The Transitive Tendency of Knowledge

There’s a chance that you already know what I mean when I refer to the ‘transitive tendency of knowledge.’

You might be able to make an educated guess, informed by your knowledge of the transitive property of mathematics, which says that if A equals B, and B equals C, then A equals C.

You may also have encountered other words with the prefix ‘trans,’ such as ‘transverse,’ which means ‘to extend across something,’ or ‘translate’ which means ‘to move from one place or condition to another.’

These guesses come to mind because you’re capable of using one body of knowledge as a lever when attempting to learn or understand another — perhaps related, perhaps not — collection of facts, ideas, and concepts.

The result is that the more you know about something, the more likely it is some crumb of what you know will be convertible over to another pursuit or exploration.

Knowing something about math or grammar allowed you to innately understand something about the premise of this blog post.

Knowing something about sociology grants you latent insight into aspects of event coordination.

Having worked as a restaurant server conveys prerequisite skills and knowledge you might be able to apply when working as a salesperson on a car lot.

This likelihood of fortunate crossover is amplified as you increase your depth and diversity of experience, and as you expand your range and rate of inquiry. Having more bits of information available means a greater chance that you’ll have a crossover-bit at some point.

In other words: the more you learn about more things, the greater the chance you’ll have an advantage in your future educational and career experiences.

Consistently cast a wide net and you’ll find that when you pursue new knowledge, change careers, or experiment with new hobbies, you’ll be less likely to start from scratch. You may even start from relatively high up the ladder, depending on how much of your past experiences and knowledge have crossed over with you.

This absolutely doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also try to cast your existing net deeper — aiming for a greater density of profound knowledge in a field you’re already investigating — but it does mean that even one’s efforts toward mastery can be augmented by intentional, consistent dabbling in other fields and pastimes. Focus is good, focus to the exclusion of all else is limiting.

Knowledge is transitive in that it comes with you wherever you go and whatever you do. It’s not just a one-time payoff: it’s an investment that can potentially return dividends for the rest of your life.

And like any kind of investment which yields interest, the benefits to a wider breadth of understanding will be greater and more prevalent the sooner you start building your nest egg.


Stop Smile Marvel

When I’m flying at 35,000 feet, and the plane starts to jerk, then shutter, then shift in space, side to side, I have a routine I go through to prevent myself from sliding down into the pit of reflexive, animal terror.

I stop and take note of what’s happening.

I smile, barking a laugh if I need to, sometimes startling the people sitting next to me.

And I marvel at how remarkable the whole situation is.

Hundreds of people flying incredibly high above the planet. The technology and know-how required is immense. The wings themselves are made up of many shifting pieces, all of which work in tandem with other flaps and air-flippers around the vehicle, the entire ginormous mass held up by innovation and ingenuity and infrastructure.

It’s typically this last point that pulls me from whatever downward spiral I might otherwise experience. Rather than focusing on the horrible down-swing my day could take, I fixate on the minutiae that I don’t always take the time to appreciate.

I allow myself to intellectually deep-dive into as many specifics as I can remember, and expound upon that. To think about how many individual concepts had to be theorized and tested, iterated and technologized, for that one plane to be there, in the air, taking me to where I was going.

How many work-hours and resources went not just into that one vessel, but the equipment and vehicles the ground-crew used? Who developed, and over what span of time, the language and code-system used by the airport staff, and the pilots in the cockpit, and expressed via letters and numbers and graphics on the walls and tail fins and runways?

Being capable of awe, of drifting into an appreciative, thoughtful state whenever you feel like it, is a really excellent skill to hone. It’s important not just for your visit to the Grand Canyon or the Guggenheim, but also for moments when you need something to be amazed by as a diversion.

It’s not easy to distract yourself from impulsive fear, but it’s possible. You have to allow the part of your brain that makes you human (which thinks in elaborate, non-tangible concepts) supersede the part that thinks there might be tigers hiding in the overhead baggage compartment.

This process isn’t only useful in dangerous or frightening situations.

When experiencing something you’d like to remember, when seeing something new and amazing, when feeling your mood drop for some reason, pulling you into a negative funk — stop, smile, marvel. It accomplishes the same thing for a different reason: you decide how you’d like to respond to what’s happening around you and what kind of experience you’d like to have, rather than succumbing to boredom or pessimism or sadness.

The smile is a key part of this process for me. I find that I’m far more capable of wrangling the reins away from my lizard-brain when I confuse it for a moment, responding with a dark sort of humor when something goes wrong, rather than with the usual heart-sinking, helpless despondency.

And stopping, noticing, recognizing what you’re doing, what route your brain is taking, is core to the whole thing working. By doing this, you’re able to slowly make changes to your response patterns over time. It’s not always going to make sense to laugh when something goes wrong, but 99% of the time it will make a lot more sense and be a lot more pleasant than the alternatives.

This is a skill that one develops over time, but I think you’ll find, if you give it an honest shot, it will probably help at least a little when next you find yourself coping with the angst-trio of a turbulent plane, overhead-compartment tigers, and the myriad difficulties and discomforts associated with modern airline travel.


Playing Games

When the struggle is no longer interesting, when the rewards are no longer fulfilling, question the game you’re playing.

Every day we wake up and play by a certain set of rules. We know what will happen if we break those rules, and we know what we hope to achieve by adhering to them.

Oftentimes breaking the rules is either difficult or unwise. But stepping away from them in favor of another set? Setting them aside, opting instead to play another game? It’s an option we all have.

This is an option we’re encouraged to ignore, of course. Pop culture is rife with examples of people winning the game, and we celebrate those who win in a spectacular fashion. Tradition and common sense are pervaded with hints that storing our dice, putting away our pieces, and reaching for another box containing a different board and set of instructions can be dangerous. Harmful. It’s a foolhardy thing to do, we’re told. Maybe you’ll end up playing a more difficult game. Maybe the rewards for winning won’t be as glamorous. Maybe you’ll be forever filled with regret that you didn’t stay the course and keep playing the first one, despite how intellectually listless it made you feel. Maybe it’s a character flaw, this inability of yours to play boring games because that’s the socially acceptable thing to do.

Deciding on one game over another isn’t a judgement on the one you withdraw from: it’s a decision to find something that is not just potentially winnable, but also a joy to play by your personal standards.

It’s an act predicated on the recognition that you don’t get another go around — if you spend your whole life with this set of rules, this reward system, this collection of dice and cards and little plastic pieces, then that is and always will be the framework for everything you do.

Stepping outside of that world and into a new one — trying out a new basis for success, a new concept of failure, a new mechanism of achieving forward-movement, a new convention for interacting with other players — allows you to experience a novel pace, state of play, and metric of success.

And maybe you won’t enjoy that one, either. Maybe you’ll work your way through dozens or hundreds of games before you find one that aligns with your ambitions and strengths, your moral predilections and ideals.

But so what? So what if it takes you time to find your bearings?

So what if you continue playing new games, forever?

I would argue that it’s a better indicator of strength and ambition to be willing to set aside something that’s not working in favor of someday finding something that does, than to stubbornly stick with what we know is unfulfilling, and likely always will be.

There’s nothing wrong with playing games that aren’t immediately satisfying, and there’s a lot we can learn from such challenges. But it’s important to be able to step out of that game, away from those rules, and look at where we’re sitting and with whom. To be able to consider how we’re spending our time, and realize that there’s a whole world of other games available to play, should we choose to pull them down off the shelf.

To recognize that we have a choice about — and responsibility for — how we spend the finite amount of time we’ve got.