An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

1.23 Non sequiturs and inadvertent mistakes

Some of the most unexpected but useful things I’ve learned while in the process of creating something have come from inadvertent mistakes. I pronounce or spell a word incorrectly and suddenly notice something about its etymology, or I recognize a related word whose relevance I’d never considered.

Sometimes I do this on purpose, such as saying “oneth” instead of “first”. My wife and I have yet to agree on whether this will be educational or thoroughly confusing for our children by the time I inevitably start doing it to them.

Often when preparing a piece on piano or organ, I’ll play a note wrong and it will suggest a new chord progression or harmony I’d never thought of. A recent example is when I was working on a hymn called “O Lord of Hosts”. Moving one note on the second stanza by a half step made the chord sound like the memorable opening dissonance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”. Discovering that led me to play around with its chords a little more and finally come to understand the structure of Bernstein’s piece that I had merely thought was strange and “modern” when I sang it in college.

When I was learning to speak Dutch, especially because I studied it with other English-speaking beginners while also living among native speakers, my developing understanding was full of such epiphanies and new connections crucial to forming my mental framework. Whether the mistakes were my own or overheard in others’ conversation, they were always mind-opening and enlightening.

These kinds of events can be useful for exposing holes in our mental models. Recently I’ve begun pondering their mind-enlarging powers in relation to what Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm calls “non sequiturs”. He explicates this idea in a lengthy and detailed essay called “Don’t Surround Yourself With Smarter People”. A lot of the intermediate explanation still goes over my head, but the crux of his argument makes a lot of sense to me.

Each of us is, in a sense, playing this game of life, and we have mental models for nearly everything we encounter. This is especially true of the people commonly around us in everyday life. Once we know enough about someone to create a model of them in our heads, we can start to predict how they will act in certain situations. We may expect them to act like we do, or very unlike we do, but the fact is that we believe we can predict certain things about them.

At this point, we still (as always) don’t have any view into the actual state of their minds or emotions. (If we did, our mental model would be perfect.) So when they do something that surprises us, it usually means that our expectations about them are incorrect. Our model does not match up with their actual state.

Occurrences like this are especially valuable when we encounter non sequiturs. If you react to something in a way that implies you find it unremarkable, a non sequitur, an irrelevant piece of information, I now have to examine my model of the world and see whether that thing is as valuable as I previously thought. I may find this thing noteworthy and unusual when you find it normal and unremarkable.

Here’s how Venkat puts it:

But it is the parts that don’t overlap that matter. There are things that have a defined worth in their lives that are non sequiturs in yours, and vice versa. When you see through the eyes of a differently free person, you expect to see a landscape of presumptively valued things. A landscape based on your predictions of how they value things. When the other person appears to value something that doesn’t even register with you, for a moment, that thing turns into a non sequitur, a candidate parrot. It lingers just a little bit longer in your own mind than it would if you yourself saw it. Long enough that you do a double take and notice it consciously.

I think there’s something qualitatively similar between these revelations that come because of a non sequitur in someone else’s life and the ones that come because of inadvertent mistakes we or others make, and both seem to have some value in the learning process.

Venkat’s thesis is that you should surround yourself not necessarily with people who are smarter than you, but with people who operate on different mental models. Perhaps this is one reason why diversity in the workplace, the community, and religion is such an important thing. It’s not just important for human rights and dignity, but also because it makes all of us better. We understand the world better by learning from the things others do that at first don’t make sense to us.

• • •

What’s something surprising or valuable you’ve learned recently that was a non sequitur to the person who pointed it out?

—Steve

Later article
1.24 Distributed self