School is designed to impart conventional knowledge.
The end goal of primary education is to ensure that each student met the standard. Any student that exceeds minimum expectations is merely a happy accident.
While I know I sound pessimistic about this reality, it’s not all bad.
“A conventional truth can be important,” writes Peter Thiel, “It’s essential to learn elementary mathematics, for example–but it won’t give you an edge. It’s not a secret.”
A while back, I wrote Answering the Contrarian Question. Long-time readers might remember that the question goes like this: “What important truth do few people agree with you on?”
Any good answer to that question is necessarily a secret. Answers follow the form of “Most people believe x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”
A secret is something that’s hidden from others but has revealed itself to you.
There are three buckets of knowledge: conventions, mysteries and secrets.
Conventions are things like 5th-grade math, basic biology, or the fundamentals of grammar. All of these things are important to know, but they’re not secrets.
On the other end of the spectrum lay mysteries. Questions like “Is there a God?” and “What’s the best political ideology?” fall into this category. Humanity has never agreed on either of these throughout the course of history. It won’t be any different tomorrow. There’s no way to objectively prove the answer.
Secrets exist in the sweetspot between convention and mystery. They are difficult, but possible.
There are two types of secrets:
- Secrets of nature
- Secrets about people
As Thiel points out, every great company is built around a secret. As I’ve sought to apply Thiel’s philosophy to my own life, I’ve begun to see how a great career is built around a secret.
As you plot your course in life, you’re free to pursue either type of secret. I’m not here to tell you what to do. I do want to share something that expanded my mind.
In Alchemy, Rory Sutherland makes a bold assertion.
It seems likely that the biggest progress in the next 50 years may come not from improvements in technology but in psychology and design thinking. Put simply, it’s easy to achieve massive improvements in perception at a fraction of the cost of equivalent improvements in reality. Logic tends to rule out magical improvements of this kind, but psycho-logic doesn’t. We are wrong about psychology to a far greater degree than we are about physics, so there is more scope for improvement. Also, we have a culture that prizes measuring things over understanding people, and hence is disproportionately weak at both seeking and recognising psychological answers.
In the baseball world I inhabit, most people seem to be concerned with the secrets of nature. We pour over data points that measure what happened. There’s less effort going into understanding athlete psychology and how to influence the people who must perform the movement we’re studying.
Perhaps a secret lies right here, hidden in plain sight.
Thanks for reading.