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Kids Do the Most Incredible Things

Summary: Kids do incredible things. Instead of trying to teach them as little adults, give them some tools and flexibility and see what they create. They may not do what you expect, but it’s fascinating (and funny) to see how they think.

Blake and I were watching our morning spoonful of Jimmy Kimmel as Jimmy chatted with the youngest American member of Mensa. He started with a very sweet conversation with two-year-old Kashe West about trains and ice cream. Then, to show off her intelligence, Jimmy quizzed her on the elements of the periodic table, showing her the symbol “K” for potassium and asking her facts about the element.

Tricks like this are impressive because a two-year-old has learned something that most adults don’t know. But what’s really happening is that Kashe is exhibiting an early form of reading. When a child learns to read they start with sight words, connecting symbols to words in the same way Kashe is doing. Kashe doesn’t know that Pottasium is spelled “P-o-t-a-s-s-i-u-m.” To her, it could easily have been spelled “K.”

Children and adults learn differently, so what’s impressive for a child is different from what’s impressive for an adult. Artificial Intelligence researchers often point out that it’s much easier for a computer to learn how to play chess than to learn how to function as a one-year-old child. A one-year-old needs to take in inputs from the world and create a whole map of the world from nothing. That’s far harder than playing world-class chess, a game based on logic.

Children are language sponges. They can even create new languages. In his book, The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker writes that adults thrown into a new language may never fully grasp it. They often create a pidgin hybrid between the old and new languages with no consistent grammar. However, their children will not only grasp the new and old languages but will create an entirely new language, a creole, with defined rules based on that pidgin hybrid.

A friend told me about her two-year-old was playing with his Italian grandparents on his father’s side and the American grandparents on his mother’s side. He picked up an apple and showed it to his maternal grandparents and said, “apple.” Then he took it over to his paternal grandparents and said, “mela.” Then he smiled at his discovery.

I can’t blame Jimmy Kimmel for being impressed by the young member of Mensa. It’s easy to get confused when we see a child doing something that they aren’t “supposed” to do. Recently, I was trying to get an eight-year-old to do his homework. He wasn’t in the mood. But he protested by saying, “I don’t find satisfaction in doing this work.” I didn’t know what to say! Maybe I should explain to him about satisfaction and how life isn’t always fair. Or maybe how satisfaction isn’t always the goal. Then I realized that this was just a more complicated way of saying “I don’t like doing this.” Once I realized this, I answered “You don’t have to like it. Just do it!”

Children learning sight words can cause adults problems. One teacher thought it would be good to start with a single word and point it out as she read the book to him. If you’re going to choose one word, you might as well start with the word “the” the most common word in the English language. The kid got pretty good and every time the teacher came to that word, the child would point and say, “the.”

One afternoon a babysitter took the child on a walk. The child said, “The…” and point for ten seconds like a statue. The babysitter waited for him, thinking he had a frozen muscle disorder. Then, she finally let out an exasperated, “The what?! What are you pointing at?!”

She later learned that the child was showing off his newfound skill of reading, pointing out the word “the” on street signs, store awnings, and even the occasional restaurant menu.

Similar to Pinker’s concepts about language, children can understand other concepts better than adults. We often think that kids need to be spoon-fed concepts in a very rigid way—the way that we would teach them to an adult. But when you let the kids direct the learning, you get some surprising results.

I know a child who picked up some math concepts far earlier than he’s supposed to. He goes to his first math class, meant for first graders, just as he’s turning four. His first math homework said, “Draw a line between the numeral and the written word. For example, draw a line between the number ‘4’ and the written word ‘four.'”

He said “I don’t know how to do this.”

And the teacher said, “Well do you know what the numeral ‘4’ is?”

“Yes. This.” he pointed.

“OK then. The letters F O U R make the word four.”

“I know that too,” he said impatiently.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“What does draw a line mean?”

Here’s my final learning trick for kids. You can try it yourself. Dragon Box is a puzzle game for kids, but it’s secretly teaching them algebra. How old do you think a kid needs to be to learn algebra? 11? 12? With Dragon Box kids can learn the basics of algebra when they’re as young as five.

A five year old doing algebra

Kids do incredible things. Instead of trying to teach them as little adults, give them some tools and flexibility and see what they create. They may not do what you expect, but it’s fascinating (and funny) to see how they think.

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When My Career Caught the Mail Truck

Intro: One of my friends told me that at 33, married with a baby, she’s doing some soul searching. She thought at some point that she’d be set and have figured out her career, but she’s realized that things never settle and it’s all journey. This makes her a little sad and confused. Here’s my response:

Willy Wonka: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.”

Charlie Bucket: “What happened?”

Willy Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I used to think that there was a way to win the game of life. I thought there was a general scheme to the world and if I just worked hard enough, things would work out awesomely. This worked for a while. If I worked hard at school, I would get into a great college. If I worked hard in college I would get a great job. I thought this is the way that life worked too.

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COVID Ideas

The Future of the Hybrid Office

It’s time to go back to the office. Some of us are already there and others, like me, will be back sometime in 2021. A lot has changed since 2019. Now we all know what a fully remote workforce looks like and most of us know how to host a Zoom meeting (though it’s still surprising how many times I need to tell people to mute their phones).

In his annual letter to JP Morgan shareholders, Jamie Dimon says that he learned that “Performing jobs remotely is more successful when people know one another and already have a large body of existing work to do. It does not work as well when people don’t know one another.” I learned these lessons over years of working in hybrid environments. When I was at AIG, my entire team, including my boss and my teammates were all based in Charlotte North Carolina while I was based in New York. We learned that we needed to meet in person a few times a year to build trust and agree on what to do. These conversations were imperative to getting everyone on the same page. These were the times to have disagreements about what to focus on and what could be postponed. We left these meetings with a plan. Then we could all travel to our own locations and get our work done.

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Watching Clubhouse Get Built in Real-Time

There’s something special about being an early adopter. There are obviously painful things like capacity limits and features that don’t work quite right. But the wonderful thing, if it’s done right, is that the community and the founders work together to build something magical.

That’s the feeling on Clubhouse now. I’ve been playing around with the platform for a week. I’ve been in these unfiltered rooms with Joe Rogan, Marc Andresson, and Guy Raz. The rooms are currently capped at 8,000 users because of platform constraints. Back when I started on the platform last week is was 5,000 users. Then 7,000 users. Then, on Friday night when I joined the Joe Rogan Room (which maxed out at 7,000 users on Joe’s first day), and Paul Davison, one of the founders of Clubhouse, said, “Oh, during this call it looks like we’ve raised the limit to 8,000 users.”

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Zaid’s Unopened Hannukah Present

It was December 19, 2012. I’m horrible with dates but I remember this one. My grandparents, Bubbie and Zaid,(1)In Yiddish Bubbie means grandmother and Zaid means grandfather. had come over. They came over about once a week. We had these good Jewish grandparent/grandkid fights around how much food they should bring. They wanted to bring 2 chickens a week, some pastrami, some latkas, a quart of matzo ball soup, and then maybe something for us to eat that night when they came over. We had to explain that the fridge was already full from last week’s delivery so maybe they could just bring one chicken that week.

I was excited to give Zaid his Hanukah present. I’d gotten him a limited edition “subscription box” box from a company called Quarterly. We were getting a box curated by John Maeda. Maeda is my favorite digital artist/designer who has a wonderful way of looking at the world. When he was the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) he said, “America is a weird country. It’s like I was a waitress somewhere, and now I’m in a movie—a futuristic astronaut cast in a new kind of Wild West picture. [At RISD] I get to make, like, a Space Western.”(2)Maeda’s box was part of a RISD initiative called STEAM. STEAM = STEM + Arts & Humanities.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 In Yiddish Bubbie means grandmother and Zaid means grandfather.
2 Maeda’s box was part of a RISD initiative called STEAM. STEAM = STEM + Arts & Humanities.
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Dolly and Me: Dolly Parton’s America Podcast

Abigail and I rarely listen to the same podcasts or read the same books. We watch TV together or movies together but that’s more about sharing the experience—especially in the pandemic. But I like play snooty public radio podcasts and Abigail really likes reading about history and politics.(1)This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.” Abigail, coming from East Tennessee, kept trying to get me to listen to Dolly Parton’s America. She told me it’s this amazing podcast about Dollywood and Tenessee, where she grew up.

Then I was looking at the recent Peabody Awards (again, big media nerd). Dolly Parton’s America won a Peabody for excellence in broadcasting. Also it was produced by Jad Abumrad, of Radiolab, one of the best radio producers in the world. Between Abigail and Jad, I had to listen to it and I’m so glad I did.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.”
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Books / Audiobooks

Book Report: Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov

Do you remember the legend of John Henry? John Henry was a steel driller in West Virginia or somewhere thereabouts in the late 1800s. He was the best there ever was. Then one day the railroad bought a big steam drill that they said could drill faster than any man. Henry, secure in his abilities (and trying to avoid the unemployment line) challenged the drill (and the company) to a famous battle of “man against machine.” Using two 10-pound hammers, one in each hand, he pounded the drill so fast and so hard that he drilled a 14-foot hole into the rock. The drill, unable to clean off the bits of rock, got stuck nine feet in. But John Henry couldn’t celebrate for long, dying quickly of exhaustion. (1)Here’s Johnny Cash’s The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.

I’m in the middle of the modern-day battle of John Henry and the steam engine. I’m a product manager. It’s my job to find out what customers want and what technology can deliver. Then I figure out how to get the computers to do the job that people need. So you’d think I was on the side of the steam engine, trying to make computers more intelligent so that they can just do everyone’s jobs.

Making computers smarter so they can do things like people is called Artificial Intelligence.(2)Artificial Intelligence is actually more complicated but humor me. A lot of people get very excited about Artificial Intelligence but it’s not as important as you’d think. While there are some things that computers can do better than humans (e.g., recommending movies, finding the quickest route), there’s a far larger and more important set of things that computers aren’t great at—at least by themselves.

In his book Deep Thinking, Gary Kasparov details his battle with Deep Blue and how computer chess, like many other forms of AI, go from laughably bad to incredibly good in just a few years. Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997. He outlines a whole host of reasons including getting flustered in game 2 and IBM hiring a Russian speaker to spy on him. But he concedes that it was only a matter of time before computers were going to beat him.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Here’s Johnny Cash’s The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.
2 Artificial Intelligence is actually more complicated but humor me.
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Books / Audiobooks

Book Report: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Kesey’s Bus

Growing up, I remember hearing the term “Writing the Great American Novel” and not quite knowing what it was. I thought that it was a quest to write the best book ever written. But I later learned that The Great American Novel isn’t about writing the best book ever, it’s about creating a book that captures a point in American history so crisply and clearly that you can freeze-dry it, put it in a time capsule, and take it out fifty or a hundred years later to examine.

Many of these books are the classics we read in school like The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye. But something strange happened in the 1960s and 70s. The Great American Novel was replaced by the great American non-fiction book. In his essay Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore, Tom Wolfe writes about how novelists at the time were trying to write “important” and “thoughtful” books that were too removed from real life. This created an opening for Wolfe and his fellow writers to write non-fiction books to fill that void.

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Rebuilding a Foundation of Trust

We had a sad day for America this week. Rioters stormed the capital to disrupt the election. Everyone has a right to protest but it’s the way you protest that matters. At its heart, a good protest is about getting your voice heard while letting other people give their voice as well.(1)The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this. This wasn’t a protest, it was an attack on the infrastructure of democracy.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this.
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Book Report: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

This is a book about trying to find your place in the world. Lulu Miller was always looking for a tried and true path through life, and She had a hard time as a kid. Her father was a scientist who had very strong beliefs about his atheism and the beauty and value of science. Though he thought that there was nothing special or holy about other people, he said that you still had to pretend like there was and treat other people well.

Lulu was looking for a template to base her life on. She became enamored with the story of David Starr Jordan, the original president of Stanford University. She tried to figure out how this nerdy taxonomist was able to conquer the world. He was a man who categorized things. He was the world expert on categorizing fish who somehow became a university president. Even when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his entire collection, he didn’t let that get him down. He just sewed the labels on to as many fish as he could find(1)Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off again! and built an even greater collection.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off again!