by Brian Tomasik
First written: 12 Oct. 2014; last update: 4 Feb. 2018
I think of myself as having many identities, rather than being an expert in a specific topic. An open identity allows me to explore a multitude of subjects and viewpoints without feeling like I can't understand something because I'm not a specialist. Identities are quick heuristics for classifying people -- both others and ourselves -- but we don't have to feel constrained by or loyal to these artificial boundaries.
Anna Salamon's essay on "Learned Blankness" contains a story that has stuck with me. She found that the dishwasher wasn't working and immediately called for help, since she thought she wasn't good at figuring out "mechanical things". She later reflected:
But before giving it even ten seconds’ thought, I’d classified the problem as a “mechanical thing”. And I’d remembered I “didn’t know how mechanical things worked” (a cached thought). And then -- prompted by my cached belief that there was a magical “way mechanical things work” that some knew and I didn’t -- I stopped trying to think at all.
This is a powerful illustration of the limitations we may impose on ourselves when we pigeonhole our abilities or personalities.
During pre-college education, all students have to learn all the core subjects: math, science, social studies, English, physical education, etc. By late high school, and especially when college begins, students can specialize into particular domains. Indeed, such specialization is required during college in the form of one or more majors.
In college, I became acutely aware of how people labeled themselves as "a physics major" or "a poli sci major" or "a theater major". Engineering majors might say that the soc/anth majors were wishy-washy, and some soc/anth majors would concur that engineering math was too hard for them. There are innumerable stereotypes and jokes based around a person's major. I found it kind of odd: It was as though many students had joined sports teams, adopted the identity of their teams, and rooted for their own teams in (friendly) opposition to other teams. And of course, the same trend continues into the world of careers.
Even in high school, I saw the seeds of this pigeonholing begin. Some students, typically female, would complain to their math teachers: "I don't get it. I'm not good at math." A few male students might have silently felt similarly about creative writing. While I do think average gender differences by field somewhat reflect innate biological predispositions, it also seems likely that an appreciable fraction of gender gaps result from this kind of "I'm not good at X" attitude.
When I wasn't tired from staying up too late to finish homework, I really enjoyed high school. And while I had some preferences among subjects, I realized that lots of courses were important and interesting. For instance, both math and history were fascinating in their own ways. When preparing to go to college, I was extremely uncertain what I would study: maybe math, physics, chemistry, political science, history, linguistics, or something else. (My major ended up being "something else" -- namely, computer science.)
During a senior-year academic-achievement ceremony at my high school, the speaker named each student and what s/he thought s/he would major in at college. I had no idea what to list, so I just wrote "not sure" or something. The announcer read this as: "Brian will explore the options available to him." After the ceremony, one of my friends told me he found that amusing and translated it as: "Brian will study whatever the fuck he wants."
I began college thinking I would major in math. Later I switched to computer science. All the while I took an avid interest in philosophy, even though I only took one formal philosophy course. At Microsoft I had some identity as a software developer and Big Data engineer. I also feel somewhat competent in economics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. At times I've thought of myself as a leader/manager, and at other times I feel more like an independent contributor. I sometimes feel like an adult and at other times like a child. Sometimes my brain seems very oriented toward stereotypically masculine subjects and other times towards stereotypically feminine subjects. And so on. While I try to hold on to a few identity traits, like caring about reducing suffering and not being aggressive/hostile, I don't care that much about the rest. I let it float where it may and often seek to explore new domains. The Internet is wonderful for this, because I can watch/read about all kind of people and things all over the world in all kinds of fields -- from an Indian laborer's YouTube video about his life to a Wikipedia article on quantum gravity.
I find that if I feel like a subject is "my area of expertise", learning about it becomes more exciting. That makes sense, because generally excitement serves the purpose of focusing attention on material that's more relevant. But when I take a step back, I realize that the whole world is "my business". Everything is part of the way the universe works. Even topics that are ordinarily regarded with disdain by academically minded people, such as soap operas or monster-truck shows, have much to say about the computational system in which we're embedded (although studying those particular topics in detail is unlikely to be an optimal use of time). Everything can be exciting because everything has something to say about the nature of reality. Of course, for practical reasons I still try to focus more on topics that seem more relevant to altruism and my comparative advantages.
Regardless of whether monster-truck shows teach us about the universe, I don't think one needs a justification for enjoying monster-truck shows (if one happens to). De gustibus non est disputandum, and there's no inherent reason why some tastes are "superior" to others (whatever that's supposed to mean). Humans love to look down on others, perhaps as an unconscious way to assert social dominance or to enhance ingroup bonding. This behavior is no less pernicious when done by academically minded people looking down on the "boorish" tastes of less educated people or even the differing tastes of other people from the same socioeconomic class. As long as no one is getting hurt by a given pastime, it's stupid to denigrate the interests and tastes of others. (I'm aware of the irony of my disliking the enjoyment that people get from being snobs, but I mainly dislike snobbery when it harms people by making them feel bad about themselves.)
I often observe snobbery on the part of adults with respect to children or teens. Adults may think that children's entertainment is "beneath them" and that teens' obsessions with social approval and romance are "unsophisticated". Well, guess what: We're all organisms responding to our environments and seeking rewards. We just happen to have different reward circuits at different points in our lives, as well as different background experiences, memories, etc. Adults are pretty childlike at times, such as when intense emotions come into play. In any case, looking down on others for having a different neural constitution than oneself is not cool.
We welcome diversity of races, ethnicities, gender identities, etc. So why not also welcome diversity of tastes? Why is it ok to insult a group of people based on their enjoyment of monster trucks but not based on demographic traits?
Motivations for a broad identity
I think my interest in altruism played an important role in keeping me open to many areas. I probably would have called myself a math geek during high school were it not for my inspiration by Ralph Nader to be civically engaged, which spurred my interest in social sciences. And when I discovered philosophy in 11th grade, I came to see how important it was to reflect on the ethical and ontological assumptions behind civic activism. I've come to see that many different fields of study are crucial for determining one's altruistic direction.
I've also been inspired by some of my friends, who know an immense amount about all kinds of subjects. They've shown to me that you don't have to confine yourself to a small set of fields but can be reasonably knowledgeable about many, many topics given enough learning. Whereas I might have told myself, "I'm an expert in field A, not B, so I have to leave figuring out B to others", I've instead been inspired to say: "I can learn something about A and B and C and D, and even if I won't be an expert, gleaning some insights from those domains can vastly broaden my horizons." I remember Anna Salamon's story whenever I begin thinking to myself that "I'm just not good at ____."
This isn't to say that specialization isn't important. Trying to do everything yourself is impossible, and division of labor is necessary for an organization to grow. But there's a mental difference between dividing labor for efficiency reasons versus doing it because you feel you couldn't do the outsourced tasks.
"Nothing you can't do"
"If you put your mind to it, there's nothing you can't do." This is a common motivational slogan, but I think many people don't believe it. Of course, we can't take it literally. I cannot jump to the moon or travel faster than the speed of light. Nor can I become the world champion at basketball. But what the slogan really means is that within the set of activities that reasonable numbers of people do, then -- barring physical limitations, severe learning disabilities, or other clear obstacles -- you could probably do any of those things too if you put in enough investment.
As noted above, one person can't put sufficient investment into most skills to master them, but maintaining the psychological realization that you could if doing so were important enough keeps your options open and allows you to pursue new avenues of exploration when they begin to appear relevant to your work.
I like Salman Khan's explanation of this idea. When we're told that we're smart/dumb, we may incline to think we're naturally smart/dumb due to lucky genes or childhood development. If instead we focus on our effort to master new things, we emphasize the fact that much of skill is learned, not born. "After all, when my son, or for that matter, anyone else asks me about learning, I only want them to know one thing. As long as they embrace struggle and mistakes, they can learn anything."
As a related point, I try to avoid telling myself, "I don't like X", where "X" might be some domain like art history or music theory or fixing car engines in which I haven't taken much interest historically because of little obvious altruistic import. By telling myself that I don't like something, I would make that statement become more true, and then I would be closing myself off from a potentially insightful domain of the universe. Of course, I don't plan to ever explore much music theory, because I don't think I'll ever decide that it has major altruistic implications, but I think learning a tiny bit (maybe an hour or two) would be worth doing some time at least to make sure there aren't significant insights I'm leaving on the table.
Sometimes it's difficult to begin studying a topic, because so much is unfamiliar. Challenges are fun, but when reading is too difficult, it becomes more of a chore. When I was in elementary school, teachers told the classes to pick books to read based on the rule that "if, on a random page, there are more than three words you don't know, then the book is too difficult". Obviously a rigid requirement of this kind would be misplaced, but the suggestion underscores a real point that learning is often most fun when gradual. Fortunately, the longer you tackle a subject area, the more fun it becomes. Eventually you begin to get a handle on the big ideas and can start filling in the gaps. Reading becomes more effortless because you grok most of what's being discussed. The enjoyment of the subject inspires further learning and thus further expertise, in a feedback cycle. In this sense, there's sort of an "escape velocity" for learning. If you exert enough effort to become familiar with the topic, then everything else is downhill.
Even though you could master just about anything given enough time and effort, it's also useful to remember that you in fact have not mastered almost all subjects. There are only a few very narrow topics where I'm an expert, and for everything else, I'm a dilettante whose superficial commentary is probably wrong in many ways. I'm sure some experts would look down on my writings as amateurish, as indeed most of my writings probably are. However, I think the world needs both specialists and generalists, including people who bring together ideas from several fields at a relatively shallow level of understanding.
Other costs to self-pigeonholing
The effects of pigeonholing extend beyond learning. Pigeonholing may also affect your ability to change your mind, to think critically, and so on.
Benefits to identity
In my experience, one reason it feels good to have an identity is that you can feel proud of yourself. I seem to feel more motivated to learn a topic or take certain actions if I think of myself as someone who is knowledgeable and active in that domain. I guess what I try to do is not avoid identity but instead maintain an inclusive identity, in which I feel like I belong to all kinds of groups at once. At any given time, I can activate one of those identities to motivate some period of work, and then a day or a week later, I can switch to some other identity as the need arises.