Apparently People Found The Pickle Jokes Pretty Entertaining So Let's Keep That Going

Pickle-Haters, Stay Out Of My DMs

Of all the topics that have been discussed on Stew's Letter so far, only one has caused a tsunami of responses: pickles.

Pickle jokes bond humans together, apparently.

One loyal Stew's Letter fan told me that he enjoys reading the email each week, even though it makes him want to eat pickles every time it shows up in his inbox.

Another loyal Stew's Letter reader made a poignant point in an email with the subject line "In a pickle:"

I think there are neither cucumbers nor pickles. Those are merely essential arbitrary Platonic categories that don’t really represent reality, only human convenience. There are similar sequence[s] of DNA that create whatever they can, whenever they can, as often as they will, and without concern for burgers and salads.

It turns out that pickles are a shockingly powerful lens through which to understand the world.

Interestingly, nobody has had any strong opinions about cucumbers. It feels similar to how we think about caterpillars: they're fine, but, let's be real, we're waiting for them to become butterflies.

Stay tuned. Bad pickle jokes are here to stay.

Maybe "Genius" Is Just Baseline Ability Times Effort

It's nice to think that Einstein was born a genius and a mind like his is simply unattainable by us mere mortals. It means that we can slack off, because it's simply not possible to be that smart; let's fire up Big Bang Theory and keep the ol' mental train in the station.

I certainly have this subconscious bias towards overvaluing innate "talent" over extended, intense effort.

But, a couple different things I read this year have changed my mind and have led me to believe that, given some reasonable baseline of innate ability, the person who simply puts in the hours can appear, many years later, as a "genius" destined for greatness from birth.

Richard Hamming, the famous mathematician, recounts a story of a "brilliant" co-worker his legendary lecture "You And Your Research" (which you should pop open some wine and watch in its entirety sometime):

One day about three or four years after I joined [Bell Labs], I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?’’

He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised, Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.’’ I simply slunk out of the office!

Tim Urban, the mind behind Wait But Why, observed what happens when we tell ourselves that some people are just "born with it," instead of recognizing the years of practice they've put in to get good at something:

When you overrate the impact of innate talent on how people fare in their careers—and you also conflate talent and skill level—it won’t leave you feeling great about your chances at many paths.

Geniuses be warned: my new strategy is to just outwork you.

An Interesting Anecdote That Recently Challenged My Worldview

I recently heard the story of James Stockdale, an American fighter pilot who was imprisoned and tortured for seven and a half years in Vietnam.

Surviving that long is insane. When he was asked who didn’t return home, he said, “oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”

The optimists didn’t make it out? Shit.

“They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Whether or not this is objectively true (surely, an optimist or two survived), it’s an interesting mental model.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

As somebody prone to wearing rose-colored glasses, this was a nice jolt.

As the old wisdom goes, “it’s not necessary to hope to persevere.”