Constraints For Kids

January 09, 2022

A couple months ago, Elon Musk got called out for the sin of being so successful that 2% of his wealth would supposedly solve world hunger. In typical Elon fashion, he responded directly. As one does.

No surprise really, the head of the United Nations WFP changed tack immediately and confirmed that 6 billion dollars would NOT, in fact, end world poverty.

We get this kind of line a lot. Politicians tell us that more money will fix schools - or really anything they think will garner more votes. It’s just rare that it gets called out, which is why so many love Elon so much. He cuts out the bullshit.

The human pscyhe is excited to overcome barriers and limits. We’re built for it, which is why some sort of resource constraint is such an effective call to action. What we’re much less good at is identifying whether a constraint is a good thing or not. Sometimes, they’re pandering and harmful. Sometimes, they can be really great.

I was listening to this interview with Patrick Collison, one of the founders of Stripe. He describes his childhood as having vast amounts of open space and time to fill in rural Ireland. They had no computers, no internet, very little TV and lots of books. He says he didn’t actually get the internet at his house until he was about 16. And none of this stopped him from being a brilliant programmer, engineer and technology founder. In fact, it probably helped.

We’re all keen to give our kids as much as they need. In our age of abundance, there’s a lot to offer. We fill their time with sports and dance and horse riding and rock climbing. We fill their minds with shows and content. We fill their hands with devices and ubiquitous access to the internet. In terms of resources, our kids are unconstrained like no other generation before them.

Today, these resources seem like they are the wrong focus. A lack of dance classes is not the limiting bound for an abundance of beautiful dancers just as internet access and a computer is not the limiting bound for a larger abundance of engineers and wonderful programmers. And a lack of 8-10 scheduled activities per week is certainly not what’s preventing us from raising broadly interesting and wise children. What kids lack is time, imagination, and effort. When kids have an abundance of time they experience boredom, and are forced to exercise their imagination. They go to a field and play soccer for hours on end because there’s no set schedule that says practice ends after an hour. When kids don’t have the internet they’re forced to work out answers themselves, or make them up, and they have the opportunity to enter a deep work mentality without context switching to the next topic every 10 seconds.

Nassim Taleb describes antifragile as follows:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure , risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

We think of kids as resilient, but they are actually antifragile. By giving them all of the resources we think they need, we often prevent them from having the challenges and constraints needed to grow. This isn’t to say that resource limits can’t be a bad thing. If our kids don’t get enough calories to eat for proper development that is clearly a Bad Thing. Once we get the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy out of the way, what kids need is surprisingly simple. They need love, support, time, agency, imagination, effort, and the space to explore what they could possibly become.

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