Butterfly Learning

Follow the breeze and goodness will flow.


Locus of a Butterfly    (1937). Oil on canvas by   Hasegawa Saburo.

Locus of a Butterfly (1937). Oil on canvas by Hasegawa Saburo.

I’m able to work from home a fair amount these days. When I’m not at my standing desk — OK, a high ledge in the kitchen — I sit facing a window so I can gaze out upon the world: blue skies, palm trees, a mission-style steeple, and at least one squirrel that barks at cats from on high (I swear this is true; I think it’s some sort of Squirrel Alert System, and “barking” is the precise verb).

Here’s one observation from my neck of the L.A. wilds:

Butterflies seem dumb as all hell. Truthfully, by the looks of it, they may well be nature’s stupidest animals. Look at those idiots! Randomly bumbling around, advertising themselves to hungry birds with their brightly colored wings as they live their lives of directionless dissolution.

At least, there was a time I might’ve thought something like that.

All spring and summer and now well into fall, I’ve seen the same bright yellow butterflies flitting into view, fluttering about the two giant butterfly bushes (seriously, thats what theyre called; I even confirmed the species, Cassia bicapsularis, with the really nice people at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden) in the adjacent lot behind my building. It’s been so consistent for so long that I believe it’s the same ones every time. Whenever I happen to be home, they show up in the same spot, always between noon and two o’clock. Occasionally there’s only one, and one time I saw three, but usually there’s a pair. They hover around the bursts of orange flowers and periodically meet in midair to rapidly circle each other one or two times till one breaks its orbit and the other chases it.

Back and forth, up and down, circling all around, darting out of view only to return again to repeat it all. This has been going on for months!

Now, I never gave them much thought but I wouldn’t have guessed that butterflies lived longer than a single season (the lifespans of some insects last only a few days) let alone that they adhered to rigid schedules — or that they played with each other between nectar nibbles.

What the hell are they doing? After all this time I don’t think their behavior is mindless at all. They have a predictable schedule; they obey a circadian rhythm. They chase each other around, so maybe they possess intelligence similar to that of bees. It’s foolish to attribute sophisticated emotions to them, yet they do seem happy. And why not? There must be lots of food in them thar marigolds, and the weather this summer has been what I’d assume to be highly conducive to butterfly heartiness (sunny and hot).

Discovering predictable patterns in what at first appeared to be helter-skelter butterfly behavior serves as an important reminder: Actions, events, or data that first seem random or inconsequential can later acquire profound meaning. It can be impossible to appreciate the significance of any given moment or piece of knowledge until some future time when perspective and context allows it to assert itself in a whole new light.

Maybe you’ve experienced this before: you look back and all of a sudden some of those random happenstances or decisions you made look more like stepping-stones laid down just so, as if they’d been placed with purpose to guide you to this very moment. What may look like distractions and digressions at one time can prove eventually to be major twists of fate. And time after time, following your interests and learning for its own sake will reap unexpected rewards.


Circuit Board Butterfly   (2010). W atercolor and pastel on computer print by  Laura C. Hewitt .

Circuit Board Butterfly (2010). Watercolor and pastel on computer print by Laura C. Hewitt.

Sanskrit to Hemingway to Software

Here’s an example of butterfly-style learning. It involves fiction writer and one-time computer programmer Vikram Chandra, author of Geek Sublime, an extended meditation on the poetic beauty of computer code. I came across this review of it earlier this week, and this section caught my eye:

“Growing up bookish in postcolonial India, Chandra ‘imbibed a strange mix of Victorian classics, the great twentieth-century fictions produced by the stalwarts of Hindi literature, and fragments of Sanskrit from the epics.’ At fourteen, home from boarding school for the summer in Bombay, he discovered Ernest Hemingway, whose work led him to the American modernists. That fueled a desire to write and to go study in America, both of which he did. The need to earn money led to a job typing up doctors’ exam notes, which became, with the advent of personal computers, a chance to figure out how to make computers do things….”

Chandra’s path twisted and turned and continued on its merry way without forethought or design, allowing him to alight on seemingly random bits of knowledge that in hindsight shaped his entire life and who he became. He did not sit down at age 14 and declare, “Right. Time to learn computer code so that I can write a book examining its similarities to all this ancient poetry.” But that’s what happened. 


Conquering Kilimanjaro Has Its Perks

Last night I had some beers with a friend I used to work with. At one point he mentioned how he met a man named Macon Dunnagan, who has achieved an impressive distinction: he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, 35 times — more than any other American. He’s climbed it so many times that in his honor they opened a new trail, which happens to be the first to allow adventurers to trek up one face of the mountain and down the other. In fact, he’s climbed “Kili” (as the cool kids call it) so many times that he was named Tanzania’s Goodwill Ambassador of Tourism!

Kilimanjaro and Clouds   (2014). Photograph by  Mariusz Kluzniak .

Imagine that an alien superintelligence happened to look down upon the earth one day to see this person climbing Kilimanjaro. To this superintelligence, such behavior might seem utterly inconsequential and pointless — perhaps worse than pointless, considering the risk involved. And even to the mountaineer himself, the accomplishment doesn’t serve any outside purpose: Dude wants to climb the mountain a lot, so dude climbs the mountain a lot. There’s no other real endgame.

But by following his dreams and executing over and over, Dunnagan wound up being honored with a new trailhead and an honorary ambassadorship. He didn’t wake up one morning and say: I will climb Kilimanjaro until they make me AMBASSADOR, just as my forefathers foretold! Nah, he just climbed the damn mountain whenever he could, out of sheer (heh) love. All that other great stuff then fell into place. And he wouldn’t have cared if it hadn’t, because he’d still have conquered that mountain, which is all that mattered to him.

The trappings of success are nice — so nice that they’re often conflated with success itself. There is a proverb: Dignity does not consist in a silk dress. Likewise, success does not consist in its trappings but rather in the accomplishment that brings them.

Mountain climbing is impressive, but these lessons apply to anything. The point is to follow your interests like a butterfly and always be learning. Good things will come.


God’s Favorite Bar (and Belgium’s Too)

There’s this place tucked away in the Maine woods. It’s called Ebenezer’s and it consistently receives awards and honors and beer pilgrims from all over the world. In fact, it’s been recognized repeatedly as the best beer bar in the United States. How’d it come about? It all sounds simple in hindsight.

A man named Chris Lively dreamed of opening a restaurant to serve fine food and great beer. In 2004 he discovered what he thought was the perfect place and completely transformed it, though retaining the name Ebenezer’s.

Now fast-forward ten years to this past summer, when Lively was named a Knight of the Brewers Mash, the largest Belgian brewer’s guild and one of the world’s oldest professional associations. They even threw him a parade.

Welcome to Ebenezer ’ s. Pull up a chair and try one of their sour ales.

Welcome to Ebenezers. Pull up a chair and try one of their sour ales.

Lively never set out to be knighted by a prestigious Brewer’s guild. He never set out to win “Best Bar in the U.S.” over and over. He set out to open a welcoming place where people could experience eclectic beers that he enjoyed. As an article on Boston.com put it, “Interest became expertise.” I’m sure he enjoyed being knighted and his parade and all of those awards, but Ebenezer’s would exist as it does today even without all that.

There seems to be a pattern here.


“You’re Breakin’ My Heart, You’re Shakin’ My Confidence Daily”

In 1970, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel ended one of the most successful musical collaborations of all time. The two could no longer keep it together, despite being childhood friends and having established themselves as one of their generation’s most revered artistic partnerships.

What would you do if you were Paul Simon? You’re already recognized as a legendary singer-songwriter, yet you still feel like you’re at the top of your game with plenty more to give. So you keep doing what you’ve been doing, right? No need to rock the boat on this thing. Just keep on pulling timeless compositions out of the ether. (Easy for us to say.)

Being brilliant, that’s pretty much what Simon did. But after a lukewarm reception for one of his solo albums he took a little detour: music lessons. As in, years of intensive formal study of music theory and technique. If it’s strange to picture a musician of his caliber taking lessons, the fault lies with our misguided perceptions — it’s another case of mistaking the trappings of success for success itself. Of course the best musicians never stop learning and working to improve; that’s why they’re the best. It turns out that it’s quite common for massively successful artists to pursue formal study of their craft. (Imagine being Sting’s cello teacher.) There is always something more to learn, and as a music teacher once told me, every little thing you pick up will eventually prove useful.

Around the time Paul Simon was studying (something he never really ceased, I’m sure), he popped a mixtape a friend had given him into his car stereo. The music of an obscure South African group grabbed him. He heard something in the instrumental tracks and began composing lyrics and melody to lay on top. He tracked down the musicians and got back to work. Not long after, the world was given Graceland — as if the rest of his catalogue up to that point wouldn't have been impressive enough (it would’ve been) — hell, as if just one song like “Cecilia” wouldn't have been impressive enough (it would’ve been). He hadn’t sought out a new sound, but he’d stayed open and observant and forever willing to learn, and otherworldly inspiration struck.


“I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants . . . .  This is ecstasy.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

The benefits of butterfly learning can apply to anything. I’ve seen its results firsthand in friends and colleagues in everything from design to coding to comedy, music, psychology, and poetry. And it also applies to butterflies.

The scientific study of butterflies (and moths) is lepidoptery; a lepidopterist is the person doing the studying. Butterflies and moths are known as lepidopterans after the name of their insect order, Lepidoptera, which was coined from the Greek words for “scale” and “wing.

I learned the word lepidopterist in reading about one of my favorite writers, Vladimir Nabokov. He’s most famous for his fiction, especially Lolita, but he has another genuine claim to fame: He made a significant breakthrough in the study of a species of butterfly known as Polyommatus blues. 

But it’s not like he ever expressly set out to do so. He happened upon his discovery by doing what he loved.

Ever since his boyhood, Nabokov had been passionate about butterflies, often chasing them about the countryside. When his family was driven from Russia, this passion stayed with him. In Europe, in America, in all the places he lived, he continued to study butterflies for fun, keeping specimens and recording field notes in journals. It was always a labor of love, but he excelled in this as in all his undertakings, so much so that he was named the Curator of Lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In time he published a paper proposing a novel theory based solely on his careful observations: the blues had followed a migratory pattern from Asia, arriving to the New World in a series of five waves over millions of years. The implication was that what had long been classified as closely related species had actually long ago diverged on different evolutionary paths. Experts laughed at him at the time — what could this fiction writer know?

In 2011, Nabokov’s theory was proven correct by DNA sequencing.

It’s a great story. But here’s the thing: Pretend that he had lived to see his theory tested and that it had been proven wrong instead. Would he have regretted anything? The criticism at the time didn’t seem to phase him. He hadn’t spent a lifetime chasing butterflies to attain some panjandrum’s title at Harvard. He hadn’t set out to more accurately describe the evolutionary history of a species. He just loved them and gave them the gifts of his attention.



1) If you love something enough, you might wake up one day to find that you’ve become a Belgian beer knight or a Tasmanian tourism ambassador or the curator of a butterfly museum for your efforts (though you won’t care much because you’ll be too busy collecting beers, climbing mountains, or chasing butterflies). “Interest becomes expertise.”

2) Lepidoptery is cool. If you’re friends with lepidopterans, well then you’re friends with me.

3) Those neon yellow butterflies I keep seeing, so bright that they’re visible in the corner of your eye from 50 yards away? They’re called cloudless sulphurs, which sounds like an emo band name.

4) What is a successful butterfly? A successful butterfly is any that you see bounding about aimlessly, feasting on flowers while the sun is high.

5) In addition to being one of the all-time great love songs, Cecilia is the Patron Saint of Music. It turns out she’s the woman Paul Simon was singing to. Like all muses, she can be fickle, but if you study up and remain ever attentive to the world, she just might show up to inspire melody and harmony and semi-covert humming, all for their own sake. Lots of things can do that though. Just look around. It’s almost enough to break your heart.

"Jubilation! She loves me again! I fall on the floor and I laughing...."



Posted on October 17, 2014.