221b: Fish, Thinking, Knowledge, Waste, Genius

Look at Your Fish

Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, would place a smelly old fish in front of each one of his students and say, “Look at your fish,” then he’d leave. Upon returning, he would ask each student what they had seen. Naturally, there wasn’t much to say. So he’d leave and come back; he’d repeat this cycle for days. One student, unable to see what he thought he was supposed to see, eventually realized how little he had seen before. Finally, the following day, the student announced to Agassiz: Paired organs! The same on both sides! Agassiz was pleased.

David McCullough, the biographer, uses that story when teaching writing classes. “Seeing is so important…” he says. “Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than discovering something new. Seeing is as much the job of an historian as it is of a poet or a painter, it seems to me.” Quoting Dickens, he says, “Make me see.”

Good is a myth

The stories we tell ourselves create more drama in our lives than reality. We’ve all experienced the sunk stomach feeling–the text from a boss, “Do you have a second to chat?”; the ominous voicemail from someone you’ve been seeing, “Hey, something came up. I have to cancel…”–that turns our head into writing a screenplay. I resonated with this passage from a novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: “And yet, he knew himself and he knew he was the type of person that never called anyone, unless he was absolutely certain the advance would be welcomed. His brain was treacherously negative. He would invent that she had been cold toward him, that she hadn’t even had a class that day, that she had simply wanted to get away from Sam. His brain would insist that if she’d wanted to see him, she would have given him a way to contact her. “ But as Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”


Information creates clutter; wisdom creates clarity. Information creates confusion; wisdom creates insight. Though the two are often taken as one and the same, there is a difference. Knowing the order and terms of American presidents is information; wisdom is knowing how each President handled a failure in office and strategies they used to deal with conflict. “‘One needs to differentiate between information, knowledge and wisdom,” Henry Kissinger said. “In the internet era they tend to get mixed up. The more time one spends simply absorbing information, the less time one has to apply wisdom.”

Waste your time

Robert Caro didn’t intend to write about the many love affairs President Johnson had had in The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson. This was mainly because he didn’t think any of them really impacted his political career or influence, until he stumbled upon Alice Marsh. Caro writes, “Then, however, while turning pages in a folder whose label, ‘Public Activities–Biographic Information–Naval Career,’ hinted very strongly that turning pages in this folder would be a total waste of time, and whose contents seemed to consist largely of mimeographed copies of a press release about Johnson’s activities in the Pacific in 1942, there was, suddenly, and age-browned Western Union form: CHARLES BELIEVES YOU SHOULD FILE FOR SENATE, it said. POLLS SHOW YOU LEADING. NO ONE ELSE SHARES HIS OPINION ENTHUSIASTICALLY. IF POSSIBLE, TELEPHONE. LOVE, ALICE MARSH.” This character in Johnson’s life was peculiar and it opened up a lot of rabbit holes for Caro. He may have not stumbled upon it otherwise if he hadn’t wasted his time with a boring folder. Caro “looked at the fish” and saw what no one else could.


“A Genius! For thirty-seven years I’ve practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!”

– Pablo de Sarasate


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