The Quantum Karateka

…step outside the dojo.

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The truth is always more complex

I was on the job the other day and passed by this ubiquitous billboard that I’m sure you’ve seen somewhere too (at least in LA that is):

There are a few things that are interesting to note here. The first thing has to do with the fact that the billboard uses the face of German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, to promote its cause by relying on the oft-repeated legend of Einstein not being a successful student. And if you’re like many people, including myself, you’ve probably already got in your head the anecdotal story of Einstein failing specifically in mathematics as a young student. Now, on any other day I would have passed by this billboard and not really gave it much more thought than: “Yeah. Einstein was a genius. So what?”. But recently I have been reading Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography of the man. One of the first things that struck me while reading the book is that this legendary “fact” is in reality, False (notice the capital “F”?). Here are some humorous passages:

One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as a student, an assertion that is made, often accompanied by the phrase “as everyone knows,” by scores of books and thousands of websites designed to reassure underachieving students. It even made it into the famous “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” newspaper column.

Alas, Einstein’s childhood offers history many savory ironies, but this is not one of them. In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clipping of the Ripley’s column with the headline “Greatest Living Mathematician Failed in Mathematics.” Einstein laughed. “I never failed in mathematics,” he replied, correctly. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”

In fact, he was a wonderful student, at least intellectually. In primary school, he was at the top of his class…As for math, far from being a failure, he was “far above the school requirements.” By age 12, his sister recalled, “he already had a predilection for solving complicated problems in applied arithmetic,” and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning geometry and algebra on his own…Not only did he learn the proofs in the books, he tackled the new theories by trying to prove them on his own. “Play and playmates were forgotten,” she noted. “For days on end he sat alone, immersed in the search for a solution, not giving up before he had found it.” (pg. 16 – 17)

So that’s kind of an important misbelief to squash here. Einstein was pretty much exhibiting signs of his Einstein-ness even as a young student. The second thing that struck me while reading Isaacson’s book is that one of the qualities he points out as critical to Einstein’s “genius” has a lot more to do with his unabashed questioning of authority/establishment/tradition/status-quo than it does with this nebulous value of “confidence” that the billboard is promoting. Another passage:

His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere. But they also helped to make him, or so he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern times.

His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom in ways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contemplated. And as for his slow verbal development, he came to believe that it allowed him to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took for granted. “When I ask myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following circumstance,” Einstein once explained. “The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have.” (pg. 8 – 9)

Now, I’m not pointing all this out to deny that “confidence” isn’t an important quality to have or that Einstein didn’t have that. But I think the people behind this billboard campaign are dumbing down the truth to fit their agenda. A more accurate statement of values would probably read something like “Question Established Authority” or even “Imagination” or “Creativity” as the tagline. And that’s the last thing I want to point out here about this billboard. The problem in society isn’t that students aren’t more confident about their abilities and that’s why they’re dropping out of school. The problem has something more to do with the ways in which our society measures intelligence and determines who is capable and who is not. And so while it may be a fact that Einstein wasn’t received well in school by some of his teachers, this really had nothing to do with his lack of intelligence, but rather, his lack of respect for authority. I’ll leave you with one last passage which comes at the end of chapter one:

As a young student he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders…That approach required him to embrace nonconformity. “Long live impudence!” he exulted to the lover who would later become his wife. “It is my guardian angel in this world.” Many years later, when others thought that his reluctance to embrace quantum mechanics showed that he had lost his edge, he lamented, “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.” … His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. “It is important to foster individuality,” he said, “for only the individual can produce the new ideas.” (pg. 7)

Long live impudence. Imagine that on a billboard.
– QK


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The Question

At the end this past Tuesday night’s taiko class, which was our “PEAC” week showcase (Performance Evaluation And Celebration), my instructor asked a question to my friend who had come to watch us. A very nonchalant, benign question that people will often ask when trying to get to know someone. It’s a question that for some of us, myself included, comes with a lot of anxiety and weight. It’s a question I hope to answer for myself more clearly in the future:

“And so what do you do?”

Boom. There it is.

What do I do??? Uh, uh, uh…stutter…stutter.

My friend answered that she was a “case worker”. Which is technically true. She’s employed by the county and handles public health insurance concerns. However, knowing the weight and pertinence of such a question to her life (and to mine) I chimed in, “But she really wants to go to art school”

And so then it hit me (but like later. When I was like brushing my teeth or something). Not an epiphany really, but just a clear re-realization of this truth: That if you want to be an “Artist” (and that may be a loaded term for some people; I use it broadly to mean many things, not just the fine arts), then someday, somehow, someway, you have got to own that. You have got to lay claim to that title and believe it in yourself. And you can pay and listen to “successful” people tell you how they did it or how they think you should do it and whatever like that but…You know you’re just secretly wanting them to give you that permission. Cause it sounds crazy right? Like, irrational. In your head I mean. Like, “Wtf? I can’t just do that. That would change everything.”

That’s why you need to go and DO IT.

…cause there ain’t no “TRY” in “D-E-T-R-OIT“, remember?


Okay, okay. I know it’s not so easy. I’m strugglin’ with this too. I definitely haven’t figured my shit out yet. What the fuck does a guy like me know, right? I’m 33 year years old and live at home with my parents (hahaha what a ridiculous-ass way to put myself down. Meh-meh-meh-neh-neh-neh I’m such a loser. Oh boo-hoo-hoo shut the fuck up. It doesn’t help to compare yourself to anyone goddammit!).

But it’s true I think. It’s no more complicated than that. You give yourself permission to display your courage in going forth and doing this work. Work that is necessary and in which you are needed. And shit…were you waiting for something?

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is going ahead in spite of it.

– QK

“Well gee, I am a baaad motherfucker aren’t I?”


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In My Impudent Opinion

IMIO, I think that people who believe they don’t need therapy because they consider themselves to be the standard-bearer of “normal”, are the ones most in need of therapy (like psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy or…whatever, take your pick dude). And I think those who know they need therapy or are already in therapy, what they really need is a kind of “life coaching” or guidance.

The difference is, the former is mainly unconscious and un-intuitive as to matters of the heart and soul. Their spiritual plumbing is congested and they need a strong laxative; cause that shit be stuck up in there! Goddamn! The latter is less unconscious and more sensitive to matters of the heart. They have already been investigating themselves like the Soul Detective that they are, sleuthing through books in the self-help section, going to meditation retreats, listening to empowering speakers/music/talks/etc, oftentimes paying for expensive therapy. So they are already in- the-know of their inner lives. They don’t need a high-priced professional to tell them this. What they need is a Wise Council of Elders, a Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi; someone who has been initiated into Life and brought forth their treasure into the world and is therefore in a position to mentor other humans through this arduous process….


Whatever. I’m being half-serious.

But seriously.
– Hiji Até