The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius

Posted by: Bostonian

The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius - 11/23/19 05:11 AM

The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius
by Paul Graham
November 2019

Everyone knows that to do great work you need both natural ability and determination. But there's a third ingredient that's not as well understood: an obsessive interest in a particular topic.

To explain this point I need to burn my reputation with some group of people, and I'm going to choose bus ticket collectors. There are people who collect old bus tickets. Like many collectors, they have an obsessive interest in the minutiae of what they collect. They can keep track of distinctions between different types of bus tickets that would be hard for the rest of us to remember. Because we don't care enough. What's the point of spending so much time thinking about old bus tickets?

Which leads us to the second feature of this kind of obsession: there is no point. A bus ticket collector's love is disinterested. They're not doing it to impress us or to make themselves rich, but for its own sake.

When you look at the lives of people who've done great work, you see a consistent pattern. They often begin with a bus ticket collector's obsessive interest in something that would have seemed pointless to most of their contemporaries. One of the most striking features of Darwin's book about his voyage on the Beagle is the sheer depth of his interest in natural history. His curiosity seems infinite. Ditto for Ramanujan, sitting by the hour working out on his slate what happens to series.

It's a mistake to think they were "laying the groundwork" for the discoveries they made later. There's too much intention in that metaphor. Like bus ticket collectors, they were doing it because they liked it.

But there is a difference between Ramanujan and a bus ticket collector. Series matter, and bus tickets don't.

If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.

...

It may even be that we can cultivate a habit of intellectual bus ticket collecting in kids. The usual plan in education is to start with a broad, shallow focus, then gradually become more specialized. But I've done the opposite with my kids. I know I can count on their school to handle the broad, shallow part, so I take them deep.

When they get interested in something, however random, I encourage them to go preposterously, bus ticket collectorly, deep. I don't do this because of the bus ticket theory. I do it because I want them to feel the joy of learning, and they're never going to feel that about something I'm making them learn. It has to be something they're interested in. I'm just following the path of least resistance; depth is a byproduct. But if in trying to show them the joy of learning I also end up training them to go deep, so much the better.

Will it have any effect? I have no idea. But that uncertainty may be the most interesting point of all. There is so much more to learn about how to do great work. As old as human civilization feels, it's really still very young if we haven't nailed something so basic. It's exciting to think there are still discoveries to make about discovery. If that's the sort of thing you're interested in.
Posted by: Wren

Re: The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius - 11/23/19 02:20 PM

watched a documentary on Bill Gates. Bill Gates as he is now, with his philanthropy. Bill is high end on the math spectrum, not Terrance Tao, but what I noted, is applied math. I am high end on the math spectrum, but love applied math. It is problem solving.

Anyway, Bill Gates loves computers, went deep at a time no one was going deep and found a niche. Perfect storm. Worked in so many ways. But in this documentary it is that Bill reads 15 books a week on a wide variety of subjects. From one extreme to another. He just reads. Absorbs knowledge, get a perspective that has a bunch of components. Going deep works, teaches research, but going broad gives a whole different perspective. My late DH would get interested in something and read texts on some subject, absorb as much as he good. Go to the research library, finding those texts. He was like Encyclopedia britannica, could tell you facts about all kinds of subjects. But there are the literal thinkers that can tell you all kinds of facts, then there are the visual spacial thinkers that look at the picture and how it fits, what doesn't fit.

No one shoe fits all for me. Maybe your kid is this, maybe your kid is that. I am finding that my kid is finding her own way, and when I try and guide it one way, it bounces and figures her own best way.
Posted by: indigo

Re: The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius - 11/25/19 06:25 AM

Originally Posted By: Bostonian's OP, linked article
When they get interested in something, however random, I encourage them to go preposterously, bus ticket collectorly, deep
...
I want them to feel the joy of learning, and they're never going to feel that about something I'm making them learn. It has to be something they're interested in. I'm just following the path of least resistance; depth is a byproduct. But if in trying to show them the joy of learning I also end up training them to go deep, so much the better.

Will it have any effect? I have no idea.

Yes! This will have an effect. Encouraging kids will have a strong, positive effect: It will create life-long learners and independent thinkers.

This may be especially important now, in the current educational climate, with the censorship imposed by common core and nationalized curriculum prescribing/favoring specific classroom lessons, and lesson providers.

Without this encouragement, curiosity and the will to quench one's thirst for knowledge will wither and die on the vine. Acknowledging that other information exists, and ferreting other sources will become a lost art... and with it, much of the discoveries, knowledge, and wisdom of past centuries.

Kudos to parents who encourage their children to learn beyond the limitations of the classroom.
smile