No wonder(ing)

During my first proper summer internship, working in Washington DC, some colleagues and I got into a friendly argument over lunch about whether pinball was a game of skill.

To resolve this heated debate, we agreed that the “ayes” would have it if and only if we could prove, by the end of the working day, that there was such a thing as pinball competitions or tournaments.

“By the end of the working day.” Can you imagine such a thing? That it might be hard to get this sort of answer in five hours?

But it was the early 1990s, so we dutifully thumbed through the yellow pages, called up pinball shops, and eventually tracked down the answer (yes, with apologies to the taxpayers for our wasted time).

Today this would never happen. Being able “to Google” anything instantly means all knowledge is at our fingertips. Which feels like an unabashedly good thing until we discover that we’re letting our brains off the hook: our memories are actually getting worse.

Plus, kids who have grown up with devices in their hands exhibit shallower information-processing. It’s not surprising. Even around something as trivial as an argument about pinball, we had to do more than state our opinions and look up who was right: we had to imagine the steps we would take to solve the problem, and then walk down that path. Even for an argument about pinball, meta-cognition (thinking about how we would think about the answer) was a required behavior.

In terms of practicing the skills that ladder up to leadership, today’s instant-information world is losing the daily tension of not-knowing. We spend less time holding and exploring two equally-plausible outcomes. We have fewer genuine moments of “I wonder.”

Instant gratification is indeed gratifying, but let’s be careful not to forget what it feels like not to know. Let’s not atrophy our “how would I figure this out” muscle in a world in which it’s gotten so easy to figure out the easy stuff, yet the hard stuff looms as big and as complex as ever.

We can’t argue about pinball any more

It was my first summer internship at my first real job.  One day at lunch I had a mock-heated discussion with a colleague about whether pinball was a game of skill or luck.  I argued for “skill” and as evidence offered up the fact that pinball tournaments exist in the world, which wouldn’t make sense for a game that’s pure luck.

My colleague didn’t believe me.  He claimed that there was no such thing as a pinball tournament.

And so a bet was struck: I needed to prove, irrefutably and by the end of the workday, that pinball tournaments existed.

This involved rushing back to my desk, finding a Yellow Pages, searching for pinball dealers in the Washington, DC area, and, from there, cobbling together a list of contacts until someone would send me a faxed entry form for an upcoming pinball tournament.

Of course this story is quaint today because we can no longer argue for more than a few seconds about this sort of thing.   If this were happening today, the argument would be resolved between sandwich bites by typing “pinball tournaments” into someone’s smartphone.

Less romantic, more efficient.

The fact is that nothing factual is out of reach these days.  While it wasn’t out of reach 20 years ago when I made this bet, the friction has been reduced to zero.  So if you want to know the difference between a Roth IRA and a regular IRA; if you want to know what “suited connectors” are in Texas Hold ‘Em and when to play them; if you want to learn how to knit or sharpen a knife or which mortgage is right for you or even what this whole debt ceiling debate is really about….well all of these answers are literally a click away.

So our ignorance about any topic is, in the most literal sense, willful in a way it never was before.  This is great news for people willing to make two (just two!) decisions:

  1. To be the kind of person who seeks answers, even when it’s scary
  2. To choose where to deepen your knowledge and to act on that decision by spending your time accordingly

That’s it.

No more pinball arguments, but so much more freedom for those willing to take that first step.