Things I wish were taught in school

Does the image below tell you something?

Students passing a basketball

If so, then you will enjoy this article. If not, you should take this 20-second attention test, after which you'll love this article:

In the video above, count the passes between the students in white t-shirts. Ignore those between students in black t-shirts. Note: women tend to perform on this test better than men.

Don't read any further yet; please take the test now.

After completing the test, watch the video again without counting anything.


I started learning English in 6th grade, when I was 12. I picked it up rather quickly, and then when the Internet became more popular, I went on to improve my English a lot online, learning new words every day. Since I was working with computers, one of the first types of words I had learned were the mathematical operations: add, substract, divide, multiply. "Substract" remained in my mind even though it was a typo, because it sounded similar enough to its Romanian equivalent - these two words were false friends.

However, "substract" was my first exposure to the concept in English, and it stuck. For over 10 years, actually. I even corrected texts to read "substract" instead of the correct word. It was only when I somehow stumbled over "subtract" in a dictionary, that I realized I had been wrong all these years.

Of course, it's not really a big deal to misspell a word for a decade; but the idea that I might hold some other, more important, misconceptions, or be oblivious to evident truths, fundamentally impacted the way I think. Around the age of 22, I began questioning my religious beliefs, and shed them completely within a year. I became a skeptic and distanced myself from the pseudoscience, quack medicine, "paranormal" practices and fringe groups that abounded around me (after getting a 4th-level certified dowser diploma, just to prove how gullible the system was!). Ultimately I left Romania and moved to the somewhat more mentally sane SF Bay Area.

But still, from time to time I find out that things I took for granted are not really so. Lo and behold, don't we do that all the time? Maybe some of us do, but I for one don't really want to waste much more time figuring life out. Consider my religious phase - from perhaps 14 to 22, I wasted a lot of time going to the church, praying, reading the Bible (OK, this one was useful because now I can out-debate any Christian); I wasted opportunities (no premarital sex!); and I wasted my body's growth phase because I had to fast months at a time (no animal products at all, and back then in Romania there were hardly any vegetarian equivalents with sufficient amounts of protein).

This is why I started this list: relatively MAJOR things we mistakenly take for granted as true; or things we have no idea about, but which make quite a bit of a difference. If you haven't been exposed to these paradigm shifts before, and if you are open to new ideas, those below are likely to have a major influence on your thinking. This is not a list of common misconceptions like "vikings did not actually wear horned helmets as often depicted in the media". That's a fun factoid, but it doesn't affect anyone's life much. This is a list of stuff that matters.


  • It's not just savings accounts that can earn interest. Some banks offer interest-paying checking accounts. I have been more than happy with Everbank, which as far as I was concerned, hasn't been affected by the recession.


  • Biking for 30 minutes on a stationary bike is less efficient than 4 minutes of Tabata intervals, in terms of fat loss, increase of anaerobic capacity and increase of VO2max1

  • Microwave oven cooking preserves more nutrients in food than most other methods. Frozen fruit and vegetables are as nutritious, or even more nutritious than "fresh" produce, which has been on the shelves for quite some time. Read more food-related paradigm shifts in my How to eat healthily without cooking article.

  • Eating at night doesn't make you any fatter than if you ate the same food during the day2

  • The protein/fat/carb composition of diets followed for weight loss is largely irrelevant. All that matters is the calorie count and attendance of group sessions. 2-year randomized blind trial on 811 overweight adults.3

  • As incredible as it sounds, thanks to modern research and technology, you can gain muscle and endurance without doing any exercise. That topic is broad enough to have its own article. See Gain muscle and endurance without exercise.

Work / Career

Human relationships

  1. zero-based thinking: Ask yourself this question: "Would I have ever gotten started with this project, relationship, career, etc. if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I now know?" If your answer is no, then get out as soon as possible4.
  2. the Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule):
    • 80% of your results are produced by 20% of your efforts
    • 80% of your work will get done done in 20% of the time allocated to it
    • 80% of the problems in your life are caused by 20% of the people in your life
  3. "As a rule, expecting to find happiness in a marriage is a bad idea. [...] if you're not happy in the rest of your life, the probability of finding it in the hectic, stressful world of modern marriage with children is quite low."
    -- from The Marriage Makeover, by Joshua Coleman, Julia M. Lewis


  • God is imaginary

  • The environment is, in a very real sense, part of our mind; it doesn't just store parts of our memory, but it offloads processing as well. Play this Tetris game for a minute. If that external processing (figuring out how a piece of Tetris would fit the existing ones) could be moved into a chip implanted in the brain, would we consider it part of the brain's normal processing? Perhaps so. Then, why do we make the distinction now between internal and external processing, just because there's a computer screen and a pair of eyes between them? (For the larger concept, see the exocortex article on Wikipedia.)

    "If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process."
    -- from The Extended Mind


  • The gorilla video at the top of the page is part of an experiment on inattentional blindness. 50% of the subjects who watch the video do not notice anything out of the ordinary. This proves that eye-witness testimony can be extremely unreliable; yet it is accepted among the best kinds of evidence in courts of law all over the world.

  • Physical cues are powerful in ways we are completely unaware of:

    • People who briefly hold a warm drink (as opposed to an iced one), or are placed in a warmer room, tend to choose a gift for a friend instead of for themselves, and judge others as having a warmer personality (study, study).
    • Candidates whose (identical) CVs were presented on a heavier clipboard were judged to be more serious and better performers. Sit in a hard chair may lead to driving a harder bargain. Handling rough objects may lead to more conciliatory behavior. More at Touch influences social judgements and decisions.
  • It's amazing how often we suffer from cognitive distortions, and how they can cloud our judgment. The Cognitive distortions article on Wikipedia is a must-read for clear thinking and avoidance of unjustified emotional behavior.

  • Rewards only work for mechanical or dumb tasks. Various authors mention this as one of the most consistently reproduced finding of social sciences, and one of the most ignored. Indeed, businesses offer all sorts of incentives for high performance, but those incentives have been shown to reduce performance.

  • "Behavior that is reinforced intermittently is much more difficult to extinguish than behavior that is reinforced continuously." -- B. F. Skinner. Why? Because once the continuous reinforcement stops, there's less of a chance for it to be resumed; while intermittent reinforcement has, historically, resumed every time.


  • Make memories. When you've run out of arguments for or against doing something, choose to do it. Should I spend my vacation at home, or go to Hawaii? Go. Something is bound to happen, and your life will have been one notch more interesting, with one more memory to retell. "We don't tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object." (research).

  • Humans grossly overestimate the effects of future events on their happiness. Psychologist Dan Gilbert cites a study comparing the happiness of people who survived an accident but became paraplegic, with that of folks who won big at the lottery. One year after the accident or lottery win, respectively, the two groups were about equally happy. This and much more in a fascinating TED talk - Dan Gilbert on our mistaken expectations.


  • The reason some people do not look good in some pictures is simply because most consumer-grade camera lenses distort the image quite badly at 1x zoom (the typical "party" shot). See some great examples I shot at how to correct barrel distortion in photos.


  1. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.
    See also the James Krieger's article HIGH-INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING: THE OPTIMAL PROTOCOL FOR FAT LOSS?, referencing numerous studies on fat loss and effects on body composition as a result of HIIT compared to low-intensity exercise. ↩

  2. Robert H. Shmerling, Kathy McManus. "Does Nighttime Noshing Make You Fat?" ↩

  3. NEJM -- Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates ↩

  4. See also the sunk cost fallacy ↩

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