Grad school can make you smarter?

I really didn’t think I would come out of graduate school as a smarter person. I knew that I would know more about stuff, but I assumed, if anything, I would come out constrained by some understanding of how epiphany “should” happen. But I had a funny experience playing Minesweeper yesterday. It was a lapse: in high school I played 4–6 hours a day. It was the first thing I was ever good at. Even though my behavior back then was addictive, I credit Minesweeper with giving me experiences of life that have been indelible. That probably sounds crazy, but I found my first glimpse of self-worth in being good at Minesweeper. And since it is a talent that no normal person would value, I recognized immediately that self-worth was not a thing that has to be connected to what others think. It sounds obvious, but it was big and it changed me completely. I quit playing the game some time in there (around the time that my friend Sudano became way better than me–another valuable experience) and in the decade since I’ve picked it up for maybe a few days every year or so.

Every return to the game has made me feel good and familiar. I’ve recognized every time that if I invested the time I could get as good as I once was (the game is not very physical), and each time I’ve recognized as quickly that I don’t want that. The annual moment of weakness returned two days ago when I started playing a Minesweeper clone instead of reading papers. I only put in an hour, and I was as slow a player as ever, but the experience of playing had changed. I was seeing the game in a way that I never had before. I could recognize, with the consistency of habit, the irrelevance of my old approach to the game. The number-patterns are all the same, but patterns are just the beginning of Minesweeper. Two humps that I never even recognized before were a habitual hesitation before taking necessary risks and an attachment to the visual patterns made available by certainty. On Wednesday I saw the humps clearly, over my shoulder.

It can be really depressing with people, but there are some ways that it is great to interact with a thing that is exactly the same ten years later. Playing Minesweeper gave me an opportunity to measure myself in a very clean way, and it gave me a surprise. Honestly, I don’t really believe that the training I’m receiving in graduate school made me better at Minesweeper. Between challenges at school, at home, and in a relationship, I’m a very different person than I was a year ago. I still can’t describe-in-words any of the changes I feel, but I know I have some expectation of what the changes must have been because of how surprised I was to find “Better at Minesweeper” among them.

There was another time in my life when I was entirely devoted to learning how to draw. I was drawing at least four hours a day for a month. Every week or so I would run my work by an artist in town. On day 1, I was OK. Between day 1 and day 14 I got better. Between day 14 and day 30, I got worse. I had an urgent sense of time, so it was depressing to realize that I had learned to become worse; I didn’t draw at all for the next 30 days. But during that time I discovered the amazing complement to getting-worse-by-doing. I could tell by the way I was physically looking at objects that I was, in those moments, getting better at drawing (drawing is about seeing). Here is a great example of giving too much power to a person that isn’t ready for it: Take someone with an unhealthy commitment to productivity and show them that it is possible to get better at something by not doing it. Instead of accepting that rest and relaxation are a part of growth, I indulged the mystical realization that by doing nothing I could become good at Everything. It was a good time, only in part because it was grounded in the absurd.

Through all of it there is a me in a world putting meaning on things and feeling. I like the idea that I’m currently doing and learning everything. It isn’t just an appreciation that everything-affects-everything; I know the initial conditions are sensitive to me, that I can flap in hurricanes, but there is more. I cherish the invisible decrement to my ambition when a close friend does something that I have always wanted to do. I suddenly don’t need it as much anymore–vicarious experience is experience enough if you use a capital V. And suddenly, again, I’m presently doing nearly everything in the world, merely by caring about people.

What does it mean when the things you believe make you feel gigantic, but the corresponding growth they imply for the world makes you net invisible? The unfolding powers of ten leave enough room for meaning and meaninglessness to coexist, and they make it natural to feel good, busy, tiny, and lost all at the same time. The only real danger in being a busybody is forgetting that its silly. I’m totally content to be a silly creature imagining itself to be doing and learning everything. In fact, I’m thrilled.