Many of the things I once thought were trivial I now think are important. That is, I used to think they were trivial in the modern sense of being unimportant. Now I think they’re trivial in the classical sense of being foundational (from trivium, the first stage of a classical education).

In business, “trivial” means “vitally important if you’re actually doing the work, but not important if you’re just watching.”

Related link: Very applied math

2 thoughts on “Trivial

  1. What about the trivial solution to a linear system of equations of the zero vector ? Is it unimportant, trivium, or something else?

  2. This post is tantalizing but opaque. Can you give an example of a thing you once thought unimportant but which you now think is foundational?

    I once thought the habit of keeping careful working notes was trivial. Now I think it is foundational, in the sense that it supports everything else. Why this error? Because of the romantic fallacy that things which are banal must be unimportant.

    Like remembering to eat lunch, it takes no special talent to keep careful notes. But it is nevertheless crucial to doing good work. We are flesh and bone.

    More common, perhaps, is the fallacy that things which are small are unimportant. This is why there is an expression “petty details” but not an expression “vital details”.

    I suspect this is why we venerate work which merely deals with large magnitudes or which requires a commanding position of abstraction over details, like a general surveying a vast field of battle. Think of the esteem for politicians whose decisions influence many lives, for negotiators who handle very large deals, for physicists who contemplate the vastness of the universe, for macro-economists who contemplate the whole economy. Compare this with the lowly status of any expert in an area which lacks intuitive “bigness”, which seems like merely a swarm of esoteric subtleties, like someone studying the guts of your operating system.

    Why this love of bigness? I suspect looking at the big picture makes us feel big, which feels good. Just as disregarding the banal stems from a romantic fallacy that overvalues the rare and special, disregarding the small stems from an egotistical fallacy that overvalues the feeling of personal power — even if that feeling only comes from imagining the general’s perspective.

    And I think this is why, like you say, “trivial” is what it’s unimportant if you’re just watching.” When you’re watching, you feel like you’re in charge!

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