You can't know in advance

April 22, 2020

In Foreknowledge I proposed that you can’t know in advance what you’ll learn before you set out. If you could, you wouldn’t need to learn it. I wanted to give a few other examples of this thinking.

  1. In this post on Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life (, Shane Parrish points out that you can’t predict the benefits of learning:

Investing in Learning: The upfront costs are real and visible and, like any investment, the future payoff is uncertain. So we tend to skim the surface, thinking this will “save us time” versus doing the real work. Yet this surface-based approach leads to no improvement in our ability to make decisions. In fact, it may harm us if we think we’ve learned something for real. Thus, surface learning is a true waste of time. It’s just that the link to our bad learning is unclear, so we rarely identify the root cause.

This is an argument in favour of method. You don’t know, and can’t know in advance, what you will learn. The only thing you have control over is how well you learn it, as I also argued here.

  1. In Range, David Epstein quotes Jack Cecchini, a rare musician who plays both jazz and classical guitar:

I could show somebody in two minutes what would take them years of screwing around on the fingerboard like I did to find. You don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong. You don’t have that in your head. You’re just trying to find a solution to problems, and after fifty lifetimes, it starts to come together for you. It’s slow, but at the same time, there’s something to learning that way.

Emphasis mine. He’s implying that how you learn is important, not what you learn, and that the best learning is essentially trial-and-error. Excerpt here.

  1. In this undelivered graduation speech, Paul Graham argues that you can’t plan your career based on what you like.

First, because it’s quite hard from the outside to tell what most jobs involve. But second, because much of future work probably doesn’t exist right now:

But there are other jobs you can’t learn about, because no one is doing them yet. Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years didn’t exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.

He calls this “premature optimization.” Don’t waste time optimizing something which you might never use.

This is advice often given for writing: write at speed without caring about the quality, then cut it down and edit it later, with care. You can’t know in advance what will be important, and what you’ll cut.

  1. Throughout Antifragile, Taleb argues that nature doesn’t plan anything.

She just places a huge number of random bets and sees which ones come up:

Jacob argued that even within the womb, nature knows how to select: about half of all embryos undergo a spontaneous abortion—easier to do so than design the perfect baby by blueprint. Nature simply keeps what it likes if it meets its standards or does a California-style “fail early”—it has an option and it uses it. Nature understands optionality effects vastly better than humans, and certainly better than Aristotle.

Nature is all about the exploitation of optionality; it illustrates how optionality is a substitute for intelligence.

  1. There’s a widely cited Taoist story in which a man says “May be” (sometimes “We’ll see”) to a succession of occurrences.

You may well have read, but it’s very short if not.

I’ll keep this page updated as I come across more examples.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.