Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist

Challenging oneself

December 3rd, 2014

In my last post, I talked about instigating unhappiness as a way to spur change at organizations. I’ve also been thinking about it in a personal context of challenging myself, and when I should be satisfied and happy with where I am vs. stretching myself for the next goal.

One of the reasons for the introspection is that I am thinking of signing up for the Death Ride next year. The Death Ride, for those that don’t know, is a bike ride that is 130 miles, and climbs 15,000 vertical feet through 5 mountain passes in Tahoe. When I first heard about it 13 years ago, I thought it was completely insane – I had a couple coworkers who did it every year, but it was inconceivable to me, as I had never ridden more than 40 flat miles at that point. But here I am, thinking about signing up, and believing I can do it. So what changed?

Well, this year has been a year of leveling up in bicycling. I started the year in April with an Old La Honda ride with some other Googlers (40 miles – one hill: Strava), where I went all out and was still left in the dust, and bonked so hard that I was late to work. But I trained hard for the rest of the spring, and got in shape for my week-long mountain bike tour from Durango to Moab in July. I had already decided to cap the summer off by doing my first century bike ride (100 miles), but my friend said that I would be in such good shape after the tour that I should do the climbing century (8000 feet of climbing) up and over Mt. Tam in August. So I did (Strava) and it was actually pretty easy. So I signed up for Levi’s Gran Fondo in October, and went all out in that (averaging 20 mph for the first 30 flat miles) and still felt good (Strava).

So I figured if I can do 100 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing in 8 hours (including breaks), I should be able to do 130 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing in 12 hours, right? Right? Okay, it’s a stretch, but it seems like a good goal to aim for next July.

And this is where I wonder about myself. There are many who would be impressed and satisfied with where I got this year, from struggling to ride 40 miles, to being able to ride a climbing century. And I’m happy with that progress, but my first thought is “If I can do that, what else can I do?” and immediately move onto the next challenge rather than taking time to savor what I’ve accomplished.

I see this tendency among many of my friends as well – we end up continuing to push the limits of what we can do when we could easily rest satisfied with what we’ve accomplished. In the Steven Kotler book on extreme athletes, he describes communities as social triggers that help push us to try things beyond what we might on our own, so it is perhaps not surprising that my MIT friends tend to share this limit-pushing tendency and that such a community helps normalize such behavior.

What I find interesting about this is that I change which communities I associate myself with as I get better at an activity. The first time I did the SF to Google 40 mile flat ride in 2012 was the longest I had ever ridden to that point in my life, and I was really proud of myself. Now I’ve done that ride on a fixie, and am using people who do double centuries as a comparison point. Or in volleyball, I used to be content just being able to keep the ball in play at doubles, but after playing a bunch this past year, I compare myself to the A-level players, who can consistently put points away and regularly get incredible digs. I keep moving the goalposts on myself so I’m never satisfied.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d be happier if I let myself be content and happy with what I’ve accomplished, rather than continually striving for more. I do enjoy the continued challenges and the fact that I can do so much more than I thought was possible even last year. And in other areas, I don’t challenge myself as much – I’ve gotten better at being content at work over the years, rather than beating myself up about why I haven’t accomplished more. Chorus is another example where I hit my limits, felt I had done all I could, and accepted that. So maybe it’s just in areas where I feel I still have considerable upside that I keep challenging myself?

Another aspect is that it is only possible to have a couple challenge areas at a time. If I wasn’t secure in my job with a comfortable income, I wouldn’t be able to challenge myself in other areas, as I would be too focused on basic needs. But because I’m in a good situation, I can afford to focus on other challenges such as sports (biking, skiing, volleyball) and socializing (especially in 2013). I’m fortunate to have that freedom to take on those challenges.

As the year winds down, I’ll be thinking ahead to next year and deciding where my next challenges lie – if I do sign up for the Death Ride, biking will definitely be one :).

Instigating unhappiness

December 1st, 2014

Michael Anton Dila, one of the cofounders of Overlap, recently gave a talk at the BIF conference. He starts with his frustration with the question “What do you do?”, as he can never answer it. He then talks about Overlap and the community that has built around it (Overlap is full of people who don’t fit into traditional jobs, including myself). But I like the way he describes what he does at the end: “My job is to make other people unhappy…I want people to stay unhappy, and unsatisfied with the present, so that they can’t help themselves but change it.”

This description meshes well with what I’ve been up to at Google – at a recent strategy offsite, one of the directors said after my presentation, “Eric, why do you always have to start these things by making us unhappy?” But I consider it to be my job to not let people be satisfied with the status quo, but to think ahead to the next challenge.

I took a leadership seminar a few years ago at Google on Adaptive Leadership. The facilitators described two kinds of challenges: technical and adaptive. Technical challenges are those where you know what to do, you just have to continue what you’re doing, and it will eventually pay off (six sigma is built for handling these types of challenges). Adaptive challenges are those where the rules of the game have changed, and doing what worked before will likely lead to failure. Another way to describe it would be incremental vs. disruptive innovation.

One thing they taught us in that seminar was that to get those around you to recognize that they are facing an adaptive challenge rather than a technical challenge is to turn up the heat. People will instinctively cling to what they already know, so to increase their willingness to change and try something new, you have to get them out of their comfort zone. So I think what Michael Dila is describing as making people unhappy is this process of getting people around you to recognize that change is coming, so that they can rally to deal with it, rather than ignore or hide from it.

I don’t know if I like describing what I do as instigating unhappiness, as that seems negative. But I can’t deny that it has been a consistent theme to my career. I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo at the companies I worked at – I always saw ways in which things could be better, and would let people know. Early in my career, I was very blunt about such things (it turns out that telling the CEO of the startup you work at that he’s an idiot at an all hands meeting is not effective at changing his behavior, even if it’s true). I’ve learned more subtle ways to turn up the heat since then, including showing metrics that beg for certain questions to be asked, instead of asking the questions myself. I’ve also learned that these problems are generally too big for one person to fix on their own, so part of making change happen is creating the awareness of the need to change – finding allies and rallying them to change, rather than trying to go it alone.

I still struggle with the balance of challenging the status quo vs. being happy and thankful. This often comes up when I talk to other Googlers – we will complain about how things could be better, but then stop to remind ourselves that we work at one of the poshest companies in the world, which pays us extremely well, lets us work on interesting problems, and caters to our every need. I think I’ve found a reasonable balance at work, but this is something I continue to work on in my personal life, which will be the subject of another follow-up post.

What do you think about being an instigator of unhappiness? Is this a role you see yourself in? Why or why not? I’m curious what my friends and readers think.

There are no shortcuts

October 25th, 2014

I was having an email thread recently with a friend where she pointed me at this article on the middle class getting ripped off. I don’t agree with most of the article, but this quote stuck out to me:

For my entire life (and I don’t think this will ever change) I’ve watched friends and family engage in one Fred Flintstone-esque, get-rich-quick scheme after another. I’ve also been caught up in more of these than I’m comfortable admitting, and they always fail, without exception.

I don’t agree with his conclusion that therefore the way to get rich is to screw people over, though.

To me, the prescription to improving your financial security is simple.

  1. Spend less than you earn.

  2. Put your savings into long-term investments with low/no fees.
  3. Be patient.

This is what I’ve been doing throughout my life, and it has done well for me. I am admittedly fortunate to work in the high-paying technology industry, but I was still saving money on a grad school stipend, and I have been maxing out my 401k each year basically for as long as I have had a full-time job

Get-rich-quick schemes are a distraction. They offer the potential to make money fast, but more often lose all your entire investment. They prey on people who don’t understand probability, and focus on the upside of the 1% that it pays off, but don’t consider the downside of the 99% of the time it doesn’t (the same goes for lotteries). What I outline above is guaranteed to work, but takes a long time (to benefit from compounding interest), and requires the willpower to not buy what you can’t afford.

Another analogy is to dieting. There are tons of kooky diets out there. You know what works?

  1. Eat less.
  2. Exercise more.

If you do that, you’ll lose weight. But it requires effort and discipline, so people try diet shortcuts, hoping this will be the one that lets them get the result they want without the effort. And, yes, I know there are various biochemical reasons for certain diets in how our body processes food, but I think the long-term method for success is what I outlined.

One last example that came up in discussion last night was following your passion. What most people mean when they say they want to be a rock star, or an artist, or a designer, or an entrepreneur, is that they want the benefits of being in those positions. But to become any of those requires a lot of hard work to hone one’s craft. People don’t see the months the rock star spent living out of the back of a van while doing bar gigs. They don’t see the entrepreneur who slept only 4 hours a night for years and was stressed out all of the time about making payroll and whether she was leading the company in the right direction (while fighting this nonsense for funding). They don’t see the artist painstakingly practicing their craft over and over and over again to get just a little bit better. They just want the results…and that’s why they’ll never get them. There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work.

It’s not a glamorous recommendation. It’s not easy. But I think it pays off over time more reliably than shortcuts. I am very fortunate to have my health, to have financial security, and to be in what is basically my dream job right now. And I know I have had many advantages on my way here, but I don’t think it’s all luck and privilege even though I am playing life on the lowest difficulty setting there is.

I’m interested to hear what others think – am I oversimplifying? Are there shortcuts that have worked for you?

The Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler

October 9th, 2014

Amazon link
Book website

This book examines the extreme limits of human performance, delving into the world of action-adventure athletes who are redefining what is possible. It tells of big wave surfing, extreme free skiing, skateboarding, free solo rock climbing, base jumping, kayaking impossible rivers, etc. Kotler also examines the neuroscience behind the state of flow, which he claims is what enables these superhuman feats.

Kotler’s thesis is that the state of flow enables athletes to react faster and tap into normally unreachable wells of intuition. As Kotler puts it

In all other activities, flow is the hallmark of high performance, but in situations where the slightest error could be fatal, then perfection is the only choice – and flow is the only guarantee of perfection. Thus, flow is the only way to survive in the fluid, life-threatening conditions of big waves, big rivers, and big mountains…as [skateboarder] Danny Way explains: “It’s either find the zone or suffer the consequences – there’s no other choice available.”

Kotler tells many awesome stories of people performing insane athletic feats (e.g. free-soloing (climbing alone without ropes) Yosemite’s Half Dome in 3 hours, or surfing 50 foot waves), which are fun just to stretch the mind of what is possible.

He then describes the science behind the flow state, what it does to our brain, and the triggers necessary to get into it, and asks us to take what these extreme athletes have learned and apply it to our everyday lives. One of the hallmarks of the flow state is to essentially turn off our prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) and instead becoming more in the moment: “It’s an efficiency exchange. We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.” This makes a lot of sense to me – we’ve all had those moments in sport where we unexpectedly biff some easy action and when asked what happened, we say “I started thinking about it”, which means we had fallen out of flow.

The triggers that Kotler describes are useful to remember as well. He lists 4 types:

  • External triggers: Risk (triggering the fight-or-flight response and all the crazy neurochemicals one gets as a result), rich environment (“novelty, unpredictability, and complexity”), and deep embodiment (full-body awareness, paying attention to all of our sensory inputs to overwhelm the brain with sensory processing so it doesn’t have time to think).

  • Internal triggers: Clear goals that define immediate success (laser focus on what is next), immediate feedback (so we can course correct in real-time, and so that we can absorb the right technique into our unconscious), and consistently pushing your limits (aiming for challenges that are 4% greater than your skills)
  • Social triggers: being part of a community pushes us further than we would go alone. We learn new techniques from watching others. We also stretch our sense of what is possible – once we see one of our friends pull a crazy stunt, we believe we can do it, and belief turns into reality. The best example of this is Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile – for decades, running a mile in less than four minutes was considered impossible, but once Bannister did it, several others did it within a year.
  • Creative triggers: “Creativity triggers flow; then flow enhances creativity.” This ties into the social trigger with “creative one-upsmanship”

I really enjoyed this book as an exploration of what is possible, and of understanding better the keys to accessing the flow state. We’ll see if I can figure out how to apply those triggers more consistently to improve my own performance, both at work and in sports.

It’s not about you

October 1st, 2014

Last year, I was at my sister’s house one morning and playing with my toddler niece. I did something, and my niece burst into tears. I started apologizing and frantically saying “What did I do? What did I do?” My sister looked over and said “She’s just hungry – give her a banana.” I gave my niece a banana and she was happy again.

I tell this story a lot, as it’s a great reminder that we are too egocentric and think it is always about us – I thought I had caused my niece’s distress, but my niece was going to stay cranky until her hunger was satisfied. And that is true in most interactions – the other person has their own needs to be met, and until those are satisfied, it almost doesn’t matter what we do.

Having that lens creates empathy – when somebody massively over-reacts to something I did, I realize something else is probably going on that I’m not aware of. I try to understand what’s going on in their life, and what needs of theirs aren’t being met, because until those are dealt with, it’s going to be hard to make progress on what I want. And admittedly that’s not always possible. But realizing that I am not personally responsible for the moods of everybody I interact with was a helpful correction for me.

This principle is also helpful in dealing with work situations – it’s generally easy to trace back people being obstinate at work to them feeling like they are losing control. Presenting a plan that seems eminently reasonable may trigger an emotional reaction, in part because it wasn’t the team’s idea and it was externally imposed on them, which can feel like an attack, creating a fight-or-flight response. If I can diagnose that, I won’t dig in to fight about the merits of the plan itself, and instead will look for ways to let the team know that the plan will help them with their problems.

This is also a good reminder for dealing with ourselves. I was on a long bike ride last weekend, and took a wrong turn that meant I added another 20 miles and 2000 feet of climbing to my planned ride. And I was in despair, thinking I would never be able to do it. But, thinking of my niece, I realized I was probably just hungry. I saw a McDonald’s, ate 1000 calories, felt much better, and cranked up the climb and back home. When feeling despair or overwhelmed, it’s important to take care of our own needs, because everything else will seem harder until we do.

When dealing with people, it’s important to remember that it’s not about you. Thinking about what the people you are interacting with need, and how you can satisfy those needs, will lead to you being more effective in getting what you want out of the interaction.

Wear your damn helmet!

July 30th, 2014

I’ve been seeing several references on Facebook and email recently to this site or similar sites, which makes the claim that it is safer to ride a bicycle without a helmet.

This is ridiculous nonsense to me, and I finally snapped and wrote a long email rant in response, and decided to post a version of it here as well.

I do agree with these sites that the best thing for a bicyclist is not to get hit in the first place. So I have no issue with emphasizing safe riding skills and not acting stupid just because one is wearing a helmet. But accidents still happen, especially with distracted drivers on the road.

I think that wearing a helmet while cycling is like wearing a seatbelt when driving. If you don’t get in an accident, you don’t need either one. But if you do get in an accident, the vast majority of your potential serious injuries will be prevented by wearing a seatbelt or helmet – according to the CDC, seat belts cut the risk of serious injury by 50%, and I believe that helmets have a similar effect on reducing serious injuries (as a couple ER doctors in the discussions I’ve seen have suggested).

The site suggests that helmets have little protective value, and that any benefit they have is cancelled out by other problems. The main problem they suggest is from one study which suggests that cars give you more room if you are wearing a helmet than if not. I think that’s irrelevant – the dangerous drivers are the ones who don’t see the bicyclist at all, let alone whether the biker is wearing a helmet. A recent example from my experience is a BMW rocketing up Page Mill Road at 50 mph in a 25 mph zone, not realizing the next turn was a U-turn, and skidding well into the other lane where I was descending at 25 mph on my bike. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the car, but it was a close call. Those are the scenarios I worry about (or ones where a driver is calling or texting and doesn’t notice themselves drifting over into the bike lane), not ones where a car gets 3 inches closer to me because they notice that I’m wearing a helmet.

The other “problems” with helmets that the site suggests (that it might increase neck injuries and that it might affect one’s senses) are equally stupid, and have even less support – they are just theories that people made up to justify their point of view. Which is admittedly what I’m doing here, but I’m not claiming that’s evidence.

Is a helmet going to prevent all serious injuries? No, of course not. Is it going to prevent me from dying if I’m hit by a car going 50 mph? No. But will it help if my head gets bounced on the pavement at 20 mph? I believe it would. And I want any edge I can get to preserve my brain in the case of an accident. And I don’t believe there is any downside to wearing a helmet, despite the claims to the contrary on these sites.

I do agree with the site that the world would be a better place if we had more cyclists, and that with more cyclists on the road, drivers would change their behavior. But in that transitional phase, I plan to keep wearing my helmet until after the drivers change their behavior, not before. And I don’t see how not wearing a helmet will encourage more people to ride a bike – it may make it look more dangerous, but all it takes is hearing of one horrible injury because the rider wasn’t wearing a helmet to deter somebody from riding a bike for life.

All that being said, I’m totally in favor of more people biking. And I don’t want people to think biking is highly dangerous – I commute to work by bike 90% of the time, and have put ~2-3k miles a year on my bikes for the past 6 years and have not yet had an accident (knock on wood). But I wear a helmet just in case, the same way I wear a seatbelt just in case while driving – I plan to never need it, and drive/ride defensively, but I want the extra protection if I do need it.

P.S. I should note that I switched over to wearing a helmet while skiing about ten years ago for similar reasons – if I do get in a bad crash, I want the extra protection. I haven’t needed it, except for a couple falls while learning to snowboard, but it was impressive even in those minor falls how much it helped. Ski helmets are admittedly more robust than bike helmets, though.

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

May 27th, 2014

Amazon link

I finally read this book, which has been on the to-read list since it came out because of its discussion of cognitive biases. I hadn’t been in a particular hurry to read it, especially since I’d listened to Kahneman’s Long Now talk which covered the main themes of the book. But I finally got it from the library and it was a nice summary of the psychology of decision making.

Kahneman sums up the book in the first paragraph of his final conclusions chapter:

I began this book by introducing two fictitious characters, spent some time discussing two species, and ended with two selves. The two characters were the intuitive System 1, which does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can within its limited resources. The two species were the fictitious Econs, who live in the land of theory, and the Humans, who act in the real world. The two selves are the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and makes the choices.

System 1 and System 2 are the most discussed portion of the book – System 1 is our intuition that leaps to conclusions, System 2 is our logical rational brain which has to be effortfully engaged. Kahneman is quick to point out that System 2 is not superior to System 1 – somebody with only System 2 would never get anything done because they would spend all their time thinking about possibilities (as suggested by the anecdote of the man who could no longer make decisions after he lost his emotions).

So the question is when do we engage System 2. Kahneman says in the conclusion: “The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2″. However, he follows up by saying it’s difficult to recognize those signs in the moment – System 1 is very good at substituting easy answers to questions that aren’t being asked (e.g. substituting “I like this person” as an answer for the question “Is this person qualified for this job?”) and we have to recognize those signs. The first part of the book is an excellent tour of several different cognitive shortcuts that System 1 uses:

  • Anchoring – giving a random number before asking somebody to estimate a number will bias the result.
  • Law of small numbers – assuming that small sample sizes represent the population and leaping to conclusions based on samples as small as one.
  • Availability bias: Things that come to mind easier are considered more likely and probable, which is related to recency bias.
  • Specificity and story – System 1 likes situations which are specific and vivid e.g. when asked “Which is more probable? (a) Linda is a bank teller and (b) Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement”, most people chose (b) which makes no sense logically – (b) is a complete subset of (a) – but System 1 could construct a specific story of (b) whereas (a) was too generic.

Kahneman has one chapter where he discuss co-writing an article with Gary Klein, the author of Sources of Power, which I quite liked as a summary of why we should trust our intuition (or System 1 in Kahneman’s terminology). Kahneman believes we shouldn’t trust System 1 so it was interesting to read of their work to try to figure out where they agreed:

“Our conclusion was that for the most part it is possible to distinguish intuitions that are likely to be valid from those that are likely to be bogus. … If the environment is sufficiently regular and if the judge has had a chance to learn its regularities, the associative machinery will recognize situations and generate quick and accurate predictions and decisions. You can trust someone’s intuitions if these conditions are met. … In a less regular, or low-validity, environment, the heuristics of judgment are invoked. System 1 is often able to produce quick answers to difficult questions by substitution, creating coherence where there is none. The question that is a answered is not the one that was intended, but the answer is produced quickly and may be sufficiently plausible to pass the lax and lenient review of System 2.”

In other words, you can not trust your intuition just because you are confident – you can only do so in regular situations where the subconscious pattern building machine can be effective.

In the second part of the book, Kahneman moves on to discussing the pitfalls of assuming that humans make rational decisions. These are pretty well-known e.g. there is a huge difference volunteering to be an organ donor between countries where you have to opt in (< 15%) or opt out (> 85%). Since the question is exactly the same, clearly something else is going on (in this case, the bias for inaction overwhelms any rational consideration). He also discussed his work on prospect theory, where he and Amos Tversky measure loss aversion and determine that we need the gain to be twice as big to risk losing (in other words, we want to win $200 in a coin flip to risk losing $100). He also discusses our inability to estimate probabilities, where we overestimate rare chances (treating 1% chances as 5%, and 99% chances as 91%) and therefore want inordinate protection against them. In all of these cases, he suggests taking the “outside view” (the perspective of an unknowledgeable observer) and/or reversing the situation (opt-in vs. opt-out) to see if our intuition changes to understand if we are truly being rational or just going with our intuition. He uses the acronym WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) to remind us that we often put blinders on ourselves to make our decision making easier.

Lastly, Kahneman delves into the remembering vs. experiencing self. He describes an experiment where people are asked to experience pain (e.g. by placing their hand in a bath of ice cold water) for a duration of time. There are two scenarios – holding the hand in for 60 seconds, and holding the hand in for 60 seconds, and then an additional 30 seconds where the bath was warmed slightly. People consistently said the second scenario was preferable and they chose to repeat that rather than the first scenario. This logically makes no sense – they are experiencing more pain and discomfort in the second scenario. But Kahneman says that we remember only the average of the peak pain and the end pain, and are oblivious to the actual duration. The experiencing self which suffers through 90 seconds instead of 60 is ignored. You can play with this to design optimum experiences for yourself e.g. when planning vacations (always end on a high note and take pictures to remember the peak experiences).

All in all, I don’t think I learned anything particularly new from reading the book, but it is a great summary of the different quirks that prevent our brains are not perfectly rational. By having a mental list of such quirks, we can be more aware of them, and try to combat them by bringing the slower and more effortful System 2 into play. We won’t always succeed, and that’s where friends are helpful to give us the outside view and a new perspective beyond whatever we are seeing at the moment (Kahneman calls it the focusing illusion: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”). Let me know when you see me leading myself astray and I’ll try to do likewise.

How is your memory indexed?

May 13th, 2014

My Facebook friends have heard me complain a few times that I have apparently exceeded my brain’s capacity to keep track of people. At Google, I have worked with hundreds of people, and it’s entirely embarrassing when one of them sees me at lunch or elsewhere on the Google campus and says “Hi Eric!” and I completely blank on their name. I recognize them, and I know we worked together, but I don’t remember any of the details. A couple weeks ago, somebody waved me down in the cafeteria, and I had lunch with him, and talked for 30 minutes without me being able to remember his name or what specifically we had worked on together.

The funny bit is that once I got back to my desk and looked up his name, all of that information came flooding back in. And that’s how it works for me in general – when another Googler says hi and I can’t place them, a glance at their name badge will trigger the memory cascade of how we know each other. As far as I can tell, my memory is indexed on people’s names, not on what they look like, so I can’t look up information on them with their face, but only with their name. I was talking about this with a friend yesterday, and he thought it was the weirdest thing ever because he is a visual thinker, and faces are what trigger all the memories for him.

The analogy to a database is clear – in a database, there are many fields in each record, but one of them is generally marked as the “primary key”, which the database will index on and optimize lookups for. If you try to look up a record by a different field, it will be much slower and more inefficient.

So I’m curious how other people feel their memories are indexed. Are you a visual thinker and seeing a person triggers all the memories you have associated with them? Am I the only text-based thinker?

P.S. Based on the On Intelligence theory of pattern-recognition, I wonder if my memory indexing on text/names is because most of my information gathering as a child was by reading, rather than by learning from my peers. I definitely think in terms of text and ideas, and that’s part of why I have a blog – text hyperlinking is a perfect fit for how my brain works. I also wonder if that’s why I don’t get Instagram – maybe Instagram is the equivalent of blogging for a visual thinker – it matches how their brain works.

Expertise as exception handling

April 24th, 2014

A few months ago, I wrote a post claiming that expertise was doing difficult tasks consistently and Rif challenged me on that. And I’ve been thinking about it over the past few months and have another model I’m going to throw out there: expertise as exception handling.

One example of this is my experience as both a skier and a snowboarder. I am an expert skier, having skied on and off since I was a kid, and an intermediate snowboarder, having picked it up a couple years ago. I spent most of the winter skiing in anticipation of skiing trips to Japan and Baldface. After I got back from Baldface, I got on the snowboard for the first time in a year, and it was interesting to see how my mindset changed. On my skis, I am confident I can handle any terrain and conditions, even people cutting me off while I’m speeding down the hill. On the snowboard, I can comfortably go down any groomed run, no matter how steep, but as soon as the conditions are uneven (e.g. moguls) or off-piste or if people around me do something unexpected, I freak out because I don’t know how to adjust quickly.

Another example comes from volleyball, where a previous post noted how better teammates put me in a better position to succeed. If I’m given a good set, I can hit it down. If a ball is spiked right to me, I can dig it. However, if the ball is a little off, I’m not as reliable. Meanwhile, the expert players can take a ball hit out of their reach, and if they can get one knuckle on the ball, they’ll pop it up perfectly to their partner. And if the set is five feet off the net, they find a way to hit it down anyway.

A last example comes from bridge. I’m an intermediate bridge player at best, but I am subscribed to the bridge players list at Google. The discussions on that list are often around rare hands, where there’s no standard play or bid to cover the situation. The experts on the list debate about how to handle such situations, and many of them have arcane bidding systems to cover all sorts of unusual hands. These are situations I could never figure out how to handle with my basic understanding and the standard bidding system, but they have played enough to figure out how to handle these corner cases.

In all of these examples, the difference between the intermediate player and the expert is that the expert can handle a wider variety of rare situations. The intermediate may be almost as good as the expert the majority of the time, but in unusual situations, the greater experience of the expert allows them to do something when the intermediate is frozen by uncertainty.

This also explains why mere repetition is not enough to acquire expertise. Mastery requires deliberate practice, where one is continually and deliberately testing the edge of one’s ability. By setting up artificial practice situations which don’t come up normally, one gains the ability to handle these exceptional situations whereas repeating the standard situations would not help. It was described once to me as the difference between ten years of experience, and the same year of experience ten times.

I don’t think my advice changes from my last post on expertise, which suggested that deliberate practice was how to gain consistency, but I like this model better. Expertise is learning about how to handle anything that an activity can throw at you, and do it with confidence because you’ve seen it all before. This is also consistent with Gary Klein’s Recognition-Primed Decision Model. Build up your intuition and expertise by getting oneself into more difficult and rare situations so that you can handle them better in the future.

Maximizing collisionability

April 23rd, 2014

Last night, Tony Hsieh of spoke at the Long Now on the topic of Helping Revitalize a City. He described Downtown Project, which is the company he designed to create a thriving community (tech, art, fashion, family) in downtown Las Vegas.

As he discussed the project, he brought up a great concept that I want to apply to my own life, which is the idea of “collisionable hours”. The idea is that a community is built by maximizing the number of times that community members might run into each other: at the bar, at a cafe, on the street, etc. Suburbs have low collisionable hours since residents go into their garage, hop in their car, drive to the store, drive straight back home, and therefore spend little time in public spaces where they might have unplanned collisions. City neighborhoods can have high collisionable hours, when everybody is out walking around to get their errands done (shades of Jane Jacobs). So for the Downtown Project, they now evaluate projects based on maximizing collisionable hours.

This made me think about maximizing my own personal collisionability. How do I put myself into more situations where I have unplanned interactions that can spur new thoughts? I made some effort at that in my Year of Yes last year by going to new conferences and trying new things, but how can I build on that? One thing I’ve started is a monthly SF Salon, which is a great excuse for me to see SF friends and talk about ideas. I also need to start posting more here, as I think that increases the chance of random people on the Internet finding me and interacting with my ideas.

That points out a difference I have with Tony Hsieh – he’s focused on unplanned physical interactions, which I think are valuable and interesting (I depend on them for parts of my job at Google). But I’m interested in building a community of ideas as well, which I think can be done online. We’ll see if I make progress on that.

Two other vignettes that I think are relevant to the collisionability discussion:

  • When LBJ first got to Washington as a congressional aide, all the aides stayed in a communal dorm. He would get up in the morning, go to the communal bathroom, shower, brush his teeth, shave, and chat with others. Then he’d go back to his room, wait 5 minutes, and go back to the bathroom and do it again. He would do this 4-5 times a morning, which is how he met everybody and started his path to becoming the most influential person in Washington. That’s maximizing collisionability!

  • At the YxYY conference last year, we had a great session on “Finding the Others” inspired by this Timothy Leary quote:
    Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…

    What we concluded was that finding the others required putting oneself out there into the world and increasing your “surface area” to make it easier for the others to find you. In other words, increasing your collisionability.

Anyway, I liked the concept, and plan to use it more in my own life. And if anybody reading this has ideas or people that I should be colliding with, please put me in touch!

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