

shining a light on blindspots that, by definition, you didn’t know you didn’t know about. This process is unbounded, because with enough examination, all your beliefs are revealed to be assumptions.

There are many ways to reveal assumptions. Interesting experiences, traveling, genuine conversation, and reading fiction all help you question your own point of view.

The first lesson is that quantity and quality are not opposing forces. You don’t have to sacrifice one to get more of the other. One can be used to enhance the other, like two sides of a coin.

TPS is not a process for maximizing the throughput of finished products, as we’ve always assumed and admired. It is a process for maximizing the throughput of process improvements, even at the expense of short-term profitability.

The system is designed to break in ways that surface the most useful lessons for improvement.

Similarly, modern learning is not a process for maximizing the throughput of insights, but for maximizing the throughput of learning process improvements.

The best assumptions to invalidate in our quest for learning are assumptions about learning itself. This is why meditation retreats, globe-trotting, and having kids will always be net productivity gains, broadly defined: even a slight improvement in the machinery of learning (via a shift in perspective, for example) will pay dividends over time far greater than a mere few months of lost labor.

how does one learn about one’s own assumptions about learning? Since you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s difficult to learn anything about it.

Inventory turnover is a measure of the number of times inventory is sold or used in a time period. In the 1970s, U.S. manufacturing firms had an average turnover of 3.7 (in other words, they sold their full stock of inventory, on average, 3.7 times per year). The Japanese average was only a little higher, at 5.5. By the 1980’s, this had accelerated dramatically to nearly 20, with the highest-performing Western firms achieving turnover of between 30 and 80. Soon after, Japanese firms achieved an astounding three-digit inventory turnover, selling their stock 100 or more times per year. No one thought it could go any higher. And then something weird happened: turnover sped up a little more, and suddenly turned negative. What happened was that production got so fast that the manufacturer was able to receive payment for the final product before they even had to pay their own suppliers. The customer could pay for and eat his hamburger before the restaurant has paid for the meat.

why should we be limited by our initial investment or working capital? Why not do the selling before production, so we know exactly what to make, and how much? What other stages of production don’t have to happen in sequence? We’re still working out the implications to this day: Kickstarter campaigns sell a vision to deliver on later; plentiful credit and falling barriers to entry make borrowing from the future easier than ever; the field of Lean UX (affiliate link) provides us a ready-made toolkit of methods for validating before producing.

And note that this vast acceleration did not happen at the expense of quality.

This example illustrates one way blindspots can be revealed: by accelerating a system so much that its rules break, forcing everyone to confront its underlying assumptions.

The system ceases to be a static backdrop where things take place, and becomes merely another unit of flow in a larger, more abstract system. We thought of “empty” space as an inert stage on which the planets roamed, until Einstein showed us that space is as much an actor as any planet. A few levels of abstraction later, and we’re starting to suspect that what was formerly empty space actually comprises the vast majority of mass in the universe.

You could continue to accelerate this process, pushing your team to continuously identify and relieve bottlenecks as soon as they emerge. “Solving” for a particular constraint is no longer an objective in itself, but a way to keep the game going. Crucially, this doesn’t necessarily involve more work, just different work.

his movement of constraints, jumping back and forth across your company, starts to take on its own dynamic. It has its own principles, its own habits, its own attractors. You can start to develop an instinct for where the constraint is likely to move next, how it will behave once it gets there, and what pattern its movement will follow over time. This instinct turns into a skill.

The difficulty in applying this concept to individual learning is that, in this case, you are the system. It’s a little disconcerting being accelerated, turned inside out,

Our design problem, at least, is clear: we have to design our mental environment to maximize the throughput of invalidated assumptions, accelerating it to the point that the rules of our learning process break, thereby surfacing even more assumptions, which we can exploit to further improve this process.

I think what is required to make this model of learning work is, instead, a different way of listeningSpecifically, listening for assumptions.

You have to allow yourself to be emotionally impacted, because your intuition has a much higher bandwidth than your conscious thought. You have to care about what they care about, subordinate your interests to their framing, pretend their priorities matter so convincingly that you yourself are convinced.

The way they set these rules will reveal their assumptions and constraints, which thoughts and actions are open to them. If you can tell an authentic story that speaks to these assumptions, you can break through

The price of such effective action is we have to be willing to give up the petty payoffs we cherish in our arguments with each other: not only the blaming but the cynicism, the martyrdom, the self-righteous indignation, the outrage, the winning, the making others lose, the being right, the making others wrong.

At some point, this way of listening turns into a way of thinking, as you apply it to your own thoughts. Unmoored from your own certain beliefs, you step back from what seemed just a moment ago to be your very identity, only to find that it is just a mental object. With each step backward, you distinguish your self one by one from bodily sensations, from emotions, from opinions, from thoughts, from principles, from values, from systems, from goals. They are all tools, to be taken up and put down again when no longer needed.

It’s often said that knowledge work is totally non-linear, and thus completely incomparable to a production line. But there is another sense in which we do operate in a linear world: we operate in time.