Significance Appreciation

There’s a phenomenon I’ve observed where ideas that seem banal when you’re young acquire increasing significance as you age. Until they become so pregnant with significance that you start experiencing a peculiar sort of loneliness because you cannot communicate them any differently than you used to. At best, you slowly acquire an ability to recognize kindred spirits who attach as much incommunicable significance to an idea as you do. If you’re lucky enough to meet any.

Take the seemingly yawn-worthy idea, you should always be learning new things.

You probably had an adult tell you something like that when you were a teenager. Probably in that slightly pompous manner adults seem to affect when telling teenagers things. A manner that makes every line sound like an unreconstructed ritual incantation uttered by a society-programmed robot, rather than a deeply felt idea being expressed by an autonomous, thinking human.

To a teen, such aphorism-spouting can come across as so pathetic as to not even sound patronizing. I already understand that better than you ever will the teen might think contemptuously, stop embarrassing yourself

Teens have emotionally charged inner lives, so everything is rich with significance. All things adults say seem empty from the teen perspective. But once that capacity for generalized (and furiously denied) sentimentality fades in young adulthood, everything suddenly seems as banal as it once seemed significant. That’s the zeroed out basis on which enduring significance — as opposed to ephemeral teen-hormones significance — starts to accumulate for the rest of life. And not all the abstract pieces of putative wisdom you start out with gain (or lose) significance at the same rate. Some rapidly turn into deep truths or deep lies. Others remain empty for you, even as friends grow to find deep truth or falsehood in them. In a way, that’s how friends grow apart, through differences in the truths and lies that gain in significance for them.

I am now the sort of adult I was once contemptuous of. The kind who cannot help but appear pompous and pathetic explaining anything I’ve learned to teenagers. That’s the main reason, besides the fact that I know very few teenagers, that I don’t talk much to them.

I know I simply cannot communicate the depth of significance the banal propositions I started with at 18 have acquired for me in the 22 odd years since.

You should always be learning new things is, for me, more than a bald proposition. It is a idea-stock I’ve held for decades through ups and downs in belief. It is an epitaph on the gravestones of many failed projects, a ritual incantation that evokes a hundred memories of blind fumbling and vanity-driven dumb decisions. It is also a poignant summary diagnosis of the lives of many friends (both ones I see both succeeding wildly, and ones I see failing miserably: the ones who kept learning, and the ones who did not). The idea is a pattern I match, a lens through which I see meanings in situations, a moral to which a thousand real stories are now attached.

Those stories are charged with various sorts of emotional salience. There is regret, relief and anxiety, depending on which particular story I am thinking about. If only I’d learned X in time that one time; thank god I learned quickly enough that other time; will I still be able to learn faster than I fail this time?

And almost none of that can be communicated. The ideas that accrue significance are like bank deposits that have steadily gained interest over twenty years of being tested for truth. But all that testing doesn’t necessarily give you a better way to state them (or refute them, in the case of deep lies), because the truth or falsity of a proposition is rarely a binary thing. It is more a long story of testing, through many ups and downs. The story of the moral, rather than the moral of the story.

The principal (and principle) is visible, the interest (and interestingness) it has accrued through the story of testing it has lived, is not. I can tell you which of my truths and lies are deep. I cannot tell you why they are deep. I suspect the same is true for you.

And so, every line I repeat to myself every year sounds increasingly vacuous, while feeling increasingly significant.

Perhaps growing older is about getting comfortable being alone with your deep truths and lies. Let’s see if that line appreciates in significance.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. isn’t a lot of what you blog about sharing your deep truths/lies ??

    • Hmm. I think if it can be easily shared, it is by definition not one of the deep ones. I have more practice communicating than many, so perhaps I can drill a few feet deeper than the average person, but that’s the diff between 10 feet and 12 feet where deep truths go 100s of feet below.

  2. Johann Richard says:

    I like the reflection on the teenage years.

    That got me thinking how to lay the ground in my kids such that I won’t waste my time in their teenage years patronizing (and annoying) them with my «significant truth» while at the same time instill a sense of principles such that once they’re past this age, they’ll be (more) open to look for and recognize their own significant truths (and lies), and quicker so.

    Plus, I’m glad I’m not alone feeling lonely (but also increasingly comfortable) with my significant truths and lies. :)

  3. It’s impossible to communicate emotional experience verbally. Isn’t that what art tries to do?

    It does bother me that we can’t really mature as a species until we find a way to impart the gravity of certain emotional experiences to future generations.

    For example, how much does the direct experience of total war drive society to try avoiding it in the future (eg. Japan right now). Does history metaphorically repeat itself precisely because of this problem?

    • Interesting thoughts. Art is not something I’ve thought about very deeply, which is one reason Haley’s posts are interesting to me. Possibly you’re right.

      I think I agree with you on this being a contributing factor to history repeating itself. Deep truths the way I’ve defined them are necessarily the ones everyone (and by extension, every society) must learn from scratch.

    • “For example, how much does the direct experience of total war drive society to try avoiding it in the future (eg. Japan right now). Does history metaphorically repeat itself precisely because of this problem?”

      According to Strauss & Howe, these generational experiences drive everything.

  4. If only I’d learned X in time that one time; thank god I learned quickly enough that other time; will I still be able to learn faster than I fail this time?

    It is very hard to silence the inner trader who is obsessed with the right entry point and promote him to an investor who is stoic about temporary losses, indifferent to fashions and full of hope for much later gains. But right now interest rates are at their historical lows and investors might feel the need to devolve into traders, which could be even harder, if not impossible because they also know, they will lose everything in just a few draw-downs or otherwise, if they follow a trading system with their lagging indicators, in a long and painful sequence of small losses, which unlike a single huge loss, doesn’t even give them any cathartic relief.

    Maybe things are a little simpler or less random with learning / managing a skill portfolio because we can truly de-correlate them and there are more and diverse trend channels. Learning new stuff isn’t everything though, one also has to keep in training with many of the things one discarded for a while. I sense that a process of constant branching and proper break outs, with later re-integrations could serve as an idea of self-actualization in our times.

  5. I believe you are talking about this phenomenon:

    (I find Machine Learning often has useful metaphors)

  6. Ick, the image didn’t render. Guess I don’t get to embed a cross site scripting attack that way.

    Let’s see if it’ll let me link to the full article. For the first half, it’s basically talking about the same thing you are:

  7. Passing this through my own significance appreciation filter, I see a fundamental language problem (as Denis suggests), and one that can even be formally defined ( as gpeshke suggests).

    When you hear “you should always be learning new things”, and when the teenager does, the scope of both “always” and “learning” are both different.

    The teenager’s “always” only covers their remembered life experience, in which they have always been in school, and school is their primary conscious model of learning.

    So it amounts to roughly “stay in school”, which is vacuous to them, since they’ve never had a choice or experience of anything else.

    As the scope of our experience grows ( our “always” ) and as the range of the kinds of “learning” we experience expands, including having experiences of NOT consciously learning, or failing in more significant ways due to that absence of learning. the denotation of that same sentence literally changes.

    In semantic terms, the teenager inherently lacks the context (has too small a semantic model) to interpret it as anything other than vacuous, but our older, richer semantic models can make finer distinctions.

    The greater loneliness comes from the idiosyncrasies that our individual life paths have taken, building slightly different semantic models.

    So even other older people may not quite fully understand what we mean…

  8. Being myself a teenager, this just changed the way I see adulthood. Thanks.

  9. This turned up on The Browser yesterday covering a similar subject area:

    “The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about
    making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the
    head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and
    essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep
    reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
    It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and
    day out.”

  10. Reading this I am reminded of the clichés that youth is wasted on the young and “if I only knew then what I know now.” As a young man I knew that I was smart but I didn’t realize how little I knew. The things most adults said didn’t seem all that illuminating. But fool that I was, I didn’t know how significant the life experience of adults could be in assessing my own encounters with the future.
    It strikes me that life unfolds like a spot in a river. Ideas grasped earliest remain to be tumbled and smoothed by the unceasing flow of time and experience. Newer ideas may fall into the river, but their rough edges provoke more anxiety and concern, until they are in turn polished by the repeated familiarity of thought and discussion. With the passage of time, one realizes that very few rocks become insurmountable barriers to the flow of life.