Living, smart and strong

The title of this post is supposed to be a parody of the book “thinking, fast and slow”, in case you have picked up the connection (and I don’t blame you). Well, you may argue, smart isn’t exactly the opposite of strong. Indeed, we tend to associate smart people with strength, though not necessarily vice versa. I argue here that these two are indeed competing attributes in how we choose to live in many situations.
As a case in point, I just spent 2 hours today trying to fix a fridge problem that was estimated to take only about half an hour. Every summer since the last one, I run into the same fridge mishap: the air duct for the refrigerating compartment gets blocked by ice, accumulated due to excessive external heat that induces the freezer to keep sending cold air over. As we enter the first phase of summer last month, I started noticing the top level of the fridge basically no different from room temperature. While my wife tried to deceive herself by insisting that it was actually cooling, I trusted my tactile common sense and went straight into handyman mode. Sure enough, the back of the fridge cooling circuitry was covered with frost. While I wasn’t completely sure that the air duct was blocked this time, since I had trouble prying open the plastic back cover to get a good view (oblivious of how I did it last year), I blew the hair dryer on high over the entire channel without hesitation, as soon as I found the extension cord. So the difficult part seems over, and I was ready to move on with life, or rather more routine chores like dishwashing, only to realize that putting the shelves and drawers back in place was combinatorially impossible, at least initially. I didn’t exactly recall how many shelves were supposed to go between the bottom three drawers, but somehow decided that there must be at least one, since having three top shelves above the drawers felt like enough. Thus advised, I proceeded to try combinations of inserting the fiberglass shelf plate at various groove levels, only to realize that either the top drawer has to be tightly squeezed between two plates, or the door won’t close. Enraged, I started removing stuff from the shelves and try a different combination. I guess this was the moment where I decided to let strength take over me entirely, since not only did I engage in a shelf-shoving spree, causing damage to the grooves, I became bitterly proud of how much tedium and brute-force I was able and willing to take on unfazed. In the end, the brute force did pay off, due to sheer divine mercy: I became aware of my assumption error that there needs to be a shelf between the drawers. Had I done some soul searching for smartness though, I would have saved the damaged, perhaps also the frustration and time. I have heard a supposedly very smart friend in grad school instructing his students to bang their heads against a wall in the face of a difficult math problem. This is consolatory as perhaps even top tier smart pants have their sweaty brainless moment. But it still stings to reflect on my past confrontation with difficult situations: I almost always lose my cool and opt for strength instead of smartness.


About aquazorcarson

math PhD at Stanford, studying probability
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