Mar 19 10

In defense of worry

by Mechaferret

Seth Godin had a post yesterday that reads, in its entirety (omitting the George Orwell quote): “Anxiety is nothing… but repeatedly re-experiencing failure in advance. What a waste.”

As with most of his assertions, this will attract a lot of comments. This time I’ll contribute some of them, because that assertion is a big fat cream puff of a target. Here’s a revision that I believe to be more accurate:

Anxiety is nothing… but repeatedly re-experiencing failure in
advance hypothetically in your mind, which may allow you to take
actions that prevent failure in reality.

That doesn’t mean that worry is the only thing you should be doing, or that incessant worry doesn’t have its costs that can prevent you from ever succeeding. However, worry can help prevent failure. Never worrying may result in heedless, repeated, or even unrecoverable failure. There are certainly many other strategies for achieving one’s goals that are more focused on success that are also essential, and these strategies may be better in terms of the comfort of the actor, but in terms of meeting goals, worry may be part of a well-balanced portfolio of strategies.

In other words, just thinking positive and keeping at it isn’t a guarantee of success.

Two recent pop-culture items I read yesterday have some bearing on this:

  1. The LA Times review of “The Runaways” describes an early scene in which Joan Jett badgers Kim Fowley and “persuades him to handle her band, which at the moment consists of Joan, her guitar and a vague idea.This didn’t cause me to think, “Look, see, anyone can succeed if they are just willing to be pushy enough.” Instead, what I thought was “OF COURSE it succeeded. She’s JOAN JETT! Her talent is so great that with any drive at all it was inevitable that something would work out.”
  2. The flip side of this is the “redundant Web site listing movie nude scenes” that Seth Rogen’s character was working on in “Knocked Up”, which received a passing reference in a Slate discussion of “Greenberg”. THAT effort was a pathetic failure. Not due to lack of enthusiasm, however. One of the more painful scenes in that movie is where Katherine Heigl tries to help Seth Rogen work on the site, and gets very excited about spotting some extreme nudity. It’s the same passion that exists in every startup, whether it succeeds or fails. It will not (and does not) help this startup at all. If the idea is dumb and derivative, no amount of passion will make it a success.

So, the moral seems to be: you have to work hard and have drive, but it needs to be of service of something that is actually worthwhile, a good idea or something you are actually good at. You can have all the passion and positive thinking in the world, but if you keep applying it to worthless things you will get no results. Much the same way that worrying, in rehearsing failure, has a risk of training your brain to expect it, enthusiastically doing dumb things without any thought, analysis, or attempt at improvement (activities that often are accompanied by, and may be improved by, worry) definitely trains you, even more so, to be very good at doing dumb, useless things, until eventually you might never be able to learn how to do smart, useful things.

So, what’s the answer? Figure out something to do in which I’m Joan Jett, I guess. It’s OK to fail and it’s necessary to do a lot of work, but it needs to be in service of something with potential, not just any old idea that comes my way.

Postscript: Yet another example to contemplate is Alex Chilton, who died on Wednesday of a heart attack. In the 1970’s he made some brilliant music in the band Big Star that was ahead of its time and completely failed to receive recognition. Unlike some artists, he didn’t have to die to get recognized: by the mid-80’s his music was being revered by the next generation of musicians and determinedly hip college students (including me) throughout the country. However, the bitterness of the earlier failure never seemed to leave him. He never did anything as brilliant again, and he had a distinctly ambivalent relationship with both the music of Big Star and with success itself. While he definitely made enough money to live as a musician, he was in no way even moderately well-off, and while he had a firm belief that he was being true to himself always, it was never clear that he was happy.

What does this have to do with worry? Well, many Big Star songs are overwhelmed with worry and pain: there are the obvious later ones such as “Holocaust” (about his mother’s death) and “Big Black Car” (featuring the achingly ironic lines “Nothing can hurt me/Nothing can touch me”), as well as earlier songs such as “What’s Going Ahn” (“I resigned everyone, ever since I was young”) and “Back of a Car” (“Thinking ’bout what to say/Can’t find a lot”). His later work was completely lacking in worry: there were snarky blues originals and cheesy Italian pop song covers, all devoid of concern (or much emotion at all). He had stopped worrying, and as a consequence, he had stopped making music that mattered.

Postscript #2: Much thanks to Arun Srinivasan, who called my attention to the original Seth Godin post and whose email thread with me about it inspired much of this post.

Jan 18 10

It’s only easy if 1-2-3

by Mechaferret

I recently finished the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, which was recommended to me by my good friend DC of Sentient Meat (he is also a primary inspiration for this blog). It’s an excellent book that covers many interesting topics in the neurobiology of decision-making and it’s definitely worth reading. One of the studies, however, suggested a little more than that… it actually suggested a strategy for effective high-level planning. The strategy itself is not new, but after I realized how the neurobiology supports it, it became much more compelling.

The study in question was fairly simple: people were asked to memorize either a 2-digit number or a 7-digit number, and then walked down a hall to another room where their memory of the number would be tested. On the walk, they passed a refreshment table that offered either fruit salad or chocolate cake. The point of the test was to see how the complexity of the memorization task would affect the subjects’ willpower (the proxy for which was whether they chose the healthy fruit salad snack or the unhealthy chocolate cake). 59% of the 7-digit subjects chose the cake, as opposed to only 37% of the 2-digit subjects. Having to memorize 7 digits as opposed to 2 significantly diminished one’s willpower/ability to resist self-indulgent choices.

The theory behind the experiment is that the frontal cortex is responsible for both memorization and willpower, and the frontal cortex has a very limited capacity (other studies have shown it to be 7±2 on average). So if all of your frontal cortex capacity is being used up holding memorized digits, there is little left over to resist the temptation of chocolate cake. So far, so interesting.

However, the obvious application to this study, to me at least, is to strategies for getting things done. Accomplishing hard, complex, energy-intensive tasks, such as delivering a software product, studying for finals, or starting a company requires a lot of willpower: you have to do a lot of things, all of which require energy and many of which aren’t fun, in a  timely manner, even when you’re discouraged because something didn’t work out, even when you just want to hang out with friends, surf the web, or go to sleep. Accomplishing these tasks also requires knowing what subtasks you are working on: you have to have a list of high-priority tasks that you keep in your mind at all times. Thus these tasks require both willpower and memorization.

If your list of high-priority tasks contains 7 or more tasks, then you’ve used up all of your frontal cortex capacity on the list and have none left over for the willpower you will need to execute the list. In fact, since you’re going to need a lot of willpower, it’s probably better to allocate at least 50% of your cortex capacity for that. You can’t allocate all of it because you do need to keep focused on some high-priority items at all time. Focusing on just one is risky, as you may get stuck on it for a while and if you can’t immediately switch to another one, you’ll be less efficient. Each additional item you can add to your priority list decreases the risk of getting stuck: you want to have your list be as long as possible while still leaving space for willpower.

Given all this, the optimal strategy is clear: have a high-priority list of size 3. That’s the maximum size that will still leave at least 50% of the average frontal cortex capacity available for willpower.

So, if you’re trying to do something hard and complex, something that has many moving parts and requires lots of willpower, you should make a list of your top three tasks, focus on those, and save the rest of your cortex to provide the willpower. If you have fewer than 3 items you run a higher risk of getting stuck; if you have more, you are likely to run out of willpower before you get any of them done. You need a “must-do” list so that you get things done, but a list of 7 “must-do” things is just too hard for your brain to handle. A list of three, however, leaves you plenty of brainspace for willpower, and makes it (almost) easy.