Lessons that stuck with you
January 2, 2017 12:56 PM   Subscribe

What is one concept or mental model you learned in law school, grad school, business school, trade school, in a MOOC, etc., that blew your mind, stuck with you, and became a regular or essential part of your "cognitive toolkit"?

(question inspired by this post by a former Kickstarter product manager who spent a year at Harvard Business School)
posted by shotgunbooty to Education (83 answers total) 241 users marked this as a favorite
A law professor once said, "When a question begins, 'Why don't they...?' the answer is generally 'money.'"
posted by Countess Elena at 1:11 PM on January 2, 2017 [48 favorites]

All politics are local.

(and, absolute "all" aside, I accept that there is a lot of nuance to this, plenty of exceptions, and that it's personality dependent, situationally dependent, etc, etc)... but people generally act in their own self interest, or based on their assumptions that people use their own methods of thought, social or cultural norms, etc, unless they've been trained (formally, or by experience, or trauma, or, or, or) to try to think themselves outside of their own biases and assume someone else's.

Makes it a lot easier to stop myself when I think someone's doing something maliciously. Most of the time it's just more convenient for them and they're not thinking about second or third order consequences.
posted by Seeba at 1:13 PM on January 2, 2017 [11 favorites]

Opportunity cost. The economic concept that by gaining an opportunity or advantage, you have to give up another opportunity. It also applies to everyday life, eg, if I choose to go away for a trip with my wife, I won't be able to go to my friend's bachelor weekend held at the same time. Or if I buy a car, I won't have enough money for a deposit on a house. For every decision, there is a cost.
posted by Jubey at 1:18 PM on January 2, 2017 [22 favorites]

In my Speech Therapy degree, the stuff that stuck with me isn't the stuff that sounded helpful at the time! But in particular Prochaska and DiClemente's Cycle of readiness for change. It makes a lot of behaviour make a lot more sense, and helps you see when to stop banging your head against a brick wall.
posted by kadia_a at 1:25 PM on January 2, 2017 [13 favorites]

One of my law professors made the only half-joking observation that the answer to every question in law school (and many questions in general) is "it depends".

Another professor, this one of civil procedure, advised that the way to determine whether or not a system is just is to look at whether it produces just results.

I also took some graduate classes in political science, on decision making. We were talking about irrationality, and he pointed out that people almost never actually behave irrationally. If they seem to be, it's usually because you as an observer are misunderstanding their motivations.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:29 PM on January 2, 2017 [14 favorites]

This Medium piece is a great mental model 'idea dump'
posted by maya at 1:33 PM on January 2, 2017 [13 favorites]

At a certain not-new-at-this-job level of management, there is no such thing* as people doing things maliciously or out of stupidity. It's always that someone cares more or less than you about an input or result, or has more or less information than you. Find out what the thing is, and you're much more likely to change things.

* and every absolute statement is occasionally proven wrong.
posted by ctmf at 1:42 PM on January 2, 2017 [20 favorites]

The idea of being "developmentally appropriate." It's a concept in pediatrics and psychiatry, where people (patients?) are assessed based on the concrete or abstracted struggle, respectively, they are working on at the time (e.g., are baby's reflexes properly disappearing? Has the 45 year-old a relatively firm sense of identity and formed stable, meaningful relationships?) The part that changed my thinking on how I used to view ideas of "maturity" and development is that earlier is not better. In pediatrics, baby exhibiting certain milestones either too late, or more surprising to me, too early, can signify a problem. In psychiatry, it is represented by, for instance, Erickson's stages or other developmental theorists' stages. Perhaps the term, especially in the psych sense, seems potentially heteronormative, but that isn't really the aspect that was enlightening to me-- rather, it was the facet that things, including entire lifetimes, progress in their own way, that there was a time and place for each type of struggle/event, that overcoming or passing certain milestones made room and perhaps even set the foundation for new struggles and milestones on the horizon ... and that ostensibly being "advanced" (in another sense, premature) is not better was particularly liberating to me, as someone who was raised in the hubbub of "accelerated" and "gifted" classes nonsense, and also as someone who was frequently told, growing up, by adults that she was "mature."
posted by gemutlichkeit at 1:42 PM on January 2, 2017 [14 favorites]

From a history teacher of mine: "First time, incidence. Second time, coincidence. Third time, fact." I have used that in so many areas of my life.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:49 PM on January 2, 2017 [33 favorites]

Plato's idea of the interior life of the individual being analogous to that of the larger society they reside within.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Combined with the above, it gives me a powerful way of thinking about what is truly kind: would I want to be put in the position I'm putting them in? Goes beyond just being nice.

Bruce Alexander's idea of addiction being a consequence of the destruction of social fabric.

The three above are pretty well knit together. They led into one another in my reading.

Finally: Graeber's categories of economic relationships: equitable (fair exchange: I give you $5, you give me a hamburger), communistic (doing favors in the office for a colleague without keeping accounts), and custom (I go to work and write code, my boss gives me money).
posted by billjings at 1:57 PM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

When people come to me and ask, "how do I do such and such," I ask them what they're trying to accomplish by doing such and such, as very often I can give a better way to do it than such and such. Working to understand the problem rather than just answering immediate questions has helped give me a great reputation at work.

I use the lessons from How To Make Friends and Influence People all the time to help keep people liking me.

Assume everything you put in writing in the business world will be given to your worst enemy who will try to use it against you. Be careful choosing words and consider the unseen audiences that will read or hear them.

If you show up at a new job and they're doing things in a way that don't make any sense to you, wait a little while before complaining about them or suggesting they could be done better - sometimes there are other factors in why it's done that way that aren't immediately obvious (even if that factor is "this is how the business owner's relative said to do it").
posted by Candleman at 1:59 PM on January 2, 2017 [14 favorites]

The recognition that very little of what occurs in our lives is within our control, coupled with the idea that most of what what determines our experience of life—our interpretation of events—is within our control, has been pretty revolutionary for me.

In a similar vein, it seems sadly true that many people (and all too often myself) prefer being right over being happy.
posted by Cogito at 2:03 PM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Brains are for thinking, paper is for remembering.
posted by mollymayhem at 2:06 PM on January 2, 2017 [57 favorites]

The big ideas of environmental economics: externalities, ecosystem services, and tragedy of the commons.

For some people, explaining their effect on the environment in terms of "how much would it (e.g., freshwater clean enough to be turned into drinking water) cost if you had to pay for it to be manufactured instead of expecting it to be provided for free?" is the only conversation that makes them understand the necessity of environmental regulation.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:06 PM on January 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Maslow's Hierarchy. You have to meet the lower needs (food, shelter, safety) before you can work towards achieving the higher needs (friendship, self-esteem, self-actualization). It's helped me figure out why I can't concentrate (because I'm hungry and tired), to what's going on with an employee (they don't feel safe at home). (And right now, it's explaining why I can't explain it better... I'm tired and hungry!)
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 2:20 PM on January 2, 2017 [16 favorites]

one of my university art professors: don't let your work get too precious
the idea being, don't get so attached to something you have done that you keep at it, and keep it around even when it's not very good. If something isn't working out, ditch it and start over - let the quality of the work be most important thing.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:20 PM on January 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

Social work (I'm not a LCSW, but have worked in/around the field most of my life).

Someone told me years ago in my first job fresh out of college: "You can't help someone more than they are willing to help themselves."

I've found I can fight my heart out for someone who's genuinely working hard to do what they need to do (even if they're struggling with depression, anxiety, or other barriers that make it seem like they're "not trying hard enough"). But if someone just wants me to carry my burden and their own, I'll end up burning out -- and I'm actually hurting them as well, by not respecting their own strengths and ability to care for themselves.

And what candleman said above: Teaching someone how to solve a problem is better than telling them how to solve it.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:21 PM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think new supervisors/managers all go through the same series of "light bulb" moments if they're to become good at what they do.

The obvious first one is "you can't do everything yourself." You have to delegate the grunt work or you're limiting yourself to the output of one person. That might mean sometimes someone will do something differently than you would have. It's ok. Send it back for a redo, or if it's close enough, mention it for next time. DON'T hover over them while they work, because then you might as well do it yourself, and that's what you're trying NOT to do.

The second one is "you're not the expert anymore." Even if you could do everything yourself, you don't want to. They're the experts, get out of their way. Which is not to say don't lead or second-check things. But your leadership should be more about what outcome you want, and WHY, and less about how to do it (initial training excepted). They might make a wrong decision, but you can't make them consult you on every decision without becoming the bottleneck. If you develop people with correct instincts and principles, they will make the right decisions. Probably better ones than you would, since they're the experts. If they aren't, you aren't giving them the information they need to do that.

The third one, and this is the hardest and most controversial... some people will not agree with me. It sounds mean and backwards, but it's true. Maybe it's more true in large organizations than small ones. Your people below you are not your most important team. Everyone knows a good manager takes care of their people. Yes! but that's taken way too far by newer managers. A good manager does not put their people above everyone else in the org. You are not their defense lawyer when they've done something wrong. You don't get them good deals at the expense of other people's employees. You don't "protect" them from doing their fair share of the un-fun part of the work. Turns out, your most important team isn't your boss and the chain of command above you either. It's the horizontal network of people at your level across the org chart. If you have an effective informal mafia of people in every department looking out for their same-level brothers and sisters across the organization, lending a hand when necessary, the "taking care of your people" part becomes really easy.
posted by ctmf at 2:30 PM on January 2, 2017 [55 favorites]

Working to understand the problem rather than just answering immediate questions has helped give me a great reputation at work.

In library school we learned that people often try to solve their information needs in the places that they feel comfortable, not in the places that necessarily have the best information (I call it the "Light is brighter over here" phenomenon). So if you were going to buy a car, a lot of people (most people) ask friends and family first and only then move on to things like Consumer Reports, car safety ratings, that sort of thing.

If you know this is true about people, you can help them with their information needs in a more situationally appropriate way that will actually help them solve their problem, not give them "better" information that they won't actually take and/or use. The whole idea of the "reference interview" taught me that learning and understanding things is iterative, not just a "you ask, I answer" scenario, and that this is a GOOD thing about the reference/library model as opposed to using a really good search engine which doesn't teach you how to ask questions nd.or solve information-seeking problems.
posted by jessamyn at 2:31 PM on January 2, 2017 [23 favorites]

Backwards Planning. Which I think a lot of people who are instinctually just good teachers already do without knowing what it's called, but a surprising number of people--even people who have taught their whole lives--need it spelled out. And it's useful for a lot more than just classroom teaching.

Unrelatedly, the Confucian thinker Xunzi really clarified for me a lot of ideas on the role of institutions in human societies. Human nature stinks (that is actually from the Chinese, as in 'smells bad') and the rituals and institutions we perform and form have no supernatural effects and aren't magic but it's important that we do them anyway, and do them right, because that's how we train ourselves away from being so sucky.
posted by soren_lorensen at 2:34 PM on January 2, 2017 [11 favorites]

In 8th grade (many many years ago for me) my science teacher had us run an "experiment." We dropped moth balls into carbonated water and were to observe the results. I think there where supposed to sink then rise (I didn't know this ten) But they didn't. Many students wrote "Nothing happened." He pointed out that something always happens. There is always something to report. Did they sink? Did they float? How did they float? Barely, or sitting on top of the liquid? And on and on. The light bulb clicked on for me.

Much later in life I used this daily as a journalist and just as an observer of life. I wish I could thank him.
posted by cccorlew at 2:39 PM on January 2, 2017 [25 favorites]

BlahLaLa - my dad's version of that was: "once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action." He was an Army officer and a Vietnam vet, so that probably had a lot to do with his version.

One that I live by, especially when I'm faced with something I don't want to do but need to do, is simply: "doing gets it done."

Another one that I use, when faced with someone who is behaving in a way that I find to be mean/malicious/irrational, etc. is: "the villain is the hero in his own story." That usually makes me step back a bit and try to see things from a different angle. Of course, sometimes what I see is the old saying of: "never attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity," but at least I tried...
posted by ralan at 2:40 PM on January 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

From medical school: don't ask a question if the answer isn't going to change your behavior.
posted by telegraph at 2:46 PM on January 2, 2017 [41 favorites]

Also along the same lines of understanding problems, the idea of Cargo Cults, or more specifically Cargo Cult Programming, which I also see applied outside of programming.

As an example, a few jobs ago we had a series of interconnected pieces of equipment that a complete reset of would take about 10 minutes, which was very business disruptive. People that didn't understand how the pieces connected together would tell the junior employees to always just reset everything when there was a problem. As long as you performed the magic ritual, you got the desired outcome, even if it came at a disruptive cost.

I tried to teach how to recognize what caused specific problems and how to fix them, as generally issues could be resolved in seconds if one took the time to understand how the equipment interacted with each other.
posted by Candleman at 3:02 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

People will often do what they're incentivized to do, even if it's at a negative cost to their peers or the company as a whole. If you observe large numbers of people doing bad things that benefit themselves, perhaps it's time to reconsider the incentives.

At my present job, there is an effectively meaningless thing that needs to be done sometimes. However, some people's leadership penalizes them by denying them bonuses if they do the effectively meaningless thing. Therefore, those people fight to keep process improvements that would have tangible benefits for everyone from happening if the improvements would cause them to have to do the meaningless things. Those people aren't bad per se, they're just doing what they're incentivized to do.

Similarly, stack ranking is bad because, among other reasons, it incentivizes people to make sure they do better than their teammates, even if the result is making the entire department less efficient by failing to collaborate or working to make their coworkers' do poorly rather than trying to improve their own work.
posted by Candleman at 3:15 PM on January 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

I once had to come up with a strategy for lobbying state legislators to support arts funding. It wasn't until I read Wendell Berry's Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition that I had any notion of how to proceed. It was definitely a MOOC and I have returned to this quote many times since.

"We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love. To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know."
posted by pjsky at 3:20 PM on January 2, 2017 [16 favorites]

Fall down 9, stand up 10.
Your job is not you.
posted by forforf at 3:26 PM on January 2, 2017

This: http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/
posted by Sunnyshe at 3:50 PM on January 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

The hardest thing I've had to learn was in the Hospital Corps. During a mass casualty event when resources are limited, and you are forced to choose between spending a little time and supplies keeping someone alive or spending the same to get someone back in action, the second is the right choice.

Living where we can spend a lot of resources trying to save someone who's probably going to die is a wonderful thing.
posted by ridgerunner at 3:57 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

From my graduate school advisor: emotions are like weather-they come and go. Also: do before you think too much. So I try not to respond from a place of emotion and I spend more time getting shit done than thinking about maybe someday doing shit. It works.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 3:59 PM on January 2, 2017 [16 favorites]

The sunk cost fallacy, which helped me justify dropping the class I learned about it in.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:01 PM on January 2, 2017 [50 favorites]

Everyone lies, and to no more than themselves therefore If you're trying to effect a change it's not enough to be right you have to be an effective salesperson.

Humans are the story-telling-people. Anything internalized needed to be remembered which requires understanding and that only happens in the context of a narrative. If a pupil consistently comes away with the 'wrong lesson' investigate the underlying narrative.

During the skill acquisition phase of a complex learning plan failure isn't simply acceptable but required. Don't rush in to rescue, don't interrupt too early; nothing teaches efficiently than rescuing one's self from the brink of disaster. A teacher's role is to engineer the safe opportunity to play on the precipice.
posted by mce at 4:08 PM on January 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

This question triggered a memory - the question is different but provoked several similar answers: http://ask.metafilter.com/224805/How-do-you-spot-an-amateur
posted by mce at 4:13 PM on January 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

The book "What Happened on Lexington Green; an Inquiry into the Nature and Method of History," read in freshman history, changed my life. Every history book I read before that told us what happened. This book presents a series of conflicting eyewitness accounts, then follows that with paragraphs from history texts that gave absolute statements that were not supported by those accounts. This book helped me to understand the complexity of history and the impossibility of knowing. It also showed me how point of view can influence what is often presented as fact.
posted by FencingGal at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Praise publicly. Criticize privately.

Perfect is the enemy of Done.

Follow the money.

The numbers don't lie.
posted by Capri at 4:27 PM on January 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

Jessamyn already commented about one of the two library school things I came in here to talk about, so I'll talk about the other: keeping information over a long period of time is really hard, because formats change, technology becomes obsolete, etc. so the way to handle that is by the maxim "lots of copies keep stuff safe" (LOCKSS). All of my most important documents are in more than one place, and periodically I make sure that they're still accessible and maybe add another location if the places I'm storing stuff doesn't include a new place that I would look for it. For instance, my birth certificate is in a safety deposit box, but I've got a paper copy in my files at home, and I scanned it to pdf and put that in my email, dropbox, and in a file on my hard drive. When pdf is no longer a widely used format, I'll convert it to whatever's next.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:57 PM on January 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

Monte Carlo!
posted by 8603 at 5:03 PM on January 2, 2017

The principles in economics of the supply and demand curves. Explains almost everything about why certain business transactions never seem to work out as hoped for and why there's almost never a "bargain" to be had. Markets are usually pretty ruthless and efficient. Once you really "get" this you can see business failures coming pretty far ahead of time.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:04 PM on January 2, 2017

Successful people are failing constantly. There's a couple of different ways they might deal with it, but the ways they deal with failure differ pretty markedly from people who aren't successful.

As another useful one in the same direction?

Remarkably successful people are talented and don't get stopped by a lotta failure... but they're also remarkably lucky, at least once. No one who's a billionaire got there without significant amounts of randomness involved, whether they realize it or not. (Many do, some don't.)

Which leads me to #3:

One type of luck is often being willing to toss out a lot of work and accept change if the change looks like it's going to work out better than your original plan. If you're unwilling to accept change, the odds are very good you consider yourself "unlucky".
posted by talldean at 5:04 PM on January 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

Conservation biology is about managing people, not animals
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:19 PM on January 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

First articulated to me in library school, this question has helped me get to the bottom of both UX issues to which customers try to provide the solution ("the problem is that we need another button,") and parental tech support issues:

"What problem are you (or the user/customer) trying to solve?"

It's almost always appropriate and can lead to much more creative approaches.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:27 PM on January 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

The Pareto Principle, which says that 80% of problems can be attributed to 20% of causes. (In retrospect it may not be ideal for a young engineering student to apply that theory to class work; 20% of the effort will not always earn 80% of the grade!)
posted by beandip at 5:40 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Intersectionality. The idea that people can experience oppression and discrimination along multiple axes, that all of those pieces fit together. The idea that you have to look at the whole social and cultural picture to understand the context of a person's problems, be they medical or emotional.

I'm a nurse now, but I studied cultural anthropology before. Other RNs somtimes ask me if it's really true that I use anthropology ideas in my practice, but I don't know how I could not. Intersectionality is what helps me tailor patient education to better accommodate homeless patients without consistent access to medicine, or understand the extra stigma my psych patients of color face. I can't treat them without taking all the circumstances into account.
posted by ActionPopulated at 5:46 PM on January 2, 2017 [22 favorites]

Anthropology: nobody does anything for 'no good reason.' Nobody at all. Not even people you don't understand, not even people you hate, not even people who do things which you personally can't imagine a good reason for doing.

The reason might be based on wrong or incomplete information, or on a system of beliefs which is way different from yours, but it is a reason.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:54 PM on January 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

Phonology and the concept of a phoneme.
posted by spitbull at 6:03 PM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

slinking back in to the thread to confess that I thought MOOC stood for Moment*Of*Outstanding*Clarity. Which, to be honest, is more interesting to me than Massive Open Online Course.



slinks away
posted by pjsky at 6:23 PM on January 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

From an old university professor: "Nothing real is ever ideal, and vice versa."

Don't worry about criticism or mistakes, since once something is out of your head and put on paper or otherwise brought into existence, it will be flawed. The only perfect things are the ones that don't actually exist. So get on with it.
posted by rpfields at 6:31 PM on January 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

Your client's problems are not your problems. Meaning: don't get personal at work, and don't take work home.
posted by mchorn at 6:44 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

People think they understand teaching and that it's easy, unskilled work, because they spent so much time as students - Lortie's "apprenticeship of observation."
posted by Peach at 6:52 PM on January 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

The adages "a good craftsman never blames his tools" and "those who can't do, teach" were invented by incompetents.

You haven't mastered a craft until you know exactly how your tools limit you and you haven't really learned something until you've tried to teach it.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:03 PM on January 2, 2017 [21 favorites]

My constitutional law prof pointed out that each time the Supreme Court told the states, "No, you can't just renege on that contract/charter," it took away a little of the states' freedom (in the sense of immediate options) in that particular instance, but vastly increased the states' freedom (in the larger sense of opportunity for action) by giving their promises the value that only legal enforceability can provide. That's a lesson that resonates for me far beyond the subject of contract law.
posted by aws17576 at 7:04 PM on January 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Law school: Just because there's a rule against something doesn't mean you can't do it. You weigh the consequences of doing it against the consequences of not doing it, and then decide. (Epiphany for me, an inveterate rule follower.)
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:06 PM on January 2, 2017 [15 favorites]

"So what?" - or the diplomatic version - in response to a fact stated as if its relevance were self-evident and beneath being worthy of discussion.

"And then what happens?" The end of a project is where its impacts begin. Why aren't we analyzing that as carefully as we're analyzing the project?
posted by Homer42 at 7:51 PM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Suzanne Briet's "A document is proof in support of a fact" and specifically her declaration that an antelope can be a document (antelope in wild -- not document; antelope in zoo -- yes document). The way that Briet blew up the idea of document really changed how I think about documentation and information and conservation. Yay library school.
posted by librarylis at 8:16 PM on January 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Two things, both from music, helped with immediate problems and with a larger view.

First, the idea that while we have the technology to produce a flawless repetition of any given piece of music, only humans can give a performance. That is what is of interest - not that you perform a piece perfectly, but what you have to say with it. That even your mistakes say: I am human, this is live, this is the moment of now.

Second, I had no, none, zero internal sense of rhythm until well, very late in my musical life. I only knew when I got it wrong that it was disconcerting in some fundamental way to other people. Then when I was working on a Bach fugue (which - you cannot do without rhythm, or you will die, as a solo string player), my teacher asked, what if people were dancing to this? How would that go, if you rush here, then hang up there? And it really was a switch he flipped in me. From then on - steady as a rock, verified by other people, who do not believe me when I told then how awful I once was. Because the sense of rhythm I have now is internal.

Both of these things taught me the deeper lesson of thinking about what people need from me. They don't need you to play a perfect performance - they need you to tell them a story. They do need a structure, a rhythm, explained to them; they predict it, and it throws them off if it's not there. The idea of what people need has helped me a lot.
posted by Dashy at 8:21 PM on January 2, 2017 [21 favorites]

Nursing instructor: "Is this the hill you want to die on?" (Don't argue about things that aren't important.)
posted by Amalie-Suzette at 8:43 PM on January 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Some people are interested in the experience of being disappointed. Nothing is ever good enough for them and they're always unhappy about everything. Once you learn to recognize them and stop trying to make them happy your life becomes much easier.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:46 PM on January 2, 2017 [13 favorites]

1. You can't 'think' someone out of a position which they 'felt' themself into.

2. Every node on an IP network makes routing decisions.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 8:46 PM on January 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

"There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you have made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you have made a discovery." —Enrico Fermi.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:53 PM on January 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Every city needs an economic reason to exist, and the number of possible reasons is pretty small.
posted by lakeroon at 9:16 PM on January 2, 2017

People may mistakenly think that ethics are about good vs bad (right vs wrong) but any true ethical* issue worth discussing is actually about competing goods.

(This is something worth bearing in mind in our increasingly polarised political debates. Instead of "I am right; you are EVIL INCARNATE!" it would be more useful to say "Your approach is good and values X. Mine is also good but values Y. Now, is there any way we can come up with an approach that satisfies X and Y in an acceptable balance?")

* Also applicable to law, economics, policy, etc.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:40 PM on January 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

When learning to become a special education teacher, the only acceptable answer to, "I need help!" is "What do you think you should do?" then WAIT.

Years of teachers jumping in to be helpful ultimately teaches every single kid that they're unable to independently problem solve anything.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:56 AM on January 3, 2017 [15 favorites]

From outdoor education:

When evaluating the risk of a certain course of action, think about both the severity of the worst possible consequences and the likelihood of the worst consequences happening. Letting kids or students deal with the unpleasant but not dangerous consequences of their actions often teaches them better than telling them 2 million times to do something (or not do something).
posted by colfax at 3:45 AM on January 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sayings and tidbits I heard during my education that have been very helpful in my career in scientific research:
Listen to your data
Don't fall in love with your hypothesis
Make sure you can see the forest through the trees (eg don't miss the big picture by getting bogged down with details)
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
posted by emd3737 at 4:01 AM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

The fact that I can't sum up one single brilliant thing I learned in my Ph.D. is actually making me really happy right now.

But the most "unique and general at the same time" -- and what I am most grateful for in general-- is Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process, how I learned to give dramaturgical feedback. It's a process for giving artists feedback. But it has DARE I SAY made me a better person too. Read the book, but...

1. Statements of fact-- things you saw/heard that stood out for you that you remember
2. Questions from the artist-- sometimes skip this one
3. Neutral questions-- it is so hard to ask a neutral question when you are a born and bred smartass! The example I learned was asking "What kind of texture were you going for?" instead of "why is the cake so dry?"
4. Opinions with permission-- "I have an opinion about the ending. Do you want to hear it?" RADICAL.
posted by athirstforsalt at 4:19 AM on January 3, 2017 [22 favorites]

In no particular order, I don't necessarily believe all these things any more but they all changed how I looked at something I thought I understood.

Just because you're not deliberately using things like the way you dress to communicate a message doesn't mean that you're not communicating a message. Attempting to "opt-out" sends the message "I'm not interested in playing this game" which is not an unmarked, zero-content message.

Don't be fooled by the idea of a dream job. Most people's idea of what it is like to do a particular job reflect less than 10% of what you'll actually do. Job satisfaction is driven by autonomy and respect which are driven by mastery. You might be surprised by what you would enjoy doing as a job if you were the world's expert at it and people treated you accordingly.

If you have to do something you don't like, that is more and not less of a reason to have an efficient and systematic programme for it. A lot of people who don't like going to the gym or being at work sure do spend a lot of time fucking around while they're there, if they were focused and efficient they might be able to spend 20% less time at a place they purport to dislike.

Related to the above. Learn to recognise coping mechanisms and understand your own. Not all coping mechanisms produce desirable long term results.

Grades are a closed end scale, most things in life are not. School and undergraduate years reward doing just enough in every area to get an A. People who are successful do enough to get the life equivalent of a C in most areas and massively outperform on a few very narrow things. That includes post-graduate academia.


If you believe that our system massively advantages capital and business over labour, the self interested thing to do is to divert as much as possible of your labour derived income into starting a business and/or accumulating capital.

Becoming a billionaire might be mostly luck, but many famous billionaires would have ended up merely millionaires if they hadn't been quite as lucky. That's still not bad.

Becoming content with spending less money (as a permanent life choice rather than a temporary deprivation) has a double effect for a young wage earner because it simultaneously increases savings now and reduces required investment income post-retirement.

Money doesn't solve any problems, except for the very large class of problems caused by not having money.
posted by atrazine at 4:43 AM on January 3, 2017 [10 favorites]

And lastly, people are really bad at estimating odds and responding to them for often irrational reasons, the canonical example of which is people driving long distances to avoid flying to be safer, when they're far more likely to die from doing so than flying. Catching and stopping yourself and your allies from doing it can save a lot of grief.
posted by Candleman at 4:49 AM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is something I learned about event organising, but it applies to plenty of other things too.

It can make you feel really useful and important and competent if you are ridiculously busy running around and solving three problems at once during an event. But it's a sign of a much more competent organiser if nobody at all has to run about or firefight or work extra unplanned hours or forget their meal break.
posted by emilyw at 5:14 AM on January 3, 2017 [20 favorites]

Lots of good ideas here.

A guy at a business seminar suggested that when a problem seems to have no possible solution, you put aside the fact that no solution is possible, and ask what a solution would look like if it were possible. Often you will see that the obstacles can be overcome.

One of the big lessons that I learned in college was in physics class, and that was to keep track of and reconcile the units (length, time, etc) in which all the factors are measured. In physics, the units on one side of the equal side always match the units on the other. This is the key to those annoying word problems from elementary school, and much else.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:15 AM on January 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

From my engineering education and career:

"In theory, theory and practice are the same.

In practice, they're not. "
posted by alchemist at 6:18 AM on January 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

Similar to "the light is brighter over here", when I end up dealing with people who say "I need you to do this thing!" I'll often fall back to asking "What is the problem you are trying to solve?" When I'm lucky, I can even use this on myself.

Also, as part of a intro to management course, I read "Getting to Yes", which totally exploded my brain as far as negotiations and such. Just the idea of codifying a BATNA ("Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement") in negotiations was a big a-ha moment for me.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:26 AM on January 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

Not making a decision is still a decision, and often the worst choice as it leads to paralysis. Not just for yourself, but often the fallout can be worse for the folks who depend on the outcome of that decision. Even a bad decision is usually correctable, and so better than nothing at all.

Deferring a decision isn't the same thing as not deciding. It is a choice too, but a choice to act later, often when you have better information. But you need to be careful that waiting too long doesn't turn into a "no decision" situation.
posted by bonehead at 8:53 AM on January 3, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is a life lesson: Get the right tool. If you can't get the right tool, find the solution that uses the tool you can get.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:33 AM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

My biggest one, learnt at work rather than in my academic non-career is: don't be shy about promoting good things that you've done. If your work's going to be useful for other people, then you're doing them a favour by making them believe in it.
posted by ambrosen at 10:15 AM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

A political science professor used to shut down our overanalyzing things by barking, "Occam, people, Occam!" It was his way of reminding us of Occam's Razor, which states that the simplest explanation, which requires fewer assumptions, is often the correct one.

I remind myself of this often when I try to overcomplicate things, and I've used it with select teams at work.
posted by writermcwriterson at 11:27 AM on January 3, 2017

Those in power benefit from keeping us fighting among our selves.
Explains so much...
posted by SyraCarol at 11:35 AM on January 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Your span of influence is wider than your span of control. Use your span of influence, don't ignore it. Use it for good, not evil. And don't confuse influence with control.

Related, often the best way to achieve change in an organization with a lot of inertia isn't to try to sell your change to upper management as a sweeping thing Everyone Must Do. Often it's to just go ahead and make the change in your area of control. If it's a good idea, it'll spread virally to neighboring areas. "Be the change you want to see" isn't just a political slogan.

Sometimes you'll find out it wasn't as good an idea as you thought. That's ok too.
posted by ctmf at 3:54 PM on January 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

Speed kills.
posted by spitbull at 5:11 AM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

The most useful "bonus" lesson I got in grad school was Hollander's theory of "Idiosyncrasy Credits." This model has proven applicable in every context, personal and business, since then.

The next most enduringly useful "off-syllabus" thing I learned is how to do an "80/20 Scan" of any non-fiction books for research/quick learning purposes. The idea is to get 80% of the useful information a book has to offer by spending a short period of time with it. Basically a collection of tips (e.g. always read the preface to the book as it is basically instruction on how to read the book for various purposes and tells you what you can ignore, find one thing in the book you already know well and use that to gauge the credibility of the source, skim chapter subtitles, figures and tables first then read in depth, read the ends of the chapters first because that is usually a summary of what was said, etc.). Doesn't replace deep reading, but ensures your deep reading is most efficient if all you are seeking is information.
posted by cross_impact at 7:11 AM on January 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

I did my undergraduate degree in Computer Science and am currently studying Law, and a concept that is common to both of them is the need to look to the margins of a problem or a solution to see where it is going to fail and try to ensure it will fail gracefully. It's not enough in either sphere to craft code/contracts that address the successful path, they have to address the ways things go wrong.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:10 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

The principle of comparative advantage, one of the few counter-intuitive fundamentals of economics. (with commentary here by Paul Krugman).
posted by storybored at 7:47 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Entropy requires no maintenance.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:48 PM on January 10, 2017

- 99% of problems are systems problems.

- In the first iteration, don't design for outliers. Design for the majority, or nothing will get done.

- Never argue with those who are religious about anything (including things that aren't religions).

- Nothing you do will make you live forever, and nothing anybody else does is going to make them live forever either.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:12 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Unbreak my heart, untotal my car.   |   Distributions/Plots for Social Sciences Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.