Remember why you are doing something. Focus on meaning.
Nietzsche was right: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” In a classic experiment conducted by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, children asked to pretend that they were guards on duty were able to stand longer, and children asked to pretend that they were going to a store had an easier time memorizing words. More recently, a team of researchers led by Kentaro Fujita, replicated and refined these findings:
They used a series of methods to move people’s mental processes to either high or low levels. High levels were defined by abstraction and long-term goals. Low levels were the opposite. For instance, people were asked to reflect either on why they did something or on how they did something. “Why” questions push the mind up to higher levels of thinking and a focus on the future. “How” questions bring the mind down to low levels of thinking and a focus on the present. … These manipulations of mental state had no inherent relation to self-control. Yet self-control improved among people who were encouraged to think in high-level terms, and got worse among those who thought in low-level terms. Different measures were used in assorted experiments, but the results were consistent. After engaging in high-level thinking, people were more likely to pass up a quick reward for something better in the future. When asked to squeeze a handgrip, they could hold on longer. The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against selfcontrol, whereas a broad, abstract, long-term focus supports it. That’s one reason why religious people score relatively high in measures of selfcontrol, and why nonreligious people…can benefit by other kinds of transcendent thoughts and enduring ideals. [Baumeister & Tierney]
The evidence recalls a scene in The Godfather Part II, in which Michael Corleone, visiting Cuba on the eve of the revolution, is torn about whether to make an investment there:
Michael Corleone: I saw a strange thing today. Some rebels were being arrested. One of them pulled the pin on a grenade. He took himself and the captain of the command with him. Now, soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.
Hyman Roth: What does that tell you?
Michael Corleone: It means they could win.
Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Strength. Penguin
According to his friend and colleague, Gian-Carlo Rota:
Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
More specifically, use the Feynman Algorithm:
- Write the problem down, in an unambiguous way.
- Often this is just as hard as the next step. Indeed, really, really understanding the problem is sometimes the only hard bit: once you really, really understand the problem, the answer may be obvious. Of course, you don’t have to wait until understanding the problem before moving on to the next step, that way lies AnalysisParalysis, just stick a StakeInTheQuicksand and go for it!
- Become convinced it’s important, really important. Think about odd ways to solve it, things you wouldn’t tell other people for fear of being laughed into the next century. Look at simple things, look at really complicated intricate solutions. Then talk to others. Talking to others will allow you to crystallize some of the ideas you have, and produce more ideas for you to think about. Repeat until you have an answer you can write down. If you do this right, immediately before you come up with the answer people will think your almost obsessed with the problem, and the answer to it.
- Note: If you don’t have people to talk to, write down some intermediate results or something to make them become real.
- Some problems don’t have answers, only compromises, or proofs of impossibility. These are also valid answers if you can show that a real answer doesn’t exist.
- Write the answer.
Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee?
Remove everything not needed for the task at hand. Hide objects in boxes, drawers, and closets. Wipe your desktop and free it of ensnaring icons. Close unnecessary programs. Close and hide tabs (F11 in Chrome). Conceal folder links (Control+Shift+B in Chrome). Use minimalist text editors like Q10 or TypeWriter. And so forth.
Eliminate the various voices, sounds, smells, passersby, faces, books, alerts. Stop reading, listening, talking, doing. Starve your senses, empty your mind, and silence the “chatter in the skull“.
Abstract your life. Reduce your possessions. Go paperless and digital. Avoid busyness and limit concurrency, completing open projects, winding down commitments, finishing half-read books.
Take pity on your primate brain, your fickle and finite attention. As a programmer would a program, as a designer would a dashboard, bury the details in subsections, expose only the parts at hand. Abstract—”and cease to be whirled around.“
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations
Dave Bruno. The 100 Thing Challenge
Vivek Haldar. 2010-12-30. Minimalism is not a viable intellectual strategy
Andrew Hyde. 2011-05-03. Extreme Minimalism
Tim Kreider. 2012-06-30. The ‘Busy’ Trap. NYT
Shunryu Suzuki. 1970. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Wheatherhill
Amy Unruh and Paul S. Rosenbloom. 1989. Abstraction in Problem Solving and Learning
Alan Watts. 2000. Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation. New World Library
Don’t try too hard. Don’t overthink routine processes. Tame your greed. Inoculate yourself to failure. Try always to approach things with a “beginner’s mind“.
When performers choke on what should be routine actions, it is because they want too much. As they begin to overthink, they become loss averse (“losses loom larger than gains“) and self-conscious, and the focus on self distracts from the task at hand, which would be better performed on auto-pilot [Chib]. Athletes know this. Singers know this. And adults know this, too. As Alan Watts, the great popularizer of Zen in the West, remarked in a lecture on meditation: “…men will understand…you can’t force yourself to have an erection by muscular effort…Women will understand…you can’t force yourself with muscles to have an orgasm…” And it is not just swings, shots, and orgasms that excessive striving corrupts. It is marathons too: “Most runners will record significantly faster times when they take walk breaks because they don’t slow down at the end of a long run.“
In Zen there is something called “beginner’s mind”, a sort of openness, which includes and accepts the possibility of failure. In a book by this title, Shunryu Suzuki says:
Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.
References and further reading:
Vikram Chib et al. 2012-05-10. Neural Mechanisms Underlying Paradoxical Performance for Monetary Incentives Are Driven by Loss Aversion. Neuron
Malcolm Gladwell. 2000-08-21. The Art of Failure. The New Yorker
Sam Glucksberg. 1962. .The influence of strength of drive on functional fixedness and perceptual recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Daniel Kahnemann. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus
Jonah Lehrer. 2012-06-05. The New Neuroscience of Choking. The New Yorker
Shunryu Suzuki. 1970. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Alan Watts. 2000. Still the Mind. New World Library
Study how the human mind processes and uses information, its limits and biases. Study how your own mind processes and uses information, its limits and biases. Study how individuals, groups, systems, and tools work. Note and illustrate these. Devise checklists and contingency plans to reduce errors.
What we think of as “reason” may in fact be confirmation bias: an evolved tendency to prefer persuasion to truth and to devise conclusions first and arguments later [Mercier and Sperber]. Secondly, your experience is insufficient preparation for unexpected events and situations [Munger, Norman]. Thirdly, in the field—”with missing information, time constraints, vague goals, and changing conditions”—experts don’t reason; they “satisfice“, or choose the first reasonable option [Klein]. Finally, use checklists for processes; even among experts checklists have been shown to dramatically reduce error [Gawande].
References and further reading:
Peter Bevelin. 2007. Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger
Atul Gawande. 2009. The Checklist Manifesto. Metropolitan Books
Daniel Kahneman. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus
Gary Klein. 1998. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. MIT
Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. 2011. Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Cambridge
Donald A Norman. 2002. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic