DRMacIver's Notebook

You Can Do Anything (But You Can’t Do Everything)

You Can Do Anything (But You Can’t Do Everything)

I posted a link to On Fluency on Twitter the other day, which prompted a short conversation about the following paragraph:

Across these experiences, at a low level, my brain has recognized that it can understand things, that given the time and resources, I can figure out what is going on, in almost any domain!

I think this is true, but there is an important caveat: Most of the time you don’t have the time and resources.

It still is a useful thing to believe, and makes for a useful reflective exercise.

Pick a skill it would be nice to learn. Now pretend you have unlimited time, money, and motivation to learn it. Can you learn it? Yes, you almost certainly can. Can you learn it to the standard you want to achieve? Almost certainly unless your standards are incredibly unrealistic.

In fact you have sharp limits on time, money, and motivation, but by imagining you don’t you can start to construct a plan for how you would learn it if you did.

Say I wanted to learn to speak Japanese fluently (I don’t especially. It’s not even high up on my list of languages it would be nice to know). I might do the following:

After five years of that I think it’s fair to say that I would be a fluent Japanese speaker with a reasonable accent.

Could I achieve the same result with less than that? Some of it is overkill. At that level of immersion I might be fluent in, say, two years (probably not, but lets be optimistic). After that, it’s a matter of deciding my trade-offs. If I spent less time on the subject it would take longer. If I didn’t hire the tutors it would require more work and also take longer.

By playing with these numbers I can get a reasonable idea of what sort of time investment would be required and get a rough range of the parameters involved. These don’t have to be especially realistic predictions, they just have to give me a broad sense of what it might look like.

There are a couple things you can then do with this information, but in my case the answer is easy: I’m sure I can learn Japanese, but that is way more work than I want to invest in it, especially given that I don’t particularly care about learning Japanese in the first place.

Because once you leave counterfactual land with your estimate of how much work learning the skill will actually take you, the correct decision is often that it’s not worth that much work. This is because if you decide to spend those years full time working on your Japanese you are then not spending those times on other things you value more highly. As soon as you are resource constrained, you have to start prioritising.

I think this is a thing that it’s often easy to miss: The fact that you can do anything doesn’t mean that you can do everything at once, and deciding to do something necessarily means that there are many other things you are deciding not to do in its place.