Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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?

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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

    More by this author

    James Clear

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

    7 Reminders for Overcoming Fear to Make Big Life Changes 7 Reasons You Haven’t Found Your Passion Yet Fast Growth Is Overrated โ€” Here’s Why Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation How to Fall in Love With Boredom and Unlock Your Mental Toughness

    Trending in Productivity

    1 7 Ways To Stop Being Lazy And Start Getting Things Done 2 How Does Setting Goals Lead to Success? 3 9 Best Calendar Apps to Stay on Track in 2020 4 Your Night Routine Guide to Sleeping Better & Waking Up Productive 5 6 Things To Do Every Day To Ensure You Stick To Your Goals

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on July 2, 2020

    7 Ways To Stop Being Lazy And Start Getting Things Done

    7 Ways To Stop Being Lazy And Start Getting Things Done

    “I’m going to take a lazy day today.”

    Okay, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s called a day off, and it’s a magical thing.

    But when every day is a “lazy day,” there’s a problem. Sometimes we just need a kick in the butt to get us up and moving, so we can handle our business effectively.

    Often, laziness has a deeper and darker cause that we don’t want to think about, let alone acknowledge. Here are 7 ways to stop being lazy and become more productive.

    1 Find Out the Root Cause

    Are you burned out from working 27 hours a day, 9 days a week since before you can remember? This is a signal that you need a rest or a change.

    Advertising

    Human beings are not meant to work all the time. Our paleolithic ancestors worked, on average, about 20 hours a week. (Yeah, we members of modern society are getting hosed.) Maybe you feel overwhelmed, are afraid to fail at the task, or you just don’t want to do the task; these are discrete problems with separate solutions.

    Finding out the root cause of your laziness can help you make the changes you need to make to be a more effective and energetic person.

    2. Find Your Passion for the Work

    You started doing what you do for a reason, but sometimes, even the tasks we love the most can become dreary and mundane. When this happens, remind yourself why you started doing it in the first place.

    You must have had a passion for it at some point, or you wouldn’t be bothering with it. Remind yourself of the good points of the work, not just the parts that suck.

    3. Break up Your Time

    People work more efficiently when they have ample rest time. Working in short, focused bursts is far more effective than trying to slog through the task all at once. Not only will you be happier with the end product, but you’ll feel better and more energized after completing it.

    Advertising

    Learn about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

    4. Look at Ways You Can Do the Task More Efficiently

    When possible, work smarter instead of harder.

    We’ve already talked about why working hard doesn’t work as well. If you can find a better way to do the task, you’re more likely to enjoy it because you’re not simply performing the task by rote, but rather, using your creativity and imagination to their best effect. This will make you feel better about the job and probably enjoy it more, too.

    Try these 12 Ways to Work Smart.

    5. Ask for Help or Support

    Sometimes, we just need a little extra backup. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help from a more motivated coworker, friend, or family member. This is a useful way to get you up and moving, because they will motivate you to do the task.

    Advertising

    At the same time, you may be doing them a favor by motivating them to work harder. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone!

    Learn How to Ask for Help When You’re Afraid To Do So.

    6. Think About Why You Don’t Want to Do the Task

    This sounds like a rehash of number 1, but it’s really not.

    Some jobs we don’t want to do because they’re just not fun. Mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or getting under the car and replacing the alternator all have one thing in common. People don’t like doing these jobs because they take time and energy, they’re not pleasant, and we know that sooner or later, we’ll just be doing the same thing all over again.

    However, instead of thinking about why you don’t want to do the task, think about the benefits. Your car will run better, the Homeowners’ Association won’t be leaving you a nasty gram for the sixth time this month, and your house will look nicer and feel more welcoming.

    Advertising

    By turning a negative into a positive, you’ll find your outlook about these tasks will be more positive too.

    7. Force Yourself

    Sometimes there’s just no getting around it. All the good advice and wishes in the world won’t make the job look any better. In these cases, you need to remember you’re an intelligent, mature member of Homo Sapiens, and get off your butt.

    While it may not be fun at the time, you can look back on the task you did later and say, “Yeah. I did that.” You shouldn’t have to force yourself out of bed every morning (this is a warning sign of depression that you should NOT ignore), but every once in a while, we need to force ourselves to do something we just don’t want to do.

    Believe it or not, you’ll be proud of yourself once the task is done.

    More Motivational Tips

    Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

    Read Next