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October 14th, 2020
Some things are desirable just because we don’t have them. In fact, most things that are desirable might be so because of this odd facet of human psychology. It’s somehow both a very boring realization and a perennial astonishment to many that happiness doesn’t somehow become a permanent fixture once a certain goal or status or material compilation or situation is achieved. And this includes the near certainty that such people have heard about this counter-intuitive phenomenon. How is it that we don’t integrate the idea into our view effectively?
As with many things that defy intuition, it requires a specific leap of faith to direct actions based on clear thinking as opposed to the more accessible and persuasive emotions of the moment. Another example of such a counter-intuitive phenomenon is our understanding of exponential growth. This can be illustrated with a very simple grade school challenge.
Say we are dealing with a pond, and this pond has lily pads growing on it. Each day the number of lily pads doubles, and on day 50, the lily pads cover the entire surface of the pond. The doubling of lily pads represents an exponential growth. Now the question is: on which day do the lily pads cover just half of the pond?
We tend to think linearly. There are very few instances in nature where we get a sensory experience of exponential growths despite the fact that we are quite literally surrounded by the phenomenon. Most people, when asked about the lily pad scenario will say that the lily pads cover half of the pond around day 25, or sensing that there’s a trick to the answer, perhaps the answer will be earlier or a bit later. For those who haven’t sat down and thought this through recently, it’s surprise to hear that the day when lily pads cover only half the pond is actually on day 49. But of course it makes perfect sense. If the lily pads double once every day, then they go from half the pond to the whole pond in just one day. What’s a bit eerie and strange about this situation with lily pads is that for the first 45 days, it’ll barely look like anything is growing. The growth rate will look and be far less than a linear growth that we’d be able to perceive.
Truly understanding the implications of exponential growth requires a bit of a rewire between what we can know, and what we feel. There’s a certain sort of faith that needs to be rigged up in order to hack our system from sliding down into the normal set of assumptions. It’s perhaps a trivial exercise to wonder if we can ever actually develop a deep intuition about exponents in this respect, but it’s certain that we can develop a bit of an alarm system to pause and consider what’s going on deeply when we recognize that something is or might be demonstrating exponential growth.
Another example of this counter-intuition is far more relatable, and it has to do when we come into a subject that is very difficult. Be it a brand new language, or a skill like learning to code or what have you, the first dip of the toe can make it seem that it’s impossible and that there’s just no way to figure it out. Then, of course, it takes a similar strange bit of faith to believe that the realizations, breakthroughs and eureka moments will come if only a consistent effort and attention is applied.
In so many areas, our emotions lead us astray. This is what our intuition is: it’s an often poorly tuned set of emotional reactions that is supposed to equip each of us with stellar navigational skills. But, there are many pockets of circumstance and subject when counter-intuitive mechanisms function like a magnet held next to our emotional compass. Our sense of direction and prediction is totally warped and we can be easily misdirected. Certainly that emotional compass gets better with time and experience, but there are most definitely some areas where it will be reliably wrong, and in those instances, it’s the intellect that can provide the correct set of directions, but of course, this is only if we can take the time and develop some faith in the process of thoughtfully thinking through what’s going on.