Descartes, Malcolm Gladwell and the case for repetition

A close friend recently advised me to write everyday thereby reminding me of the hidden benefits of repetition . Associative memory triggered Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” and “Outliers” and writings of the outstanding French Mathematician and Philosopher Rene Descartes .

Rene Descartes is a fascinating character , I have heard him described as the creator of the Clockwork universe, father of modern philosophy . Descartes paved the path for humanity to stop thinking of an omniscient god and instead think of the Celestial Watchmaker , things no longer just happened , they happened for a reason. While some of us may argue that we have traded one convenience for another , we all can agree that this was clearly a watershed moment for humanity . We stopped expecting random bolts of lightening from Zeus and instead learn that it is electric charge that is being accumulated by the clouds from the water particles and that charge eventually needs to make its way to electric ground aka earth . This has also set in motion a steady onslaught on ignorance and blind belief and something as dramatic today as viewing the surface of Pluto has become child’s play for us, the importance of this cannot be emphasized , the Borgias , Caligula or Henry VIII with all their murderous might could not summon up this knowledge at will . Even though today we are beneficiaries of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and we may not have sufficient reason to believe in a Celestial Watchmaker today , we certainly owe our progress in large to Descartes and the thinkers of the Enlightenment for getting us this far.

There was an amusing anecdote regarding Descartes that highlights his precociousness .The defining treatise for Geometry is Euclid’s elements , there are 13 books in all and besides the fact that it encompasses all there is to know about Euclidean geometry , it is a monumental achievement to the art of organization . Euclid’s elements starts with  5 postulates and proceeds to create the entire field of Geometry and trigonometry . Descartes was 15 when he chanced upon the copy of the Elements , he had devoured the entire text by the following morning to his teacher’s astonishment.

When he was 21 , he developed his Rules for direction of the mind.   Rules V through VII discuss the arrangement of ideas from simple to complex and Rules IX through XI discuss how the mind needs to run repeatedly over the arrangement so as to master  the nuances of the craft under consideration completely , I interpret that as repetition  .

Today there seems to be a general distaste for the mundane and boring task of forcing children to memorize and there is an incredible amount of research and body of knowledge that the memorization process hurts education rather than help it . Having been in the trenches as a student who was forced to memorize essays(yes , you read that right) and organic chemistry equations and historical facts and as a parent who failed to impose the multiplication table on kids who having seen the calculator were dumb founded at my foolish insistence that they should know what 7 x 8 is without resorting to the calculator , I will hurriedly plead that I am not a philistine in my outlook and would not want to force kids through rote learning given the appliances of modern convenience (though I am a closet calculator hater ).

So that in a nutshell is my conundrum , I admire Descartes and his rules which preach memorization through repetition and condemn forced memorization which seems to hurt the learning process. Having been a cat slave for the last 30 some years , I have learned to admire the act of sitting on the fence.

However let me move onto modern times and talk about Malcolm Gladwell and two of his classics “Blink” and “Outliers” . The interesting tidbit that is of relevance to us from “Outliers” is the claim that Gladwell makes there is a magical transition that seems to happen after 10000 hours of practice . He lists a long list of luminaries, including Bill Gates ,Mark Zuckerberg , Beatles et all who seem like childhood prodigies but have paid the requisite fee of 10000 hours to enter that rarefied realm of expert knowledge .   I am not denying that these are great minds but we rarely pay attention to the fact that elbow grease(or repetition) played an important role  here . In “Blink” , Gladwell likes to educate us about another variety of prodigies , people like Napoleon who seemed blessed with coup de oeil (the glance) , according to eye witnesses . Napoleon could walk into a strategy discussion and with just a glance know where he need to attack or defend . The same could be said of a variety of  prodigies in other fields such as Math , chess , engineering, arts etc .   There was an old anecdote about the Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan who informed the director  that the lights were not angled correctly  because the heat on his face did not “seem right” . Anyone who has followed Indian cinema for any length of time is familiar with the prolific number of Bachchan’s works. Napoleon consumed vast amount of military literature from Hannibal to Frederick the Great when he was a Lieutenant in the French army , a fact ignored by those who only saw him as a brilliant military commander in his later years.

The point again seems to come back to the fact that hard work is imperative for genius to truly flower.And the hard work in each case seems to be defined as study and repetition .To quote another prodigy

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.”


So how can we reconcile this  glaring contradiction ? The chief difference between forced memorization and the repetition that seems to be staple diet of prodigies the world over is the likability factor . The prodigies truly enjoyed what they did , Gates enjoyed working on the computers at Lakewood  , Zuckerberg enjoyed programming with a passion , Kasparov enjoyed his chess lessons , Napoleon loved military strategy . Forcing children to learn something that they do not enjoy is a recipe for disaster , you might get them to pass the next test but they will retain nothing . Worse the pleasure of learning could be tainted for life as drudgery.

According to the Dreyfus model of knowledge acquisition , there are 5 stages 1) Novice 2) Advanced Beginner 3) Competent 4) Proficient and 5) Expert . It probably does not need any convincing on my part that people who are in the stages of proficient and Expert truly enjoy what they do partly because it always feels good  to do what you are truly good at and in turn leads to a self perpetuating cycle. The Bible has an interesting quote on those lines

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.

I am not that vain as to assume that I am capable of providing solutions for the problem of educating children and that is not what I am trying to do here but I do believe that we as adults can bring about a seismic shift in their and our own perceptions . I believe we can focus on the passion in our lives and through repetition , shine as a beacon to our succeeding generations as so many have done unto us .

And last but certainly not least, a big thank you to my friend, The Baba Yaga project for inspiring this essay.


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