My wife and I are raising four children, age 10, 8, 6, and 4. As they have grown, I have had to confront the fact that I still don’t know the secret to being grown up. I don’t know how to get them from where they are now as children to becoming happy and successful adults.
At about the time of this realization, I began my With the Grain project. I began it, because I was struck in a rut. I needed to get better. As I went to work on myself, while also trying to cultivate a writing habit, I continually butted up against the frustration of not being able to see how all my disparate improvements and new ideas fit together.
Richard Feynman often talked about the significant distinction between two types of knowledge: you can know something by name, or you can understand it. In order to foster understanding, he had his own learning technique:
- Choose a concept
- Teach it to a toddler
- Identify gaps and go back to the source material
- Review and simplify (optional)1
As I continued to work on With the Grain, I realized I was only ever able to demonstrate this depth on the small details, not when I zoomed out. In other words, I realized how little I really understood. This began to make my brain itch and two times caused the project to grind to a halt. I knew I needed to work more on this, if I wanted to do things right, but I was unable to create enough time in my day to make it happen.
Two things are changing for me. At the end of January, I will turn over my job as a squadron Commanding Officer, and shortly after that I will retire from the Navy. I selected my next job because it allowed me a lot more autonomy over my time, and I have been thinking about how I want to fill that time. Mostly, I want to be with my wife and children more, but I also want to be a better husband and father.
Our culture loves get-rich-quick schemes and life hacks. Even as I was writing this, The Atlantic published an article about how much money folks have lost trying to get rich selling consumer products on Amazon.2 The same goes for diet plans which all promise results in x days or y weeks, usually trumpeting how little time you’ll need to spend in the gym or how you can enjoy your favorite foods while still losing weight. None of this really works. Real improvement takes time and is difficult. Real improvement comes in fits and starts.
My goal for this site is to completely define my personal philosophy, while also improving it. I want to describe how to live a good life, while figuring out how to. If I succeed, I will meet Feynman’s test of real understanding, by being able to describe life to a toddler, to my own toddler.
This will be hard.
- I think Farnam Street provides the best full discussion of the “Feynman Technique.” I highly recommend Farnam Street in general. ↩︎
- No judgement. A year ago, I bought a $10 ebook on this very same topic. It’s a seductive concept. ↩︎