Advice on advice

Advice is a dangerous thing. You most need it when you’re most naive, which just happens to be when you’re least able to distinguish between the bad and the good. And there’s no shortage of terrible advice out there: stuff that’s well-meaning but idiotic, stuff that’s communicated badly, and the occasional actively malicious advice. But I think the pitfall that people are most prone to is taking advice meant for someone else.

The thing is, figuring out what’s good for you in particular requires self-awareness, and self-awareness is hard. Not the pedestrian, moment-to-moment sort that judges some relevant trait against other people in your immediate vicinity, we’re quite good at that. What’s hard is taking millions of those little judgments made all through your life, against all manner of people, and integrating them into a coherent self-concept the describes your position on a curve with the rest of humanity. And knowing how that trait interacts with other traits, with different environments, with different people.

Your brain does some of this for you automatically, and you probably have an intuitive “feel” for what you can do and where you are in many domains. Often in these cases you can “see” your way through problems that are beyond you by watching others tackle them.

But advice is a step removed from implementation–it’s harder to “feel” your way around, to push off of where you know your experience ends and grab just beyond it. Instead, advice asks you to leap almost blindly in the direction it suggests. In many cases of advice-taking the stakes are relatively low, so trial-and-error isn’t a catastrophic method to adopt. However, a more efficient strategy will probably require a representation of your starting point that you can manipulate symbolically, which is a higher bar than your intuition can clear on its own.

An example: humans are great at ranking ourselves amongst our peers by intelligence, but we’re terrible at predicting our own IQ scores.(1) Unfortunately, certain career paths are quite dependent on absolute intelligence level. The smartest kid at a tiny rural high school might have good prospects overall compared to his friends, but that doesn’t mean he’s cut out to be an astrophysicist. Similarly, the dumbest kid at a very competitive school may drop out to become an electrician and find that he’s made a huge mistake. Other fun consequences of taking advice meant for people smarter or dumber than you include crushing student loan debt you’ll never pay off, wallowing in remorse over opportunities you weren’t confident enough to take, and children.

So if you want to take advice in an informed way, how should you go about learning your relevant properties? Try considering the domain you’re working in, and ask yourself how the people in it vary. Are there many different approaches represented, or just a few? Are there distinct groups that you can see? Take any of these styles or abilities that you can identify and find out if there’s a name for them (there probably is). Alternately, work backwards and reason about what might be required for the task at hand. Once you have a handle on where your strengths and weaknesses lie, you can start interrogating advice for its suitability: whether it assumes skills you lack, whether it will address your address your weak spots, whether you’re a representative member of the audience it targets.

Often major constructs with psychometric measures attached to them (Big Five, IQ) account for some amount of individual differences in outcomes, and these have the advantage of giving you a quantitative sense of where you are versus everyone else. Psychiatric diagnoses, especially those with cognitive components (autism, ADHD, OCD, etc) can also be helpful to bear in mind. But a great many things are not spelled out so neatly. Sometimes an important concept lacks a name, or is actually two concepts. Often there are no official statistics to dredge up. In such cases, you may want to strike out on your own and name a concept or two, which allows you to not only reason about it more explicitly, but also to discuss it with others.


(1) I think this was the actual (frequently misrepresented) result from Dunning-Kruger, but there’s a chance it was from elsewhere and I’m too lazy to look right now. If anyone can refute that and is itching for a cite, let me know.

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Holding creativity up to the light

“How the fuck do you write so many books?” George RR Martin asks Stephen King in this interview. At a mundane level, there’s an obvious explanation for the difference between these authors: King writes daily and dutifully churns out 30+ pages per week; if GRRM finishes a chapter, he considers it an unusually productive couple of months. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a mystery here. Some might even call it the mystery, as far as writers are concerned.

If King creates more than GRRM, does that make him more creative? (“No!” you yell into a computer screen deaf to your anguish, ruing the moment you chose this post to distract you from the blank Google doc sulking in your taskbar.) The verb certainly seems to go with the adjective, doesn’t it? And yet, intuitively it seems not quite right, like something needs to be added before “creating” can be transformed into “creative”, or else we’d have to start calling people like Nora Roberts creative geniuses.

So perhaps you also need to bake in “originality” or “imagination” or something in order to have a fully-fledged definition of creativity. But then you may wonder why these concepts would come to complicate our clean little definition from before, rather than keeping to their own adjectives. And in fact, there’s a very good reason, which I will illustrate with the following convoluted analogy.

The scavenger hunt

If you want to get from point A, one corner of an empty room, to point B, the opposite corner, it’s a pretty straightforward operation. We can make it a bit harder by hiding B in the next room over, forcing you to use more time and more steps to get there, but you’re almost sure to make it anyway.

Now point A is a room inside a vast mansion with point Bs scattered throughout. I’ve already run this game with many friends in your place before, so I’m all set with security cameras to watch your every movement. Of course I’m not surprised when you get the obvious Bs close to your starting point, just as most of the people before you have. Naturally, those are worth less. In fact, the Bs are all worth more or less as a function of how often they were found.

You want to win, so you figure you’ll just scour the whole place, right? Wrong! I’ve been counting your steps as I watch you from my secret lair, and once you hit a certain pre-specified number, thwip goes the tranquilizer dart into your neck, and my goons drag you back to square one.

“It’s not fair,” you might whine, “You gave Susie 100 steps and I only got 50!” To which I reply shut up, do you know how many veterinarians I had to bribe to get the good stuff? Don’t look a gift horse tranquilizer in the mouth. But maybe I take pity on you, and I reveal some secret trap doors and dumbwaiters behind paintings and bookcases and so on, shortcuts to spots other people had to trudge to on their own two feet.

In the end you come away with a score based on how many different Bs you’d found, and how many Bs you’d found that other people hadn’t. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve done one of those divergent thinking tests that rewards you for coming up with words that other players miss (ie Boggle), or more generally because it’s approximately how we allocate the title of “creative” in the real world.

If you’ll notice, your score doesn’t reflect how you got there. All it reflects is your ability to get from point A to some desired point B, and that’s primarily what “creative” means too. It’s a word designed for consumers, not the backend, a term denoting “a person who can make stuff that I want”. And as an investor, who would you be funding if not “people who can make stuff that other people want”?

The scavengers’ craft

Unfortunately, that leaves those of us that want to talk about process with a senseless morass of conflated concepts. Sure you got to point B, but how? Am I doomed if I don’t have that many steps in me? What if I can’t find any trap doors? And how can I ask any of these questions if I don’t have the words for them? (The “insecure artist” is a popular caricature, but how do you think you would fare if you had no coherent way of communicating about your professional obstacles?)

So in the interest of clearer discussion, I propose the following facets: generativeness, and divergence.

Generativeness, in figurative terms, is how many steps you’re allowed before I tranquilize you. It could be expressed at a high level–how much you talk in conversation, how many words you’ve written, how much stuff you’ve created–or a low level–how many ideas occur to you, how far you run with them, etc. It’s a sort of measure of “raw power”, and it has little to do with content.

Divergence describes how weird your path is–when everyone else looked right or left, you looked up; when everyone else was searching for stairs, you checked out a neglected corner and fell down a mine shaft.

Though they may seem like strange bedfellows to inhabit one word, you’ll find they can indeed accomplish similar ends. A generative person can brute force their way to the less popular prizes by simply walking the well-trod path farther than others do, while a divergent person stumbles upon them by way of lesser-known routes. However, depending on how the game is set up, they can end up finding many of the same prizes, or entirely different sets, which in the real world means that these talents can’t substitute for each other in many types of tasks.

Worse, no standard set of “creativity boosting” advice will affect both traits in the same way. King may use cigarettes and booze to keep his juices flowing, but would any of us really be that excited if Martin delivered a scotch-soaked draft of Winds of Winter? (The answer is: yes, obviously, but not for the right reasons.) It’s no accident that every writer who ever lived had a bunch of idiosyncratic little habits that didn’t work for a substantial chunk of the people who tried them.

Hopefully someday, instead of telling everyone that real writers write for 3 hours each day or drink a pot of black coffee at 4pm or pat their head and rub their stomach before sitting down to work, writing advice will come with a disclaimer about the sort of strengths it plays to, and the sort it doesn’t. The first step on that path, of course, is for people to start figuring out what strengths they do have.

Yet another refinement on extroversion

A common definition of the introversion/extroversion axis is whether an individual is prone to over- or understimulation, leading them to seek out conditions that help them modulate sensory input to desired levels.

Rarely, at least in these words, do I hear about introversion/extroversion in the context of output. It seems fairly obvious to me that individuals vary in terms of how much interaction they require from their environment to remain engaged and not put off, and this expresses itself in people’s differing tendencies to write versus read, play games versus watch television, and talk versus listen. In many ways this axis seems much more interesting and consequential than what we currently measure as I/E, considering the implications for job suitability.

A possible objection to this addition to the introversion/extroversion family is that I/E tends to be relatively stable over the life course, while at least anecdotally mental activity levels can vary widely by circumstance. I’ve found that hypomania pushes my talkativeness and written output up, while obviously depression dampens them, but these states can also easily affect more “established” personality facets, and I’m unsure of the degree of variability non-bipolar people exhibit normally.

I also have a sense that at least a non-trivial fraction of people experience the tendencies to produce and consume as strong opposing forces, such that a person who had a very easy time of thought generation might find it difficult to read, and a less mentally active person, when faced with a blank page, might resort to reading condiment labels rather than try and dredge up thoughts of their own. I would also guess, partly from my own experience with expressiveness as characteristic of hypomania, that people higher on the production end would show a stronger tendency toward anxiety than depression overall, possibly reflecting a difference in something like endogenous energy levels.

 

The atmospherics of flow

The flow state appears to be an altered state of consciousness, quite like being hypnotized. As with hypnosis, people vary widely in their inclination to it, and many seemingly trivial background factors influence susceptibility (in addition to obvious ones like medication state). Since flow is the most efficient and pleasurable state to work in, it would seem only natural to take stock of these factors in order to optimize them, and yet I hardly ever run across recommendations in that vein! Perhaps I don’t get out enough. Along analogous lines, but for a more clinical purpose, the idea of manipulating environmental conditions to modulate mental state is taken to the extreme with the Snoezelen, and I invite the adventurous to explore that more creative avenue. However, I’ve found a relatively easy and inexpensive set of tweaks that will do the job nearly as well, and so the following is a collection of recommendations based completely on my n of 1.

The first order of business is to figure out what doesn’t belong. Getting knocked out of flow is so much easier than getting into it, so rid your environment of attention vampires: movement in your field of vision, noise of all sorts but especially the high pitched variety, and what I like to call “distractables” – shiny or otherwise desirable things within easy reach that threaten to capture precious attention. Humans are the most egregious offenders, what with all their movements, and their variable pitches and rhythms, and their secondary sexual characteristics. Keep humans to a minimum.

What does belong is ultimately a matter of personal taste (and budget), but it’s typically better to delineate The Space Where Work Is Done in some way, usually with physical separation. It’s also nice if you can stick to working in that space, but if you’re hyperactive or ergonomically problematic you may find that impossible. My own work time is split between a desk in the corner of my room and my bed, because I am both of those adjectives. Even if I don’t intend to stay there long, I find that beginning the day at my desk provides the activation energy necessary to throw me into the proper frame of mind, and it has the practical advantage of allowing me to use things besides my laptop. Select your furniture on the basis of how long it will sustain a comfortable posture, and whether it allows for whatever amount of position-shifting you like, because sometimes you really do just need to sit with your entire body compacted into a tight ball. Also consider “alternative” furniture, such as kneeling chairs.

Visuals are an important component of a work space, yes, even in the 21st century when we’ve all got our heads in The Cloud. Some people enjoy the aesthetic of clutter, but it tends to make me prone to overload, and I think the vast majority of people are better off without it. I encourage tasteful (and preferably muted) decoration, and if you have beneficial associations with a particular image, color, or texture, try to include it. My most important visual elements are an analogue clock, which doubles as a medication tracker through the use of carefully placed stickies, and my calendar, which is necessary to remind me that days exist as discrete time periods, tend to follow one another, and will coalesce into weeks if they get out of hand.

The most dramatic way to control ambiance is with lighting. Light draws the eye, so make sure everything you want your attention focused on is better lit than everything you don’t. Bright, cool-toned light promotes wakefulness and is recommended if you tend toward the depressive, but those with manic tendencies may be better off keeping things dim. Especially if your workplace functions as something else, such as your bedroom, it’s good to have modifiable levels and/or colors of light, which can be done fancily with remote-controlled LED strips or dimmable fairy lights, or lamps for the lazy.

Some people like to dress up in real clothing to work, but this is unnecessary. The proper work attire is soft, doesn’t restrict movement, and is not at all distressing to tactile sensitivities. It should also provide adequate thermal regulation. And be clean.

The feeding state is a delicate balance. It is easy to over- or underfeed, neither of which are conducive to concentration. The variety matters as well: now is not the time for virtuous food. Eat stuff that tastes good, but not good enough to reminisce over, and pick something that won’t overburden your digestive tract (I’m looking at you, oatmeal). Food that is too boring will bore you, making you likelier to seek out other forms of easy stimulation, so save your virtue for dinnertime. And water! Drink water. An astounding number of people don’t replace the fluids that coffee has caused them to pee out, and then feel tired, and try to remedy it by drinking more coffee. Don’t get caught in this ridiculous loop.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is noise. Until very recently I preferred to work in complete silence and wore noise-cancelling headphones constantly, but an addition to my medication regimen has cured a bit of my misophonia and lately I’ve taken to listening to music while I work. This playlist is composed exclusively of tracks that are rhythmic, repetitive, and of course free of human-sounds (now and again I’ll indulge in some Sigur Ros). Ambient music, soundtracks and unremarkable classical music would also be sound choices. Noise does still tax executive function, so I prefer to make decisions without it, but once I’ve chosen a course it can set the tone, soothe anxiety and push me through tedious bits.

Most of these modifications are what you might call “facilitators”: they make it slightly likelier that you’ll enter or stay in a flow state, and tend to have an anxiolytic quality. (Flow generators are another worthy topic, but not one I’ll get into here.) The individual effect size of each of these is probably not large, but the overall effect of cultivating an environment filled with small cues that you’re supposed to be doing something productive is an excellent supplement to pharmacological aids. There may be a danger in getting too attached to such conditions – I’m unable to work effectively without them, although that was also true before they were available to me. So it’s possible an optimized workspace will spoil you for the coffee shop experience.

But I think we all know that real work isn’t done at coffee shops anyway.