Four Lessons from My Father
Four of the lessons that my late father taught me.
Wanting to give a sense of what I learned from my father, I gave a short speech at his funeral in which I outlined some of the lessons he taught me. Find it reproduced below.
1. A Gearstick that Has a Knob with Four Speeds Written on it Does not Imply a Four Speed Gearbox
One day, my father and I were sitting in the Landrover. Our Landrover has an overdrive gearbox, which is engaged and disengaged by a lever with two positions. He had replaced lever’s original knob with one with four speeds written on it. I asked – in the way that children often do, half knowing the answer – whether the lever which he was pulling back and fourth between two positions had four speeds.
My father responded by asking, “If I put a four speed gearstick on your head, does that mean you’d have four speeds?”
This is to say, don’t mistake the map for the territory. What matters is not the way things look on the surface, or the way they are made to look. What matters is under the surface, the underlying operations of the system in question. Bill Gates said,
“If you can’t make it good, make it look good.”
Daddy taught me that something made with this philosophy is still bad, maybe worse, even, in that it offers a false prospectus.
2. Bugs Don’t Come in Ones
My father, a computer programmer, taught me that bugs don’t come in ones. I.e. If your program has a bug, it’s probably the result of a fault in your approach, not a one-off slip, and the problem with the way you wrote the program has probably caused more than one bug.
By extension, if you realize that something is wrong with the thing you’re working on, don’t just correct it and move on – go back and look for other instances where the approach you’re taking has caused mistakes.
3. Find the Premises
My father taught me to seek and identify the premises of a person’s argument. This is to say, what are the foundational assumptions of their logic? Are these assumptions self-evident or agreed upon? Don’t let people sneak false premises past you as means to hide a fallacious point. In particular, a person’s reasoning may be 100% sound, but if their assumptions are wrong, their conclusions are wrong.
4. Always Be Growing
When I was a child, my father would, more or less every night, read me a bedtime story. But, specifically, he would read me stories that were on the edge of or beyond my child’s understanding. Works he shared with me included HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, The Worst Journey in the World, by Cherry Garrard (the story of first British expedition to the Antarctic) and, perhaps the most advanced book he read to me, His Master’s Voice, by Polish author Stanilaw Lem.
In His Master’s Voice, Lem’s protagonist narrates how mankind receives a signal from space and attempts to decode it. The book contains barely any action, relies almost entirely on abstract thought by the protagonist and ends with Mankind’s complete failure to decode the signal. Much of it was lost on me.
Daddy’s reading me books like this taught me at least two things.
- Be on the edge of your understanding: seek music, books, ideas and theories that are challenging and novel.
- It’s OK if you don’t understand. Not understanding is normal.
You won’t understand the first time, it might even take you years to understand. My father taught me that the sting of being outside my comfort zone is part of growing. Christopher Hitchens, one of his favourite writers, said that,
“The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle.”
Of course, Hitchens knew that there really is an escape from anxiety and struggle, and, at the right time, reason sleeps – paradoxically, my father knows this too, at this moment.
(Main image credit: Occulto)