On Ephemerality & Knowledge

Posted on June 3rd, 2016

They say “the moment” is all one ever has. This got me thinking about the repercussions on how to spend one’s time, at least when it comes to being “productive”, however one defines that. In particular, how much should time be spent on pure learning versus building? While I speak of these in an economic context, I mean each in the broad sense: learning a new language, doing maths exercises, watching educational videos; likewise, building could mean meeting people and forming relationships, writing code, or even doing paperwork. I suppose the key distinction here is that learning is internal building (of knowledge and skills), as opposed to the externally demonstrable kinds (a business, a product). True, knowledge and skills can be demonstrated, but much less easily at any single instant in time. A house that I’ve built, on the contrary, can be “demonstrated” rather rapidly.

To get more concrete, let’s say one wants to have a positive influence on the world by building a business, whose product and associated socio-economic leverage could be used as a force for good. Let’s group all this in the term “leverage”, which will be the objective function in evaluating learning versus building as defined.

Now the problem is deciding how much to spend time learning, for example just reading stuff related to the business, versus executing. And this is where the ideas of stocks and flows really become pertinent. The mind generally only experiences a moment. This means that although I can acquire vast amounts of knowledge, I can only encompass so much of it at any time in my mind’s eye. There appears to be a fundamental bottleneck when it comes to cognitive ability. Practicing maths exposes me to more theorems, and sharpens my analytical skills, but no amount of maths in a lifetime will make me so powerful as to glimpse into all the patterns of the universe and see the meaning of it all (I believe). Or, to be more humble, when faced with a new mathematical challenge, I usually still need to focus and devote much effort to solving it. What’s more is that I often have to re-devote concentration and effort to re-understand something I already unlocked before. That is, I had unlocked it within a past attention scope, which has since drifted away. The traces remain, and help subsequently, but they remain traces nonetheless. A flow.

Consider instead spending time on the plumbing for a web application. This plumbing will certainly be less stimulating than learning something new, and contribute less to personal development. However, once built, it remains. The next step of development will be incremental, laying one brick upon another. Of course, the entire endeavour could prove fruitless, but that could be the case with learning as well. Furthermore, the idea of stocks versus flows is subjective. Everything could be seen as a flow on a certain timescale, it really just comes down to what one thinks is reasonable. Over a lifetime building a house is a stock. Over the course of history it’s a flow, where the supply must be regenerated. But all that taken into account, in the web app example we end up with a product that is roughly a stock, and that can be extended programatically. It can contribute to a business that is grown. Lasting relationships can be formed around this business, as well as a lasting effect on the world (or a recurrent one). As each layer is added, it need be replenished at a much slower rate than, say, familiarity with certain mathematical tricks or nuances of a language.

That doesn’t mean one should spend one’s whole life doing plumbing. At some point, you’ll need to build the spaceship, and if you didn’t spend any time learning in the process, you won’t know how. But don’t let yourself fall into the trap of endlessly accruing knowledge. We owe it to the knowledge to crystalise it into real endeavours that can continue to manifest as our mind’s gaze moves on.