Wednesday, August 31, 2005

So what if it's not my area - just raise the volume!

Sorry, I can't resist. Comments on yesterday's post plus a couple of discussions with friends off-line (the discussions were off-line not the friends) prompted a whole bunch of thoughts on stimulation, challenge and happiness, which I just HAVE to put down, if only to prove that hidden deep within everyone who makes fun of childhood fables is a pop-philosopher just waiting to break out.

So here goes.

Let me start by saying that in my view the purpose of human activity is the search for stimulation - a desire to challenge ourselves and push the limits of our own being. Where these challenges are met successfully, we experience satisfaction / happiness; where we fail we experience a sense of loss which could lead to either defeat or a renewal of energy. The key though is to continuously feel stimulated, to constantly maintain that gap between our achievements and our aspirations. If we achieve everything we want to, we experience contentment but that rapidly degenerates into boredom and stagnation. If we see no hope of achieving what we desire then we experience frustration and defeat, and that is a different kind of stagnation. Browning writes:

But what if I fail of my purpose here?
'Tis but the keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And baffled, get up and begin again, -
So the chase takes up one's life, that's all.

The nature of the stimulation we seek, however, deserves closer scrutiny. Two distinctions are critical. First, the distinction between relative challenge and absolute challenge. Relative challenge is entirely internal - it is simply a question of doing better than one has done before oneself. Absolute challenge is the adoption of some extrinsic 'objective' standard, that allows us to compare ourselves to some external benchmark. So, for instance, running a mile faster than you've ever run it before could be a relative standard, running it in under four minutes could be an absolute challenge. Understand that an absolute challenge is not necessarily about competition or external validation - it's simply about wanting to have some standard greater than yourself.

Why would you want to set an absolute challenge[1]? The answer lies, partly, I think, in the second important distinction - the one between process satisfaction and outcome satisfaction. In any endeavour, a part of the satisfaction / stimulation we achieve comes from the process, from the actions we take; and another part comes from the enjoyment / stimulation of what we create / achieve. It's the latter kind of satisfaction where ability comes into play. Consider a group of people cooking pasta. Irrespective of their skill as cooks, they may gain equal enjoyment from the process of cooking, but the end result will only provide simulation to those are good cooks.

So what does this mean for the breadth vs depth debate?

To begin with, I think the whole debate is a non-starter - a total red herring. Pascal, writing on the nature of finite existence (see extract No. 72), speaks of the two infinities - that of the infinitely large and the infinitely small - limit tending to infinity and limit tending to zero. It's not that depth involves a reduction in novelty or the sacrifice of breadth, it merely implies a re-scaling of the breadth one operates on. To someone who merely dabbles in an art form (say poetry) all that art form may seem the same, but to someone who delves deep into it, the fine-grained detail becomes more apparent, and provides the same experience of infinite variety within the microcosm of that art form. For the true painter there's an unbridgeable gulf between Mattisse and Picasso, for the dilettante, they're both essentially modern art. The real question then is only what scale we choose - not whether we choose breadth or depth.

That said, how does one choose the scale one operates on, and why would I, personally prefer to operate at a more microscopic level - tending to the infinity of every thing than the infinity of Everything? The first reason is that I believe that, in the absence of serious delusion, true enjoyment of the outcome of one's work can only come from setting absolute standards. This is not to say that there is no joy in operating on relative standards, only that there is greater joy to be had by achieving something that is an achievement in some absolute self. Writing even the crummiest academic paper can be fun, but there's a sense of satisfaction you get from writing something that is truly path-breaking, that the kind of crack-filling most academic research involves cannot provide.

Why should this be? Is it entirely about external comparison? Perhaps. But also perhaps it is because absolute standards represent a higher order of stimulation than we can achieve by simply pacing against ourselves. There is a reason why the standard is set where it is - because that's genuinely a difficult line for the human mind / body to cross. The other reason that absolute standards are important, I think, are because many activities do not lend themselves to easy calibration, so that marginal improvements are almost impossible to measure, and we can do nothing more than comparing ourselves to some basic threshold. If you're running then you can measure the improvement in your time in milli-seconds, but if you're cooking then such fine-grained improvements in your performance are almost impossible to seperate from subjective noise. The use of external benchmarks / absolute standards thus becomes the only way of calibrating your own success.

Notice also that activities may vary in the level at which the absolute threshold is set. Many artistic endeavours, for instance, are discontinuous, in that being average is not significantly better than being really bad. Imagine something that looks more or less like a chi-square distribution. The mean is pretty close to the bottom here, but the top is very, very far away. Being an average piano player is not much better than being a really bad piano player - you'll never experience any real stimulation / satisfaction from your own playing. It's only by becoming a truly excellent pianist that you can begin to enjoy your own performance.

This brings us, finally, to the reason I would pick the infinity of detail. Because being really skilled at something allows you the luxury of setting yourself absolute challenges, while still allowing you to seek novelty in new and exciting endeavours within the bounds of the specialisation. To the extent that anything that is really challenging is also really difficult, you're unlikely to reach a level where you're able to set absolute challenges for yourself if you simply dabble in a whole bunch of things. To get to the stage where absolute challenges become viable you need to invest significant amounts of time and effort. But that involves getting into the details.

Take poetry, for instance. The reason there are so many really, really bad poets out there, is because people feel that they can just sit down with pen and paper and write a good poem. It doesn't work that way. It takes years and years of practise, of diligent reading, of constant effort to make a good poet (even with the great poets - just read Sylvia Plath's early poems and you'll see what I mean). You could argue that it doesn't matter if you write bad poetry as long as you enjoy it, and that's true (though I must object to your calling it poetry - something like 'spilled ink on the page' would be a more accurate description), but unless you're incredibly self-delusional you're not really going to be able to enjoy your output as poems because you'll know somewhere deep inside you that they're mediocre. So you might enjoy writing them, but you won't enjoy reading them afterwards. On the other hand, if you did put in the effort, you could get to a point where your poems were good enough to give you pleasure as a reader. And what of novelty, you ask? To begin with every new poem is a different challenge. Plus you could always experiment with new styles / forms of poetry - the point is you'd be starting from a much stronger starting point and could get to an absolute standard more rapidly than you would if you were to take up, say, touch football.

Notice that this whole argument is based on the principle of choosing between alternatives. Obviously it's better to do something badly than not do it at all (at least you'll get process stimulation from it), but if you have to choose between something you genuinely do well (and could develop further) or something you're not good at, I'm not sure why you would pick the latter. Why jump after grapes when there are rabbits around to be caught? Also, of course, if there's nothing you can get to a reasonable absolute standard on, then you will tend to keep dabbling in new things (simply because after a while relying purely on relative challenge will pale on you - we're all social creatures who need external confirmation of our own identity), but this means you'll always miss out on the joy of creating something truly new and unique in an absolute sense.

Finally, understand that I'm not saying that one should never try new things. Simply that trying new things only makes sense if you genuinely believe that they will stimulate you in ways that your existing activities cannot - implying either that the process satisfaction from them is greater than the combined process and outcome satisfaction from the things you are good at and can set absolute standards on, or that you sense the possibility of achieving an absolute standard in the other activity (perhaps after an initial learning period) and thus can hope to enjoy outcome satisfaction there as well.

Here endeth the grand lecture. Now to think up questions for the short quiz I'm giving you all tomorrow!


[1] There is also, of course, the more prosaic explanation that we are all social creatures who need external reference to define a sense of self and therefore just like competing for the sake of it. But that would be too easy, no?

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