This Bodhi Hack is full assimilation of some form of this well-known quote that has reached cliché status: “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” It’s the realization that the Universe is so complex that knowledge is virtually endless. Any time you think you know everything, you realize there are doors to increasingly larger rooms.
Very closely related quips are unknown unknowns and the recently trending notion of “under-estimating complexity”. However, “unknown unknowns” doesn’t capture an awareness of the accelerating expansion of knowledge. And “under-estimating complexity” seems to under-estimate complexity by suggesting there is a pragmatically calculatable measure of it.
If we think we know everything about a subject, it’s only because we’ve drawn a convenient box around it and pretend what is in the box is all there is and all that matters. The problem is, that box exists only in your mind and you’re fooling yourself by believing it’s a self-contained world. This is something apparently re-discovered and attributed to many very smart people, for example, Aristotle, Einstein, and Mark Twain. So it must be true!
We’ve all heard these quotes and quips after not-so-glorious “Gee, didn’t see that one coming!” moments. We readily let the insight of unknown unknowns fade out of our awareness as just something clever and cool that seemingly smart people say. That’s because we don’t want to believe after all the hard work we’ve put into a skill or project, after we’ve comforted ourselves into thinking we know all there is, it is still very vulnerable to unanticipated events and unintended consequences.
It’s not just wise advice for risk management. If you fully understand it, it’s a powerful indicator of being on the Path to Enlightenment. In fact it incorporates of all Three Zen Stories which is the foundation of the teachings of The Eternal Fishnu:
- The Empty Cup – Emptying your Earthly brain of what you already know in order to make room for absorbing and/or upgrading the knowledge that you need right now.
- Is That So? – Recognizing that full acceptance of the current situation (Now) frees you to let go of what you already know … so you’re able to empty your cup … to refill it.
- The Man with the Bag – The understanding that Now is always a moving target – change is constant. Therefore, we are constantly refilling our cup. Life is a phenomena of time, which means change. Otherwise, the Universe is just a static picture.
“The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” (from here referred to as “The Hack”) kept at the forefront of our thoughts keeps at least one foot in the Zen world as we go about our Earthly daily lives providing for our Earthly bodies and our loved ones.
The Hack is much easier to grasp and immerse into than Buddhist concepts such as emptiness, mindfulness, and impermanence. It’s not really that those Buddhist concepts are hard to grasp. It’s more a matter of the difficulty of immersing ourselves into it while the constraints of our Earthly daily life trains us to put too much emphasis on just the things we see within the boxes we draw.
Instead, The Hack is relatable to just about everyone because we’ve all experienced it for ourselves in our daily lives. We regularly make plans and decisions we think are bulletproof only to feel so stupid about not having anticipated the tragic surprise. I will discuss a few examples of this hack from my life. It is in the spirit of providing comfort on the Path, in the knowledge that all of us only know a miniscule fraction of what we imagine we know.
While you go about your Earthly life, the understanding of this embraceable hack bestows within you the faith that there is always an ever-widening scope of awareness. It is the faith that there is more to the Universe than what we’re experiencing – no matter how bad our situation may seem at the moment. Such perceptions are just from the lower perspective of our daily lives.
In our daily lives, we live in the illusions/delusions we create by drawing boxes around things and pretending the rest of the Universe isn’t there. Our human penchant for drawing boxes around things isn’t bad in itself. It is our Earthly brain’s way of focusing on Now. However, the boxes are meant to be temporary, fleeting, almost ethereal. The trick is to let go of the box when that “old Now” passes.
How Hard Could It Be?
“Data is data … right? How hard could it be?” My colleague who said that to me looked so sure of himself that I was hypnotized (Jedi-style) into nodding in agreement with his conjecture.
Data is data perhaps if we’re merely copying it with no modification whatsoever – for example, copying a file from our laptop to a thumb drive or from AWS S3 to Azure Storage. But we were talking about providing it for use by people (or programs) who did not generate the data. Contextual differences between subject domains (ex. Marketing, HR, Inventory, and Accounting) run much deeper than superficial differences such as pronouncing poh-tay-toh and poh-tah-toh. Often seemingly like concepts actually differ beyond comparing apples and oranges as fruits.
In fairness, there is some level of truth to “data is data”, at least if you squint your eyes enough. For example, I realized that practically every business could be abstractly thought about as “manufacturing” something. Manufacturing is the process of taking inputs of materials and information, transformations, outputs of products, delivery of the product, etc.
From a very high perspective, data is data. Similarly, from a far enough distance, a dark brown splotch could be a bear, a tree stump, a garbage bag, … But when real parts are pieced together, even little differences can make all the difference.
My colleague is very intelligent, well educated, and experienced with data. The problem is he worked at just a couple of relatively simple places with small scales of data. For all practical purposes, one could say he knew everything there. But in that confined world, he’s never actually been punched in the face by data being imported, sliced and diced, and exported to very many outside parties for disparate reasons in very high volumes. Nor kicked in the ribs by the merging of two companies, each with a long-established base of customers and interaction with them that they enjoyed in a certain way for years.
He doesn’t appreciate that there can be subtle differences even with two branches of of the same company! That can involve different government laws, different demographics, weather, etc. Each little difference can potentially crash a software implementation or business process.
So hard could it be? Last I heard, the project was still going on years after our “data is data” conversation.
The subject I know the most about is software development. My career began very humbly as a “COBOL-ish” programmer 43 years ago supporting an existing accounting package.
It took a few months for me to feel “comfortable” in my role as a programmer working on that accounting package. The first few months were intellectually rougher than any time in my life since then. But through sheer will, I rose to become the primary programmer.
That comfort didn’t last long. I may have become proficient with the programming language and the codebase, but I was exposed to a variety of customers requiring custom-tailored advanced features that were very hard for a 17 year old to understand. I also learned that the COBOL-like programming language had severe limitations, which let one tediously small detail take up most of my effort.
These are some of the big things I was shocked to realize at various points along those 43 years:
- Business knowledge helps to understand the rhyme and reasons for the requested software features, and therefore have an ability to sensibly explore options.
- Learning assembler gave me a super-power enabling me to dance around the limitations of the COBOL-like language. It was this skill that enabled me to stand out among many “application programmers” way back then.
- Graph theory, set theory helps in finding ways to methodically organize data for superior performance.
- Sociology lead to a better appreciation for abstracting behavior from customers all with minds of their own.
- Boolean algebra, predicate logic, Bayesian inference, and even revisiting the “parts of speech” (I always hated) gave me insight into how to “communicate” with computers in a more complex manner.
- A profound understanding (more than what’s required to pass a final test) of linear algebra and statistics would be so critical to machine learning – which is the area around where I currently work.
- Category Theory is the basis of functional programming, and that it would serve to deeply understand the value of loosely-coupled systems, particularly in regard to the elegance of domain-driven design and microservices.
- My study of Zen lead me to systems thinking, which extended my understanding of businesses as interconnected sets of related processes.
- My current endeavor with the guitar (my first serious dive into playing a musical instrument) is enriching me with insights into how agents (all with minds of their own) communicate and cooperate towards goals larger than each agent. I never appreciated how much is encoded in music – sequences of sounds, tones, durations, are the basis for transmitting information. I also learned to consider Fourier transforms on par with neural networks.
That’s just a list off the top of my head.
Most readers may not have derived the same value as I suggest from the topics just listed. It’s because we learn things in a unique order and contexts. For example, the software development industry of the 1980s doesn’t begin to resemble what we know today.
Another interesting quality of my career path is having been introduced to graph theory, set theory and sociology at roughly the same time (late 1990s). My introduction to those skills at the same time and combined with my existing programming skillset at the time inspired what I think of as at least a somewhat unique brand of analytics. It set my professional trajectory for the next 20-something years.
There have been so many more times that a new subject lifted my capability much more than I ever would have thought. After all those instances throughout those decades, it’s almost impossible to convince me that there is a limit to “the more you know the more you realize you don’t know”.
I certainly didn’t become an expert at most of the subjects I listed above. I probably learned what seems like around 90% of the knowledge domain but is really only the 10% learned by a “green belt”. But I learned enough of each new subject such that I felt my effectiveness as a software developer gained more than had I stuck out “mastering” the long advanced stretch of a subject I already “knew” fairly well.
Instead, before delving into the “master” aspects, I felt drawn to something that intuitively felt like a door to a richer path. I used to resist going down fresh new paths because I felt like I should follow the training of my current topic all the way to the end.
However, decades ago, a mentor taught me that a major difference between she and I is that she is “advanced” at many subjects and I’m an “expert” at one. She referred to the difference between a grade of A and A+. While there is a big difference between a B and an A student, what it takes to move from an A to A+ is already in the realm of diminishing returns.
Today I try to maintain a keen awareness of what is happening in my field right now. The sensitivity I’ve cultivated of an awareness of now (at least in my field and as best as I practically can) is key to ensuring I expand into a fruitful direction. In this way, I apply “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” towards the Three Zen Stories in this way:
- The Man with the Bag – The constant change around me, and therefore know that I must keep moving along with the moving target of Now. As opposed to clinging to the way things are (staying where I am) so the current state of my knowledge is still applicable.
- Is that so? – I’m sensitive to and accepting of where things are right now.
- The Empty Cup – I’m willing to let go of my hard-won my knowledge as it stands, and readily accept change.
Please note that the particular set of subjects I listed above are known to humanity – at least to some subset of people. I didn’t invent any of those topics – there are many experts in the world. Those subjects were just unknown to me. My Earthly brain didn’t come pre-loaded with those skills, nor any of the countless other skills known to humanity by at least one human. What is unique is how those topics cross-pollinated in me resulting in some level of novelty.
There isn’t much room for a mastery of one subject to offer improvement. However, where one or more of these subjects meet in a novel way, a gate is opened to what is unknown to humanity and beyond. Where two or more worlds meet, a new Universe is born. To some degree, that applies to any creature with a Mom and Dad.
A Recent Example of The Hack
Almost two years ago, I began a journey to learn guitar. Mostly, I wanted to take up something different to me and physical, unlike the topics I normally study – computer, business, math, science, etc. I’ve blogged about my reason for this endeavor as well as things I’ve learned through my study of music, particularly music theory.
My recent example (within the past couple of weeks) of enriching my path through The Hack lead through a series of intriguing and surprising steps. I should start with how fascinated I’ve always been with Hawaiian Slack Key and the style of Lindsey Buckingham. I recently came to learn that the two styles, although seemingly different, are based on the meeting of two worlds.
Surely, I had no delusional aspiration for getting to a point where I could even begin to attempt those styles. I was happy with getting down “3-chord rock” – mostly the “old man rock” of the 70s.
A few months ago, I came to one of my favorite old man rock songs, “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. I had not tried fingerpicking at all, but I felt like I wanted to dip my toe into that realm. With that song, I was introduced to the term, “Travis Picking”. I didn’t know at the time that “Dust in the Wind” is a relatively easy Travis Picking song and one of the first many people learn. It was a fortunate accident. So, I actually did pick it up to a fair level well within a few weeks.
With my new and hard-earned confidence with fingerpicking, I tried tackling something I thought was more aspirational, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (BTW, rest in peace, Christine McVie, who passed away a few days ago). I pulled up a video lesson and was surprised to learn that it too is Travis Picking!
After a week or so with Landslide, I wanted to move on to “Never Going Back Again”. But I learned that it requires an alternate tuning (Drop D). I had way enough to learn and practice at the time without getting into that. I had encountered Drop D before with Motley Crue, so I haven’t learned too many of their songs.
However, I sensed this Travis picking thing might be a key to another, elusive world. So I researched a fundamental Travis picking song to learn, and stumbled upon Freight Train. I still don’t have it down quite yet. At least Mrs. Hanamoku recognizes that is what I’m playing. I know it’s the gold standard so I still practice it every day.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, armed with the confidence I gained through my progress with Freight Train, I took a peek into Hawaiian Slack Key. I thought of trying something simple, like the Hawaiian vamp – about ten notes. That experiment almost came to an abrupt end as the first thing I learned is that I had to use an alternate tuning – “taro patch”, a.k.a. “Open G” – more radical than just Drop D that turned me away from “Never Going Back Again” (ironically). But this time I decided that I was curious enough. I would mess with my Taylor GS-Mini’s tuning just this once.
To my surprise, I learned that much of Hawaiian Slack key is very much like Travis picking! So I managed to pick up the Hawaiian vamp easier than I would have with no prior exposure to Travis picking.
Now I was more than intrigued by these “alternate tunings”. I looked up “Open G” and was shocked to find that Keith Richards plays open G tuning on many Rolling Stones classics! Keith Richards, Lindsey Buckingham, and Hawaiian Slack Key have something fundamental in common?! What?!
Now that I had a significant world to explore, I remembered that I do have two acoustics and two electrics. So I decided to use my GS-Mini and Les Paul for alternate tunings (mostly Open G) and keep my Taylor 312ce and Gibson SG in standard tuning.
To shorten this story, in the past week I learned, Jumping Jack Flash, Start Me Up, Hi`ilawe, and The Chain (obviously not the iconic solo yet)! I have a long way to go exploring this new world of Travis picking, Open G tunings, as well as the combination of the two. The fullness of the marriage of Travis picking and Open G makes Hawaiian Slack Key and Lindsey Buckingham sound like two or more guitars. And much of the unique sound of Keith Richards is due to the neat hammer-ons and pull-offs enabled by Open G.
That’s a rich world of guitar I didn’t realize I didn’t know. A rich world that emerged from a clash of two worlds of Travis picking and alternate tunings. But in keeping to the theme of this post, it’s the mix of the genius of Lindsey Buckingham, Keith Richards, and the Hawaiian Slack Key pioneers with the genius of the genuises who influenced them.
A Few Days Until the (Secular) Bodhi Day 2022
This coming Thursday (December 8, 2022) is the secular Bodhi Day. This blog serves as some “roadside assistance” on your Path as you observe the Enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. Pull you out of the ditch, change your tire if necessary, offer you water, and leave you to continue on your journey to contentment.
Please understand that I don’t mean for this hack to be used as an excuse to bounce from one thing to another as soon as something becomes boring or too hard. The Hack is a middle way (a very Buddhist thing) between the half-assed results of a short attention span effort and vigorously defending (clinging to) what you already know.
We should not become bored with our current life and seek completely different things, starting from scratch each time. Rather, when we run into the walls, instead of seeing just the walls we encounter, we will find elevators to the next floor. From that higher perspective, we’ll find bliss through witnessing the ever-widening view of the limitless Universe.
Faith and Patience,
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku