Always Solving Problems

The Toilet Paper Question post below, and this page about traffic that it reminded a reader of, got me to think about something I’ve been wondering about.

Why is it that some people always seem to be trying to figure out the best way to do things while others don’t?

It seems to me that making sense of the world and what we’re doing is what we did as children all the time. So, I’d think the natural thing to do is to analyze what we do and try to understand its nature and how we can optimize our activity (whatever it is, and whatever we’re trying to optimize for). So I don’t think we need to explain why some people (like me) do this, but why other people don’t.

I remember an incident that happened to me when I was in the 3rd Grade. I was thinking about how the diagonal path across a square was shorter than going around the corner. I asked my teacher how much longer the diagonal of a square was than the side (I hadn’t heard of Pythagoras yet). She was annoyed by the question because I was supposed to be working on some worksheet (which I’d finished). Her first answer amazed me:

I don’t know…twice as long?
No, it’s shorter than that.
Oh right. It’s one and a half times as long.
No, it’s shorter than that too (I’d done a quick measurement with a ruler before asking)
[Angry] Go back to your desk. You should be working on [whatever I’d finished].

I went back to my desk, confused. I knew that I didn’t learn much in school, but I thought that teachers were supposed to know a lot of things and should at least be able to help you figure out what they don’t know. But this teacher (who, as I recall, was better than most) not only didn’t help me learn, but actively discouraged me from learning.

I can only imagine how many kids who were less stubborn than I was would come away from that experience learning that spontaneous curiosity is bad and gets you into trouble. And whenever you think of a question that you don’t absolutely need to answer right away, ignore it.


By the way, neither of my parents knew the answer either, but I got it from my uncle (an engineer) a month later. I got to learn about exponentiation and square roots, too. Cool


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