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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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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

    15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

    You may think that you don’t have time for office organization, but if you really knew how much time that disorganization cost you, you’d reconsider.

    Rearranging and moving piles occasionally doesn’t count. Neither does clearing off your desk, if you swipe the mess into a bin, or a desk drawer.

    A relatively neat and orderly office space clears the way for higher productivity and less wasted time.

    Organizing your office doesn’t have to take days, it can be done a little at a time. In fact, maintaining an organized office is much more effective if you treat it like an on-going project, instead of a massive assault.

    So, if you’re ready to get started, the following organizing tips will help you transform your office into an efficient workspace.

    1. Purge Your Office

    De-clutter, empty, shred, get rid of everything that you don’t need or want. Look around. What haven’t you used in a while?

    Take one area at a time. If it doesn’t work, send it out for repair or toss it. If you haven’t used it in months and can’t think of when you’ll actually need it, out it goes. This goes for furniture, equipment, supplies, etc.

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    Don’t forget about knick-knacks, plants (real or artificial), and decorations – if they’re covered with dust and make your office look shabby, they’re fair game.

    2. Gather and Redistribute

    Gather up every item that isn’t where it belongs and put it where it does.

    3. Establish Work “Zones”

    Decide what type of activity happens in each area of your office. You’ll probably have a main workspace (most likely your desk,) a reference area (filing cabinet, shelves, binders,) and a supply area (closet, shelves or drawers.)

    Place the appropriate equipment and supplies are located in the proper area as much as possible.

    4. Close Proximity

    Position the equipment and supplies that you use most within reach. Things that you rarely use can be stored or put away.

    5. Get a Good Labeler

    Choose a label maker that’s simple to use. Take the time to label shelves, bins, baskets drawers. Not only will it remind you where things go, but it will also help others who may have a need to find, use, or put away anything in your workspace.

    6. Revise Your Filing System

    As we move fully into the digital age, the need to store paper files has decreased.

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    What can your store digitally? Are you duplicating files? You may be able to eliminate some of the files and folders you’ve used in the past. If you’re storing files on your computer, make sure you are doing regular back-ups.

    Here’re some storage ideas for creating a smooth filing system:

    • Create a meeting folder – Put all “items to be discussed” in there along with items that need to be handed off, reports that need to be given, etc. It’ll help you be prepared for meetings and save you stress in the even that a meeting is moved up.
    • Create a WOR folder – So much of our messy papers are things that are on hold until someone else responds or acts. Corral them in a WOR (Waiting on Response) folder. Check it every few days for outstanding actions you may need to follow-up on.
    • Storage boxes – Use inexpensive storage boxes to keep archived files and get them out of your current file space.
    • Magazine boxes – Use magazine boxes or binders to store magazines and catalogs you really want to store. Please make sure you really need them for reference or research, otherwise recycle them, or give away.
    • Reading folder – Designate a file for print articles and documents you want to read that aren’t urgent.
    • Archive files – When a project is complete, put all of the materials together and file them away. Keep your “working folders” for projects in progress.
    • File weekly – Don’t let your filing pile up. Put your papers in a “To File” folder and file everything once a week.

    Learn more tips on organizing your files here: How to Organize Your Files for Better Productivity

    7. Clear off Your Desk

    Remove everything, clean it thoroughly and put back only those items that are essential for daily use.

    If you have difficulty declutter stuff, this Declutter Formula will help you throw away stuff without regretting later.

    8. Organize your Desktop

    Now that you’ve streamlined your desktop, it’s a good idea to organize it.

    Use desktop organizers or containers to organize the items on your desk. Use trays for papers, containers for smaller items.

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    Don’t forget your computer desktop! Make sure the files or images are all in organized folders. I’d recommend you clear your computer desktop everyday before you leave work.

    9. Organize Your Drawers

    Put items used together in the same drawer space, stamps with envelopes, sticky pads with notepads, etc.

    Use drawer organizers for little items – paper clips, tacks, etc. Use a separate drawer for personal items.

    10. Separate Inboxes

    If you work regularly with other people, create a folder, tray, or inbox for each.

    11. Clear Your Piles

    Hopefully with your new organized office, you won’t create piles of paper anymore, but you still have to sort through the old ones.

    Go through the pile (a little at a time if necessary) and put it in the appropriate place or dump it.

    12. Sort Mails

    Don’t just stick mail in a pile to be sorted or rifle through and take out the pieces you need right now. Sort it as soon as you get it – To act, To read, To file, To delegate or hand off. .

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    13. Assign Discard Dates

    You don’t need to keep every piece of paper indefinitely. Mark on files or documents when they can be tossed or shredded.

    Some legal or financial documents must be kept for specified length of time. Make sure you know what those requirements are.

    14. Filter Your Emails

    Some emails are important to read, others are just not that important.

    When you use the filter system to label different types of emails, you know their priority and which to reply first.

    Take a look at these tips to achieve inbox zero: The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

    15. Straighten Your Desk

    At the end of the day, do a quick straighten, so you have a clean start the next day.

    Bottom Line

    Use one tip or try them all. The amount of effort you put into creating and maintaining an efficient work area will pay off in a big way.

    Instead of spending time looking for things and shuffling piles, you’ll be able to spend your time…well…working and you’ll enjoy being clutter free!

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    Featured photo credit: Alesia Kazantceva via unsplash.com

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