You Have No Life

Whatsup: I can’t wait to see you waste another Saturday of your life collecting data on self-checkouts. You should like write a book or something. I’ve been waiting for a resolution all my life, and here it is! Clap your hands, people! This guy’s a nerd!

Some big-boy blogs picked up my grocery express lane post, including Lifehacker last week, from which a few careerist trolls have now immigrated, allowing me a glimpse at the kind of shower mold real bloggers deal with daily.

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound policy which I’m ignoring here not because I’m looking for affirmation from my usual enablers but because I get this from my students all the time, both personally, about world-record math and graphing stories, but also in the abstract, in our show-and-tell post-mortems. We have watched some incredible videos lately – Rube Goldberg machines and time lapse photography, for instance – and if a video smacks even slightly of concentrated effort or advance planning, someone will inevitably scoff that the subject has a) “too much time on his hands” or b) “no life.”

Ten times out of ten.

And I would so much rather my students understood the value of turning stupid ideas into reality than the entire sum of AlgebraLet me immediately clarify my position that few tools more effectively turn stupid ideas into reality than Algebra so please pause the outrage for a second.. It’s so obvious to me that the kind of person who would create a cocktail-mixer from balsa wood and twine is simply blowing off steam that life will eventually focus in a direction that will be extremely a) constructive, b) profitable, or c) both. I can’t make this obvious to my students. After six years I lack a succinct, meaningful response to my students’ defensive, clannish embrace of mediocrity, though I’m grateful for this tweet, which comes pretty close:

dwineman: You say “looks like somebody has too much time on their hands” but all I hear is “I’m sad because I don’t know what creativity feels like.”

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Thank goodness many people (you included) have chosen to spend some or a large portion of their time creating/analyzing/crafting and then sharing. Clap your hands people. This guy makes a difference. Sorry for the unsolicited affirmation.

  2. And I am also tired of those responses as well (including the jeering, etc. of what we do with our time.) Unfortunately, al of this falls in deaf ears, including a retort of “all of us have the same time. It is what you spend yur time on that matters.”

  3. If spending your time on analysis and construction of a mathematical model is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Perhaps your next work should be seeing if you can predict the behavior behind trolling.

  4. Yeah, you gotta be careful of the trolls, I guess. There are holes in your theory and it’s not as simple of an answer as people want, but not only are the basics there, you admit that it won’t always work (to take the line with the least amount of people).

    I also agree that it’s a problem we face in class all the time. I guess in the first week of class you could show some of those internet videos like “Will it blend?” or something and ask the students what is the purpose of that? Sure, the blender has a purpose, but it’s clearly not that. Someone is pushing the boundaries because it’s fun or cool.

    That’s exactly what we do in math. Often the research is about pushing the boundaries for no other reason than it seems like a fun puzzle. For example, the 4 color theorem seems like a simple puzzle that ends up being complex and important in its results. Knot theory is another great example of current research being done in an area with easy to describe problems that seem useless but actually are relevant to daily life. Writing secret-codes for your friends is another. Number theory, topology, and abstract algebra offer quite a few examples of interesting puzzles (I think).

  5. You can make trolls a positive thing. They are a good indication of success. There are no trolls on unread blogs. If your blog is popular, there WILL be trolls.

    But, you have to do like Dan says, don’t feed them. They just get bigger then.

    And the grocery store thing – I could imagine a troll response out of jealousy because it was an epic analysis.

  6. It’s funny, because I would have dismissed Whatsup’s comment out of hand due to the fact that apparently, he/she didn’t waste any of his/her own time learning grammar or clarity of organization. Call it an English snob’s acid bath. Sometimes, it dissolves the import of people whose ideas deserve to be heard. (I try to be careful about that.) Most of the time, though, it doesn’t.

  7. Congrats, too, on having it land in the NYTimes! Wow. If I were you, I’d be singing it from the rooftops ;-) I couldn’t believe it when I was reading the Sunday opinion section and saw your blog quoted. Very cool.

  8. Dan, I get this reaction often as well, but never more than when I talk about Newton’s accomplishments and what he did sitting in a room by himself, doing experiments and scribbling in notebooks. The reaction is almost always of the “someone had some extra time on their hands!” variety. And I’m always baffled that response comes from a room full of students who want to study science in college and… become scientists. Weird that one of the greatest scientists of all time is, to them, a huge loser who had nothing better to do.

    Would this reaction to Newton be the same if my story ended with Newton becoming the wealthiest man in history?

  9. I am still trying to figure out what that cool guy Whatsup is doing reading a nerd’s blog. What kind of time does this guy have on his hands to seek out a meaningless blog post and comment on it?

    Dan, I am just hoping that you burn enough of those Saturdays to complete a curriculum before you have kids because if you are 1/2 as dedicated to being a dad as you are to teaching, you’re gonna need a 50 hour day.

  10. dwineman: You say “looks like somebody has too much time on their hands” but all I hear is “I’m sad because I don’t know what creativity feels like.”

    I would have said “passion” instead of “creativity”

  11. What’s interesting is that a local radio station held a texting contest for the prize of a one-hit R&B singer to come sing at a pep rally. Students had to text the name of their school and the school with the most won. In 3 weeks, my school of ~2800 sent 1.6 million texts, with one girl telling me in class that she sent 6000 in one night. How’s that for too much time on your hands?

  12. I’m not sure you’re reading this one right, Dean. This isn’t about digital natives converting boredom into achievement. This is about schoolkids clinging defensively to their boredom, rejecting anything that might raise the bar on what they think is possible with their after-school hours.

    It comes down to Milch, I think, as most things seem to these days.

    Milch: … it has to do with a failure to acknowledge the necessary moral and imaginative predicate that has become an entirely virtual existence, which is, you know, people spend more than half their waking hours watching television. Just think about that for a second. That has to shape the neural pathways. It creates an impatience, for example, with irresolution. And I’m doing what I can to tell stories which engage those issues in ways which can engage the imagination so that people don’t feel threatened by it.

    Repeat the bold passage aloud. Then look in the mirror and ask yourself, “what am I doing to engage my students’ imagination so they don’t feel threatened by it?”

    That’s a staggering order right there. I first imagine something Wonka-esque: whimsical, wacky, and in-your-face. But that approach makes imagination even more alien, something you only find in movies.

    Milch stopped making contemporary dramas. No more cop shows set in modern day. He went to the Old West. Nina Simon designs participatory, interactive museum exhibits. Jane McGonigal turns everyday life into a game, including her recent concussion.

    That is the sweet spot, I think: acclimating students to their own imaginations without freaking them out about it.

  13. Great point and one I’ll chew on for a while.

    At the same time I sense the “trolls” are suggesting in some respect that you’re putting in a great deal of effort for a minimal return. The more you create, the more I’m able, even with limited mathematical understanding, to value your efforts.

    In a sense, it’s this new found ability to play with imagination and create that might be contributing to breaking down the barriers you see. Maybe not, but unless you can do some serious playing with challenging concepts, it’s hard to get your students not to freak out.

  14. (1) I remember one of my favorite science teachers explaining that it is much easier to open bananas the other way around and he knew this by watching the monkeys at the zoo to which a student replied, “you have too much time on your hands.” He responded with “I have no time on my hands.”

    (2) Math is art. We create simply because we want to and we can. No reason or explanation needed. I imagine my skeptical students in an art museum looking at Monet, “But where am I going to use these water lilies in real life.”

  15. Didn’t you answer your own question, Dan? The kids are trolls: their automatic defensive small-mindedness is purely a posture against the sight of someone being passionate and successful. As dwineman says, they haven’t experienced passion and success themselves. And, of course, the teenage years are spent being terrified of being turned on your peers — much easier to pre-emptively identify the adult, or the moviemaker, or someone ELSE as the target.

    So don’t go looking for a verbal counter as one doesn’t exist. Responding just feeds the troll. Instead, offer them the chance to experience that passion first-hand. The harder the battle of a WCYDWT lesson, the greater the “I did it!” feeling of success when they finally get to the right answer. (Kathy Sierra calls this the “I rock!” moment)

    From your descriptions of how a WCYDWT session goes, it sounds like the class becomes passionate and they really put themselves into the mathematical investigation. That’s a visceral riposte to “too much time on his hands”. How’s your neutral disaffected too-bored-for-school attitude now, Mr Just Yelled “Only The Rims Of The Cups Count!” Across The Room?

  16. Dan,

    I recently stumbled upon your blog and I’m glad that you have enough “no life” to publish it ;-)

    I think another thing that enables the “too much time” trolls is the myth of overnight success.

    A new technology company that is acquired by Microsoft gets lots of attention. Unfortunately, few pause to understand that this may be the fourth startup for the founder, who probably spent nights and weekends outside of class to make the idea feasible.

    We enjoy the fruits from the tree of success, but often fail to appreciate that it is watered with sweat.

    When you get static from your students about Newton, please remind them of the following facts:

    1. Newton became Master of the Mint in 1696, for which he was well paid and received a commission on the amount of money minted (read rich).

    2. Newton was knighted in 1705 by Queen Anne. He was the first person knighted for scientific achievements (read famous outside of science).

    3. Newton lived in London’s West End. He had a coach, six servants, a mohair bed, and two silver chamber pots (read nice house).

    Not bad for having too much time on his hands…

  17. Dan,

    I’m not a teacher so I might well be saying something either (a) foolish or (b) horribly obvious but…

    Give the kids a project to do! (?)

    When someone says “someone has too much time on their hands” in a context like that I hear them saying “that’s kind of cool, what you just showed me, but if I admit to that I have to recognize that I’m never going to accomplish anything even close to that cool and neither or any of my friends because we all suck and life around here sucks and the only examples we see of people who sorta kinda succeed around here are the ones who cynically embrace that suckiness and adopt a mean, self-centered, lazy, greedy attitude”.

    In some ways, showing them videos might even make that worse. It’s very passive. It’s stuff “other people” – remote people – do. They can’t imagine themselves in or making that video. You still have them in the role of consumers, not makers.

    I don’t know what a good project would be for your circumstance but… something.


  18. Bradley Anderson

    October 8, 2009 - 11:08 am -

    Four. Hours. Per-day.
    Ok, four words.
    That’s how much time the average American spends watching tv. That’s burnt time after which you will have nothing to show for at the end of the evening, week, LIFE!!
    If you can do anything, ANYTHING that requires creativity or analysis, where you use your brain or hands or both … that is a vast improvement over the usual.
    Your reply to “Get a life!” should be, “Oh, your one of the 4 hours a day crowd.” There’s no comeback. The rest is just splitting hairs on an individual’s basis. Does it really matter if its 2 hrs tv, 1 hr web browsing and 1 hr PS3 ?

  19. If anyone is rude enough to tell me I have too much time on my hands (and hey, I have said it to other people in jest) my answer is “Whose fucking time is it, anyway?”.

    Where does anyone get off trying to tell someone how to spend their time? It’s bad enough that we have advertisers incessantly telling us how to spend our money (on their products, naturally). The criticism implies a value judgment that the critics are ill-qualified to make.

  20. In mind, the discussion spawned by a Clay Shirky blog post from April 2008 OBLITERATED “too much free time” as a phrase used by intelligent people:

    Any time a change in technology or culture causes a boost in productivity, we (society) don’t use it to multiply our output. We increase our output a little bit, and then we spend the newly-created free time on a new wave of hobbies, entertainment, and innovation. Increases in productivity in the early part of the 20th century (especially coming out of WW2) allowed us to kick back and enjoy decades of television.

    Right now, we’re riding the crest of the productivity boost provided by the Internet. We’re getting some entertainment options here and there and spending a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook…but we also have Wikipedia editors, blog authors, and other self-publishers who are using that “free time” to carry all of society forward until the next evolution in productivity.

    And hot dang if this isn’t a good time to be alive because of it!

  21. If the conversation happens in real life, I ask the person what they suggest I do instead. I listen to their ideas and compare them to my pastimes, based on my values (like creativity, intellectual stimulation, fun, community building).

    If I feel contrary, I just tell them I don’t watch TV, and look smug. People who say things like that typically watch a lot of TV.

  22. Interesting to see the O’Reilly crowd’s reaction.

    Nat: Instead, offer them the chance to experience that passion first-hand. The harder the battle of a WCYDWT lesson, the greater the “I did it!” feeling of success when they finally get to the right answer.

    We have developed a positive embrace of academic achievement through WCYDWT that hasn’t transferred very well to everyday life. My students now approach new, difficult math with a lot of verve but they find threatening anyone who approaches life with that same kind of zeal. They dismiss him. No life, etc.

    I’m pretty sure it has to be sneaky and subversive, this process of engaging the imagination in such a way that my students don’t feel threatened by it. Thomas is mostly right: assign ambitious tasks to students and they’ll be less threatened by ambition.

    But again, it’s tricky, and not just because of public school’s usual constraints. The answer is something subtle, somewhere in the intersection of David Milch, Jane McGonigal, and Nina Simon. I can’t quite figure it yet.

  23. Oh, and no disrespect to the clever retorts proffered so far, but a clever retort isn’t going to do anything but make me feel happy and vindicated and maybe not even that.

  24. I clicked the “submit” button too fast yesterday, but my first suggestion (ask people for advice on what to do instead and then discuss values together) was more on the “subversive” side than on the “clever retort” side, if you follow it through to the actual discussion. If you listen actively, treat people’s suggestions respectfully and don’t become argumentative, it leads to interesting discussions evaluating both activities AND values. You can write down everybody’s suggestions and invite people to discuss which work better for different people, specifically for you, and why.

  25. Pretty hard to be passionate in high school, when the adults are bossing you around, and passion might mean rebellion that would get you in big trouble. If you have a passion for your own freedom, how do you follow that without maybe “wrecking your life” (according to your parents)? Seems to me this would be a big factor in the passionate=foolish equation they espouse.

  26. Dan,

    Is this post a troll? Did you invent this “whatsup” to get us to comment?

    If so, you win!

    Whatsup says nerd like it’s a bad thing. I’d like to share this definition of nerd from the urban dictionary

    An ‘individual’, i.e. a person who does not conform to society’s beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do. Often highly intelligent but socially rejected because of their obesssion with a given subject, usually computers. Unfortunately, nerds seem to have problems breeding, to the detriment of mankind as a whole.

    I think what you’re doing is valuable. It seems like you’re trying to change the minds of students regarding math. I don’t know how effective you are at that, but I can see how students who have traditionally disliked math might start to change their minds after your class or while they’re in your class.

    I do think that the questions do become more interesting once you master the skills. It’s a necessary part of the process. Basketball is a lot more interesting when you can dribble and pass. For too many kids the payoff is too far away. Nobody wants to spend time doing the drills. They want to start dunking the balls and shooting 3-pointers. You are allowing your student a taste of the more fun and tangible applications of math before they check out.

  27. I think your frustration with “clever retorts” may be a partial indication of why the answer to the passion problem is eluding you. (I’m teasing a bit, but at bottom I’m quite serious about this.)

    You have a brilliant mind, Dan, and one of the things I’ve noticed about brilliant minds is that they subject themselves to the most intense standards of excellence possible– often far beyond those they impose upon their peers. As a result, however, the relentless search for a sense of competence– How can *I* solve this problem? What can *I* say to students to cut through their solopsism? etc– can obscure the fact that when dealing with other human beings, the answers to questions about them have much less to do with your reality, than with *theirs*.

    So your frustrated response to your positive commenters is telling, I think. They’re not intelligent people who wish to support you and mean you well (their reality), but simply “enablers,” because you perceive their answers to be useless to you (your reality).

    Similarly, a tweet which can be used to cut a disdainful teen down to size appeals because it’s a righteous, five second response which allows you to continue your math lesson. This allows you to overlook not only the fact that it doesn’t answer your ultimate question, but that it is also, frankly, a pretty demeaning thing to say to a kid, even if it is true (and I’m not convinced it is).

    Anyway, I don’t mean to make any sweeping or vengeful judgements here about your capacity for compassion– not at all. You wouldn’t even be asking these things if you didn’t care about other people. I mean only to say that in messy, wonderful, heart-of-teaching questions like “Why are my kids afraid of passion?”, the answer isn’t going to come from analytical concision, or from the perfect pithy remark. It’s going to come from the long, equally messy, often contradictory, and multi-facted process of knowing your kids.

    So ask them. Observe them. Who *actually* makes the passion-dismissive comments? Who merely agrees with a nod of the head? Who doesn’t agree but stays silent? When? Under what circumstances? Why? And then, why again? And why?

    In otherwords…you have to be patient with irresolution.

  28. There’s a 1998 talk by Neil Postman [1] where he remarks on why the US government didn’t invest in a Concorde equivalent. Their studies showed people would use the time saved in transit to watch television, so they put televisions in the regular airliners instead.

    My point being that whilst you are measuring supermarket checkout throughput, those people are probably sitting alone in a darkened room, staring at a colorful flickering light.


  29. Well done, Dan. The real world is full of math – it takes a creative teacher to help kids realize this!

  30. Stumbled upon this from Apartment Therapy/The Kitchen. I think your grocery line project was really interesting and i loved doing the math alongside you. Please don’t listen to the people who mock you and your creativity, I think it was a fun exercise!

  31. Hey Dan, I too found you from Apartment Therapy. Your blog speaks to me, not on a mathy level, but on a teaching level. I teach 12th grade comp and lit and I get, all the time, but THIS IS SOOOO BORING.

    I have found that I say Boring is another way of saying, “I don’t get it and since I don’t get it, I don’t have any patience for why you are stoked about it.”

    I love talking about how people write about issues like disease vectors including zombies or vampires or why handwashing matters or even about why Goneril really wasn’t trying to stab King Lear in the back.

    I think your passion (and I’d like to hope mine) serves as an inspiration to your students. What’s true is that what WE are excited in and passionate about is what we teach best.