Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two theories of self-education

The first is by Paul Graham (HT: Charlie Hoehn), from his rejected high school graduation speech,
I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward…. Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.
The second from Cal Newport, in an IM conversation with Ben Casnocha,
What about the big question of “what should I do with my life?” As you know, my approach is sort of “there is no wrong answer, choose something and focus on it so you’ll start reaping rewards, you can always change later.”... I’ve been a big believer in the 10,000 hour rule. Roughly, that being good at anything takes a long time. If you want to be good at something in your 20s, start in college.
These might at first look similar but on closer inspection they are radically different. Newport is saying that you should choose one topic and commit to specializing it, while Graham believes that you should pick your studies so as to keep your options open in case you choose to switch fields.

I have no way of knowing which tactic is actually more fruitful, but what I like about this dichotomy is that there is no free lunch. What you gain by specializing you give up in terms of ability to switch fields, and what you gain in keeping your options open you give up in terms of expected success in one particular field.

The only other option is a nihilistic stance towards the future, and although I would not prefer it personally, that is probably a rational choice for some people.