The title for today’s musings comes from Sting’s single 50,000 from 57TH & 9TH. An interesting lyric that instantly caught my attention given my current absent minded investigations. I’ve spent a great amount of time lately contemplating success and failure and what we learn from both.
Two book suggestions, a tandem tangent if you will, come to mind. One an old friend, How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method, Polya’s masterpiece still stands the test of time, really can’t recommend it enough. I wish it were required reading for all majors upon entrance to the hallowed halls of universities everywhere. It can be transformative, even a transcendental experience for absent minded types open to such things. It most certainly was for me. The new edition has a bit of biography on Polya from the foreword by Conway, and for those on the road to find out, I found this section very dear to my heart:
He enrolled at the University of Budapest in 1905, initially studying law, which he soon dropped because he found it too boring. He then obtained the certification needed to teach Latin, and Hungarian at a gymnasium, a certification that he never used but of which he remained proud. Eventually his professor, Alexander Bernát advised him that to help his studies in philosophy, he should take some mathematics and physics courses. This was how he came to mathematics. Later, he joked that he “wasn’t good enough for physics, and too good for philosophy–mathematics is in between.”
The strange relationship that comes from the freedom to pursue academic interests, to find those strange loops at work in your own brain and tease out the relationships within, in order to not only define who you are, but to actually find yourself within (we are as much lurking potential in marble and granite, waiting to be chiseled and sculpted, as those great works of art by the masters)… and yet the guiding hands of those who see potential and point us in new directions to find it, those timely miraculous external interventions of fate, as much a part of the process as the internal. A master needs an apprentice as much as an apprentice needs a master. Polya is a master craftsman when it comes to his work, and How to Solve It is highly recommended for all those seeking to unlock potential within themselves.
My second tangent recommendation is more casual fare, Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains by Sam Weinman. I’ve had a lot of skeptical responses to this title, the exasperated not another self-help book for losers collective sigh of resignation. But Win at Losing isn’t that, it is character assessment/study of several individuals who overcame adversity to achieve. I’m a big believer in learning from failure, that quote from Meet the Robinsons: “From failure we learn, from success not so much.”
Scientists and inventors know this instinctively, reinforced by trial and error. Philosophers and logicians tend to have open minds to failure as well. We learn from mistakes, you can make the argument that it is how the mind wires itself…from learning from failure. But as a society, we’ve come to compartmentalize failure into taboo boxes, and tend to marginalize those who fail instead of collectively learning from mistakes. A very anti-intellectual exercise to this absent minded philosopher observing the toll it is having on individuals. We are pushing entire generations into a don’t act/don’t try zone from fear of failure. We can’t all be masters of low-hanging fruit as it were however. And a failure to push boundaries and explore the unknown preceding from an innate fear of failure is now in my humble opinion, a national crisis. The fact that we’re trying to create ‘creative’ robots and AI speaks to the truth that we’re so scared of failure now we are going to sublimate the best parts of human cognition into the artificial realm. How soon will we even regulate dreams to those electrical circuits lest we be disturbed and roused to think about thinking…
Win at Losing is a great look at individuals and the lessons learned from defeat and failure. Highly recommend for those suffering from fear of learning from mistakes and by extension participating in life itself.