Brad DeLong recently had a post recounting what he thought his biggest intellectual blunders of the past few years were. I suppose I’m inspired to do something similar. These are a few things I was once very sure of, but now am fairly sure of the opposite.
- Anything outside the hard sciences couldn’t possibly be a strong contributor to mathematical theory. And that any discipline outside math, CS, and the physical sciences didn’t have high standards of rigor in their research. I remember getting into a quite protracted argument with a roommate over this. I was wrong on both counts.
- Economists were cool because of their fancy math that explained everything. Once tried to convince my dad of it. I think my dad’s arguments–that people are too complicated and economists are egotistical bastards–have worn better with time. (That said, I’m also sure that basic economics is worth knowing. Just not worth worshipping.)
- Quantum mechanics didn’t have anything to do with practical science or engineering. Since then, I’ve found out QM is important in physical chemistry, computational modeling in cell biology, as well as some electronics.
- That I should be able to be friends with anyone that shared my interests, and any failures in the friendship were my fault. Turns out that there are many people that share my interests but that I don’t really want to be friends with.
- I’ve gradually come to accept that being well-socialized can sometimes come at the cost of being less interesting. I’ve spent many years wishing I could fit in better. But as I’ve gradually found groups of people that share my interests to some degree–in math, science, computers, board games, whatever–I’ve found it’s also important to be able to stand out. Fitting in completely has never been a problem I’ve been burdened with, but I’m increasingly finding it important to have interesting and non-threatening, non-off-putting ways of setting myself apart. Robin Hanson has very important related comments on the joys of quirkiness versus sophistication.
- It took me way too long to appreciate how many technological innovations come out of academic research and labs. A lot of the research doesn’t go anywhere, sure. But some of it goes quite wonderful places. (Of course, those wonderful places usually aren’t developed inside of academia. The ideas seem to get spun-off into start-ups, which are then likely bought by larger existing companies.)
- Dating someone talented at X will not, in fact, make me any better at X. It might make me a little more frustrated at my lack of talent at X, even. It’s more important to get involved with someone that share similar lifestyle, trajectory, and life goals. This has taken an especially long time to learn.