Why Do You Care?

“I can’t imagine not caring.”

My friend and colleague Zac told me of this exchange that came from one of his short stories. Zac and I were discussing our busy schedules over beers at the local karaoke dive bar. For comparison’s sake, Zac is a full-time game designer and could also be described by all of the following titles: Professional book editor, short story writer, screenplay writer, social networking site designer, published poet, political scientist, and literary critic. I’m sure I’ve left some titles out, but I think you get the point.

We have almost no directly overlapping interests – I’m a full-time programmer/developer and also could be described as an amateur biomechanics analyst and researcher, baseball coach, exercise scientist, game theorist, kinesiologist, physics student, pharmacology researcher, and economist. Worth noting, of course, is that I have very little formal education in most of those fields, and that I don’t describe myself as a professional in any of them.

Yet we share the most important thing that makes us such great friends – the passion for knowledge and deep research. We both intensely study fields that nearly everyone thinks are esoteric at best and a waste of time at worst. For Zac, this might be poetry, and for me, this is applied biomechanics as it relates to throwing a baseball (and nothing else). We both spend our “down time” watching world-class lectures on various subjects at Academic Earth (I’m currently watching Walter Lewin’s Physics I: Classical Mechanics series to better understand 3-D Kinematics and Vector decomposition; these are key factors when using Direct Linear Translation in biomechanical analysis) or idly thinking about new entrepreneurial ideas.

Example: I just spent my lunch today listening to Jason Fried’s TED Talk about Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work while picking at some chicken fingers from Whole Foods.

In response to my announcement of the Elo Cube project, someone on my Facebook wall asked me how I “find time” for all of these activities. I glibly responded that “I hustle every day” and “work at least 60 hours per week.” Today, I thought about it more at length and wanted to figure out how many hours per week I spend on activities that most people would consider either “working” or “learning.”

In a typical week, I will spend:

  • 40 hours at my full-time job working as a developer, programmer, and business analyst
  • 10 hours training athletes at my facility
  • 5 hours researching general biomechanics/applied anatomy/kinesiology/exercise science
  • 5 hours watching lectures on Academic Earth or other open-courseware sites
  • 6 hours either writing code or thinking about code for my various projects (Elo Cube, Open Elo System, Biomechanics Database, Kindred Network Algorithm)

That adds up to about 66 hours of work in an average week, which is a bit lower than I suspected. Subtract 56 hours per week for sleeping and sleeping-related activities, 7.5 hours for commuting to/from my full-time job, and that leaves an average of 5.5 hours per day of “free” time. In those 5.5 hours, I personally train myself (though some of this overlaps with training my athletes), spend time with my wife Astrid, play some games (League of Legends, Magic: The Gathering) and try to do all the other errands that I’m supposed to do (which I invariably fail at doing). As summer approaches, I will be playing baseball upwards of 12 hours per week, though I probably will cut back on that this year since I’m having a kid in mid-July!

This is turning into a rather large digression, but it’s my blog, so whatever. Approximately ten years ago, my friend Liz asked me a seemingly innocent question: “Kyle – are you good at everything you do?” I proudly answered: “Yes!” It was a badge of honor to select things that I’m good at and pursue them vigorously.

Years went by and I forgot all about this exchange until it dawned on me about five years ago that this is not a good trait to have! Sure, I was above-average in everything I took interest in, but I took interest in a very few things and this stupid limitation that I imposed on myself by refusing to do things that I wasn’t good at was limiting my already eroding creativity and intelligence. While I wasn’t the smartest guy on the planet and couldn’t get inspired by fields I truly didn’t understand – typically liberal arts related fields like literature, language, and sociology/psychology – I knew that I had some predisposition for understanding the scientific method. So it would be science that I would turn to in an attempt to be bad at some things while still maintaining interest.

Since then, I’ve applied my admittedly limited intelligence towards science-related fields. I’m researching topics that I have no shot of being the best (or probably even above-average) at understanding: Classical Mechanics, Kinematics, Kinetics, Machine Learning, Computer Science, Kinesiology, Biomechanics, Exercise Science, and so forth. And let me tell you, when you have a stubborn ego and disposition like I do, there’s a never-ending sea of knowledge to wade through on topics like “Instantaneous Acceleration and it’s Effect on UCL Rupture” or “Time-Measured Changes in Shoulder Flexibility and Pitching Kinematics in Youth Baseball Athletes,” much less “Jacques Distler’s Critique of Garret’s Lisi’s Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” which describes Lie algebra E8.

Bringing it back full circle…

“Why do you care?”

As stated above, I can’t imagine not caring about these topics. And I understand what it’s like to not care about them, because just six years ago I was a troubled young adult who thought he was relatively intelligent but had nowhere to apply it to. This type of thinking is infectious and needs to be purged from the untold millions of 20-something year old graduates (or dropouts) out there. Everyone has a propensity to understand something in this world – be it science, literature, art, history, computers, or any other very broad field. By gradually getting into a field that you find interesting – perhaps you remember being intrigued by the Winged Victory of Samothrace? – and looking at unsolved problems or complex concepts in that field, you will suddenly find yourself immersed in it.

I personally can’t understand how people can’t watch ten minutes of Walter Lewin’s physics lectures and not be instantly hooked! What got me was this simple line:

Any measurement that you make without knowledge of its uncertainty is completely meaningless.

Taken at face value, it’s not that interesting. But think about the ramifications of that statement: It is perhaps an elegant and more detailed paraphrase of Richard Feynman’s famous statement:

I know how hard it is to know something.

How interesting is it to think about calculating something like joint torque in biomechanics and understanding the crazy uncertainty around it! Acceleration is used to calculate joint torque, and acceleration is a second-order derivation of location. Think about all the potential for error in such a calculation, and realize that we’re just talking about torque around a single joint in the body. Relate this to the rest of the world: How hard is it to truly know something infinitely more complex, like the effect of gravity between two objects or why inertia is the way it is? (These are perhaps two unfair topics considering no one knows the definitive answer to both questions!)

For me, the countless interactions in our world described by the most basic concepts of physics occupies my mind all the time. For you, it might be the indescribable nature of macro evolution or the creativity required to even conceive of the most beautiful songs we’ve heard.

There is no excuse for being intellectually bored or not caring about things in our world. We live in an age where information is plentiful and freely available from the most prestigious of sources on all sorts of topics. Think broadly and spend a single hour per week thinking about this kind of thing, and I bet it will spiral into something ever more interesting to you. Cast aside your prejudices about who is and who is not smart enough to study these subjects and just think.

The worst thing to happen to young people is the stigmatization of the question “Why?” Start asking yourself this question all the time. The speed at which you will realize you know nothing about the most basic interactions in our world is astounding, humbling, and altogether unbelievably amazing.

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