Category Archives: personal-development

Sagan’s Cosmos on the Scientific Method and Uncomfortable Ideas

I’m cur­rently watch­ing Carl Sagan’s excel­lent Cos­mos: A Per­son­al Voy­age. I feel com­pelled to post the fol­low­ing quote from epis­ode four, Heav­en and Hell, as it stood out for its eleg­ant argu­ment for the strength of sci­entif­ic ideas and for not reject­ing uncom­fort­able (if incor­rect) ideas:

There are many hypo­theses in sci­ence which are wrong. That’s all right. It’s the aper­ture to find­ing out what’s right. Sci­ence is a self-cor­rect­ing pro­cess. To be accep­ted, new ideas must sur­vive the most rig­or­ous stand­ards of evid­ence and scru­tiny.

The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross con­tra­dic­tion to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some sci­ent­ists attemp­ted to sup­press Velikovsky’s ideas.

The sup­pres­sion of uncom­fort­able ideas may be com­mon in reli­gion or in polit­ics, but it is not the path to know­ledge. And there is no place for it in the endeav­our of sci­ence.

We do not know before­hand where fun­da­ment­al insights will arise from about our mys­ter­i­ous and lovely sol­ar sys­tem. And the his­tory of our study of the sol­ar sys­tem shows clearly that accep­ted and con­ven­tion­al ideas are often wrong and that fun­da­ment­al insights can arise from the most unex­pec­ted sources.

And if you think this only applies to wacky astro­nom­ic­al ideas or insights about our sol­ar sys­tem… well, then you’re delud­ing your­self.

I can­’t wait for the updated Cos­mos presen­ted by Neil deGrasse Tyson; it’ll be the best thing on TV since sliced bread.

The Zeigarnik Effect and the Force of Incomplete Tasks

Why do unre­solved issues linger in our mind, mak­ing us pon­der them for days on end? Why are cliff­hangers so suc­cess­ful in get­ting view­ers to tune in to the next epis­ode? How can we over­come pro­cras­tin­a­tion? These ques­tions can be answered by learn­ing about the psy­cho­lo­gic­al concept/theory known as the Zeigarnik effect.

‘Dis­covered’ by Soviet psy­cho­lo­gist Bluma Zeigarnik back in the 1920s, the Zeigarnik effect states that we remem­ber incom­plete or inter­rup­ted tasks bet­ter than com­pleted tasks.

And so, to those ques­tions. It’s easy to see how the Zeigarnik effect could be respons­ible for the suc­cess of sus­pense as a dra­mat­ic device, but for over­com­ing pro­cras­tin­a­tion? Use the effect to your advant­age and start at the simplest, smal­lest part of your task. After that, the unfin­ished nature of the lar­ger task will push you toward action.

Beware, though: the effect has been shown to dimin­ish if we don’t expect to do well on the inter­rup­ted task (or are oth­er­wise com­pletely not motiv­ated).

via @jonahlehrer

The Wadsworth Constant: Ignore 30% of Everything

I’ll start with a story.

Last year my girl­friend and I watched the pilot epis­ode of a new TV show and were imme­di­ately hooked. The pilot epis­ode was refresh­ingly com­plex and forced us to guess miss­ing plot details con­tinu­ously: it’s adven­tur­ous to make your audi­ence work so hard dur­ing a pilot, we sur­mised.

We later dis­covered that, due to a tech­nic­al glitch, we actu­ally missed the first fif­teen minutes of the show (about 30%). The ‘com­plete’ ver­sion of the epis­ode was less sat­is­fy­ing.


Last year Steve Yegge wrote about life at Amazon.com and what it’s like work­ing under Jeff Bezos. On the top­ic of present­ing to Bezos, Yegge gave this tip: delete every third para­graph.  Why?

Bezos is so god­damned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first real­iz­a­tion about him. […]

So you have to start tear­ing out whole para­graphs, or even pages, to make it inter­est­ing for him. He will fill in the gaps him­self without miss­ing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.


Around the same time as Yegge’s post­ing, a Red­dit user known as Wadsworth poin­ted out that the first 30% of “nearly every video in the uni­verse” can safely be skipped. As such things go, this soon became a You­Tube URL para­met­er: just add &wadsworth=1 to skip the first third of the video.

This ‘law’ soon became known as the Wadsworth Con­stant. It works.

Strangers and Friends: A Shared History and Less Graciousness

Ryan Hol­i­day asks a very good ques­tion: why do we extend patience and tol­er­ance to strangers, while sim­ul­tan­eously treat­ing those closest to us less gra­ciously?

It’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion with some equally inter­est­ing pos­sible answers (is it a sub­con­scious and inef­fi­cient way of attempt­ing to ease our daily lives by telling those we spend the most time with how we want to be treated?). I like the con­clus­ory piece of advice: we should give every­one “the gra­cious­ness of meet­ing them fresh each time”.

Some weirdo says some­thing to you in the gro­cery store and you smile and nod your head, “Yup!” Just to avoid a scene right? You have a meet­ing with a sales rep and indulge the friendly but point­less chitchat even though you hate it. But a friend mis­pro­nounces a word and we leap to cor­rect them. Your girl­friend tells a bor­ing story and you’ve got to say some­thing about it, you’ve got to get short with her. What kind of bull­shit is this? We give the bene­fit of cour­tesy to every­body but the people who earned it.

Think of how much patience we have for total strangers and acquaint­ances. But what a short fuse we have for the actu­al people in our life. In the course of our every­day lives, our pri­or­it­ies are so very back­wards. We do our best to impress people we’ll nev­er see again and take for gran­ted people we see all the time. We’re respect­ful in our busi­ness lives, cas­u­al and care­less in our per­son­al. We pun­ish close­ness with cri­ti­cism, reward unfa­mili­ar­ity with polite­ness.

This is a great example of why I read Ryan’s work: he’s adept at point­ing out the every­day hypo­cris­ies that we rarely notice.

Entrepreneurship and the Possibility of Real Failure

In 2007 Vini­cius Vacanti quit his highly-paid job in fin­ance to take on life as an entre­pren­eur. In a short post describ­ing his reas­ons for doing so, Vacanti says that most of us haven’t faced the pos­sib­il­ity of real fail­ure, and entre­pren­eur­ship is a way to test your lim­its by attempt­ing to cre­ate some­thing of real value:

A scary idea star­ted creep­ing into my thoughts: what if I could build some­thing? Wouldn’t I always won­der? Wouldn’t I regret it? Wouldn’t it eat away at me over the years?

And, that’s when I real­ized that I didn’t actu­ally know if I was good enough because I hadn’t really failed in life (at least not pro­fes­sion­ally). Most people don’t really fail. We tend to take the job that we think we’ll suc­ceed in. We are hes­it­ant to reach. And, if we do reach and suc­ceed, then we don’t reach again.

The only way to know how good you might be at some­thing is to fail try­ing it.

And, that’s when I decided it was time to test my lim­its. It was time to really reach. It was time to quit my safe job and walk straight into almost cer­tain star­tup fail­ure.

There’s noth­ing mind-blow­ing here, admit­tedly – I just love how Vacanti phrased this.