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Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation

Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation

Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss biologist, placed a fish specimen on the table in front of his post-graduate student.

“That’s only a sunfish,” the student said.

“I know that,” Agassiz replied.

He continued, “Write a description of it. Find out what you can without damaging the specimen. When I think that you have done the work I will question you.” (1)

The Power Of Observation

The student wrote for an nearly an hour, until he felt confident that he knew nearly all there was to know about this particular fish.

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Much to the student’s frustration, however, Agassiz did not return to see him that day. His teacher did not come the next day either. Nor for the entire week that followed. Eventually, the student realized Agassiz’s game: the teacher wanted him to observe the fish more deeply.

After nearly 100 hours of study, the student began to notice finer details that had escaped his vision previously: how the scales of the fish were shaped and the patterns they made, the placement of the teeth, the shape of each individual tooth, and so on. When his teacher finally returned and the student explained all that he had learned, Agassiz replied, “That’s not right.” And walked out of the room. (2)

Shocked and angry at first, the student eventually recommitted to the task with new vigor. He threw out all of his previous notes. He studied the fish for 10 hours per day for an entire week. When he met with Agassiz a final time, the student had produced work that “astonished.” (3)

louis-agassiz-by-john-adams-whipple
    Louis Agassiz circa 1865. (Photographer: John Adams Whipple.)

    The Art of Comparing Objects

    After his investigation of the sunfish, Agassiz’s student wrote, “I had learned the art of comparing objects.”

    How does this tooth compare to the one next to it? How does this scale compare to the one on the opposite side? How does the symmetry of the bottom half of the fish compare to the top half?

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    The art of comparing objects is a remarkably useful strategy in many areas of life. Take weightlifting, for example.

    For the first five years that I lifted weights, I experienced mediocre results at best. I assumed that it was information that held me back. Like many people, I thought that once I’d found the right workout routine, then I would be set. I was under the assumption that I simply hadn’t reached the next level because I hadn’t come across the right information. What I didn’t realize was my search for the perfect pre-made formula was preventing me from observing my actual results.

    When I started to observe with greater care and focus, I realized that my body tended to respond better to higher volume rather than higher intensity. I noticed that my foundational strength in major movements like the squat and deadlift was lacking. I was able to use these observational discoveries to tailor my training to my needs and, subsequently, make much greater strides because of it. It was through comparing what I was doing with what was actually working for me that I made progress.

    Do The Work For Yourself

    “I never pay attention to anything by ‘experts.’ I calculate everything myself.” — Richard Feynman

    When Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, was working on a new theory of beta decay, he noticed something surprising. For years, experts had been saying that beta decay occurred in a particular way, but when Feynman actually ran the experiments, he kept getting a different result.

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    Eventually, Feynman investigated the original data that all of the experts were basing their theory on and discovered that the study was flawed. For years, nobody had bothered to read or repeat the original study! All of the experts just kept quoting one another and used their mutual opinions as justification for the theory. Then Feynman came along and turned everything upside simply because he did the calculations himself. (4)

    Look, And See For Yourself

    “Take the facts into your own hands; look, and see for yourself!” — Louis Agassiz

    Pick any industry of life and you’ll find that very few people actually do the work.

    Rather than read the original study, most people cite the headline from a secondary source. Rather than spend 100 hours observing every detail of a fish, most biology students would look up the description of the fish online. When most people say, “I read an article on climate change,” what they really mean is, “I read the title of an article on climate change.”

    This is exactly why doing the boring work more consistently is actually a competitive advantage. Ignore the expert advice and pay attention to what gets results for you.

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    Look, and see for yourself.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    FOOTNOTES
    1. This story about Agassiz has been told by two different sources. First, in The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who was a student of Agassiz. Second, in Ezra Pound’s classic book, The ABC of Reading. Pound’s version is known as the Parable of the Sunfish and deviates slightly from the original sources. I’ve done my best to represent Agassiz accurately here.
    2. From what I can tell, this was fairly standard behavior for Agassiz. He would, reportedly, “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.” (Source: Speech by William James at the reception of the American Society of Naturalists on December 30, 1896.)
    3. The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. Page 99.
    4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman. Page 254-255.

    Featured photo credit: Eric Heupel via flickr.com

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    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on December 2, 2020

    7 Reasons Why Quitting Facebook Now Is Good for Your Future

    7 Reasons Why Quitting Facebook Now Is Good for Your Future

    For the past 100 years or so, there have been huge improvements in communication. From letters to phone calls to text messages to video calls to social networks. Following all these improvements, one of the biggest inventions of the 21st century was founded in 2004[1], and it started to spread like wildfire, first in the US and then around the world. Now, quitting Facebook has become nearly unheard of.

    There are more than 1 billion monthly active Facebook users. Although initially it aimed to bring all people together for the sake of connecting, the effects of Facebook on masses became a huge debate after it gained so much popularity, with some even suggesting you deactivate your account.

    The advantages of social media and its ability to connect us to people around the world are well known. Now, it’s time to dive into the ways Facebook affects your productivity and why you should ultimately consider quitting Facebook.

    1. Facebook Allows You to Waste Time

    While being on Facebook and scrolling through the news feed, many active users are not aware of the time they actually spend on viewing others’ life events or messaging with Facebook messenger. It has become so addictive that many even feel obliged to like or comment on anything that is shared.

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    You might think of the time spent on Facebook as your free time, though you are not aware that you can spend the same time taking care of yourself, learning something new, or doing your daily tasks.

    2. It Can Decrease Motivation

    By seeing someone else’s continuous posts about the parties they went to or friends they see frequently, you might feel insecure about yourself if your own posts are not as impressive as the ones in your news feed.

    However, there is rarely such a thing as going out every day or having amazing vacations every year. Unfortunately, though, we internalize the posts we see and create a picture in our minds of how others are living.

    One study found that “participants who used Facebook most often had poorer trait self-esteem, and this was mediated by greater exposure to upward social comparisons on social media”[2].

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    Basically, when we see posts depicting lives we consider “better” than ours, our self-esteem takes a hit. As many of us are doing this for hours at a time, you can imagine the toll it’s taking on our mental health. Therefore, if you want to raise your self-esteem, quitting Facebook may be a good idea.

    3. You Use Energy on People You Don’t Care About

    Look at the number of friends you have on Facebook. How many of them are really good friends? How many of the friend requests you get are real people or your actual acquaintances?

    You have to admit that you have people on Facebook who are not related to you and some you barely know, but who still comments on their photos or offer a like now and again. Basically, instead of offering your time and energy to the genuinely rewarding relationships in your life, you’re spending it on people you don’t really care about.

    4. Facebook Feeds You Useless Information

    It is one thing to read newspapers or magazines in order to get information, but it is an entirely different thing to be faced with false news, trends, and celebrity updates through continuous posts. I bet one of the things that you will not miss after quitting Facebook is the bombardment of information that seems to have no effect on your life whatsoever.

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    5. It Damages Your Communication Skills

    When is the last time you actually hung out in real life with your friends, relatives, or colleagues? Because of the social media that is supposed to help us communicate, we forget about real communication, and therefore, have difficulties communicating effectively in real life. This negatively affects our relationships at home, work, or in our social circles.

    6. You Get Manipulated

    One of the biggest problems of Facebook is its influence on people’s creativity. Although it is assumed to be a free social media site, which let’s you to share almost anything you want, you have this tendency to want to get more likes[3].

    In order to get more likes, you must work very hard on your shared posts, trying to make it funny, creative, or clever, while you could spend the same time doing something that genuinely improves your creativity. After quitting Facebook, you’ll be amazed at all the creative hobbies you have time to develop.

    7. It Takes Over Your Life

    The marketing strategy of Facebook is quite clear. Its creators want you to spend as much time as possible on the site. While working on their posts and choosing which pictures to share, many people actually try to be someone else. This often means they end up being isolated from the real world and their true selves.

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    It is possible to put the same time and energy toward becoming a better version of yourself instead of faking it. Why not try it by quitting Facebook?

    Final Thoughts

    There are many reasons to try quitting Facebook. By knowing how it may be impacting your productivity and mental health, you can search for motivation to get off social media and back into your real life.

    These points will guide you in seeing what your life would be like if you were to delete your account. Leaving Facebook doesn’t sound so bad after all, does it?

    More on How to Quit Social Media

    Featured photo credit: Brett Jordan via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] The Guardian: A brief history of Facebook
    [2] Psychology of Popular Media Culture: Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem.
    [3] Better by Today: Do Facebook ‘Likes’ Mean You’re Liked?

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