A number of you have been asking me about this maxim, so here is some background on what it means:
1. Ever try to persuade another person? Let’s say it is even of an uncontested idea such as supply and demand. You might “final exam them into admitting that the demand curve slopes downward.” But still, if they do not understand enough of the uses of supply and demand thinking, they will find it hard to think in terms of supply and demand themselves. They will not have the background context to understand the import of the idea.
2. Why did economists for so long stick with cost of production theories of value, rather than adopting the marginal revolution? They didn’t see or understand all the possibilities that would open up from bringing the marginal calculus to microeconomics, and then later to empirical work. Given the context they had, which was for performing simple comparative statics experiments on developing economies, the cost of production theory seemed good enough.
3. One correspondent from a successful company wrote me:
“- I’ve been onboarding ~5 people every two weeks for my team.
– The number of them that actually learn all the important stuff in under a month is zero. The number of them that have a self-guided strategy to learn what is relevant is almost zero.
– Remember these are people with fancy college degrees, that passed a hard interview, and are getting paid $X00k!
– I’m now spending entire days writing / maintaining an FAQ, producing diagrams, and having meetings with them to answer their questions.”
4. Ever wonder about the vast universe of critically acclaimed aesthetic masterworks, most of which you do not really fathom? If you dismiss them, and mistrust the critics, odds are that you are wrong and they are right. You do not have the context to appreciate those works. That is fine, but no reason to dismiss that which you do not understand. The better you understand context, the more likely you will see how easily you can be missing out on it.
5. I use “modern art” or “contemporary art” (both bad terms, by the way) as good benchmarks for whether a person understands “context is that which is scarce.” “Contemporary classical music” too (another bad terms, but you know what I mean). If a person is convinced that those are absurd enterprises, that is a good litmus test for that person not understanding the import of context. You may not prefer things to be this way, but in many cultural areas appreciation of the outputs demands more and more context (Adam Smith called this division of labor, by the way).
6. If you think a great deal of things are “downstream from culture and ideas,” as I do, you also have to think they are downstream of context.
7. Many attributions of bad motives to people, or attributions of conspiracy, spring from a lack of understanding of context. It is easy enough for someone to seem like he or she is “operating in bad faith.” But usually a deeper and better understanding is available.
8. Lack of context is often a serious problem on Twitter and other forms of social media, as they may deliberately truncate context. In some parts of our culture, context is growing more scarce. “When I’m Sixty-Four” makes much more sense on Sgt. Pepper than it does on Spotify.
9. So much of education is teaching people context. That is why it is hard, and also why it often does not seem like real learning.
10. When judging people for leadership positions, or for jobs that require strongly synthetic abilities, you should consider how well they are capable of generating an understanding of context across a broad range of domains, including ex nihilo, so to speak. How to test for understanding of context is itself a topic we could consider in more depth.
Addendum: MR, by the way, or at least my contributions to it, is deliberately written to give you less than full context. It is assumed that you are up to speed on the relevant discourse, and are hungering for the latest tidbit on top of where you are currently standing. Conversations with Tyler also are conducted on a “I’m just going to assume you have the relevant context and jump right in” — that is not ideal for many people, or they may like the performance art of it without it furthering their understanding optimally. But it keeps me motivated because for me the process is rarely boring. I figure that is more important than keeping you all happy. It also attracts smarter and better informed readers and listeners, which in turn helps me keep smart and alert. I view my context decisions, in particular the choice to go “minimal upfront context” in so many settings, as essential to my ongoing program of self-education.