Genius Club

October 1, 2009

This is a response to Sylvester, who left this comment on the Societal Norms post:

…but even more could be done if we brave forward and try to openly create a network of individuals like ourselves who can transcend the achievements of the average person on an (intellectual level) TOGETHER… each one of us may be capable of greatness but i am sure a room full of us could accomplish the near unthinkable, solve the almost irrational and design the unimaginable…. and that would be a truly great day for us all.

I was discussing this with my wife today, actually.

On this blog I’ve briefly explored the ways that “genius clubs” tend to implode under the weight of all our collective social dysfunction, but it’s still quite a tantalizing problem to solve.

I think there are two major issues that geniuses face:

  1. Freedom

    We are constrained by the structure of our society which rightly has optimized to support the average populace, at the expense of minorities. The systems aren’t equipped to readily support a genius in his work/play.

    My wife and I decided to solve the first problem four months ago. Our goal was to create a context in which we can think and behave exactly as we want to. “Freedom” is largely a state of mind, so much of that work has to be done internally; that’s work that we’ve largely completed. The main external factor that constrains us, however, is money. How much time and passion is wasted with jobs we hate and are unproductive in? Those same jobs tend to constrain us geographically, as well as confining us to just one discipline.

    We solved it that problem: in February we will have become independently wealthy. From there we can work on whatever we choose to and go where ever we want to without ever worrying about bills.

  2. Company

    By virtue of our rarity, geniuses are a lonely bunch, as evidenced by this blog and the continued attention it attracts.

    My wife and I also have an interim solution for the second problem: each other. We found each other online and moved across the country to live together. It was just a chance meeting. What happened to us is not a systematic solution, but I think a solution exists that would tend to bring geniuses together at a frequency greater than random chance would.

I propose that what we need isn’t a problem solving group. If we assemble with the explicit purpose of doing “something great,” I fear we’re doomed to the fate of all the other high G societies. The important point here is that that’s okay. “Doing great things” isn’t among the fundamental and unfulfilled needs I listed above. We simply need freedom and companionship.

I belong to a creative collective that operates mostly as a closed, online forum. It’s invite only, and when someone is sponsored that new person has to be voted on by the existing members to be let in.

We are mostly graphic designers, with illustrators, photographers, and handful of programmers and musicians. The talent pool here is unbelievable. We have talented students, as well as creative directors for major Ad agencies, programmers for companies like Yahoo, top fashion photographers, and others equally talented.

One issue that has been discussed at length in that community is what we “should” be. The idea originally was that the collective is a place to share professional knowledge, contacts, and critiques. And in fact, we are all those things. The controversy surrounded the rest of the interaction: indeed, most of the material on the forum is not professional at all, but actually just chatting and socializing.

We were came to realize over the course of our 10+ year existence is that we not a community about creative professions, but instead a community for creative professionals.

Creatives, like geniuses, think and interact in fundamentally different ways than the average person. Only part of the value of this collective is in the [wildly valuable] professional resources it provides. The lion’s share can be found in simply sharing the company of unusual people who, as it turns out, are very similar to each other.

My Proposal

I think we need a genius collective. Just like the creative collective, we could share our projects and lives with each other, and receive meaningful feedback. A side effect of the creative collective has been the formation of strong, real life friendships. We have a conference every year, and this year we had two.

I think we should use that model to form a genius collective. It’s closed, invite-only. It’s anonymous from outsiders, but internally it’s not, which is perfect for us because among each other, we have nothing to be ashamed of in owning our abilities. It has no explicit goal, but resources grow from it by virtue of the people in it, so in our case, we have a repository of creative material like all the major software packages, 1000s of fonts, templates, instructions, member discounts, you name it. I’m sure similar resources would develop in our collective, perhaps with brain teasers, directories of worthwhile organizations and people around the world.

Through this online, social collective I could then teach members what I did to achieve independent wealth. It’s not difficult for a person of high intelligence to achieve, and with the support of a whole group of us, each of us in turn could achieve the freedom we need, precisely because of gaining the companionship we crave.

The one part that I’m not so sure about is something I also addressed in another post, which how to recognize a genius when you see one. The method in the creative collective is to rely on the inviting member for the first level of screening. Then, the candidate shows their work and accomplishments for others to vote on. This seems to work.

For us, I foresee one of the primary sources of new candidates, as Sylvester said, being lost travelers who stumble upon us from a keyword search. Perhaps what we need is a sort of entrance exam in which the landing page is the first question, and each subsequent page is a difficult question from a different field of study. If the candidate makes it through, he is in.

I see the test as being less like a usual IQ test, and more like a scavenger hunt, but I’d really like feedback on this idea.

Societal Norms

September 22, 2008

The Dance

I’ve noticed a pattern among the intelligent that can be a great boon or a grave disadvantage, and I want to offer some advice about it.

I don’t think I’m alone among my peers in viewing social interactions, especially in crowds and populations, as fascinating from an anthropological perspective. We watch the sometimes crude, sometimes subtle dance of evolutionary psychology play out with a predictable and occasionally hypnotic rhythm.

The difference between people like me and the population at large, is that they are fully engaged in this dance, while we are interlopers. To us, the dance is transparent, like the moving parts of a Rube Goldberg machine, each activating the next in a pattern that is interesting but entirely mechanical and arbitrary.

The Wallflower

This is the dance of norms, and most participate blindly — perhaps as the Goldberg parts rather than an observer of the machine. Those who do observe choose to participate to one degree or another, and the literature indicates that the degree of participation is inversely proportional to intelligence.

Genius caliber minds tend to be cloistered and anti-social. They often don’t like people and people often don’t like them. The reason is this dance: the genius ignores the dance that is implicit in other people’s way of thinking and mode of behavior. He regards their expectations as silly, while others are troubled by his refusal to adhere to conventions.

This mutual distrust is not ideal.

In the Groove

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I deliberately undertook to learn this dance — to understand people on a visceral level– and as a result, I am more “well-adjusted” than most geniuses. Whether this is the natural result of my IQ, which is low for a genius, or the fruits of my study and practice (or some combination thereof), I can dance, and dance well. The movement still feels awkward at times, but I’ve grown accustomed to talking and moving in certain ways that I might not feel compelled to if I had no interest in other people.

There is no subterfuge here. I honestly want to interact naturally with people, and it’s a skill I’ve practiced. If that’s lying, then so is learning and practicing any kind of skill.

Finding the Rhythm

Here’s the rub: dancing well requires balance. The quintessential anti-social genius behaves the way he does because of some sense of efficiency — “Why should I bother interacting with people, when there are all these plants to catalog? The plants don’t care what I wear or how I talk, and neither do I.” That sentiment is true but can only be applied in a limited context.

The larger question is, should these plants be cataloged at all? Or more directly: what experiences should I have during my life? What shall I accomplish in the time I have?

I’ve found that most important experiences relate to other people in some way. I have come to view the extremely anti-social genius as disabled: fundamentally unable to function in their lives in a meaningful way. We can all catalog and calculate, but who among us can make the world a genuinely better place?

On the other hand, it’s impossible to say that people who conform to norms automatically contribute value to the world. I think it’s fair to say that those who are obsessed with the trappings of the dance are as uniformly useless as those geniuses whose legacy includes taxonomies of vehicle transfers.

I propose a middle way: I believe we should choose some norms to adhere to and some to discard as actively harmful. We adhere to the socially helpful or neutral norms, and by ignoring the harmful ones, we maximize the value and perhaps personal satisfaction in our lives.

Go to a Toastmaster’s meeting and learn to speak to people. Read some popular psychology books to practice your body language. It pains me to say it, but I know there are people out there who need to hear it: hygiene is important, and you might as well wear clothing that suits your body and is relatively stylish.

Discard the nonsense that really holds you back, but embrace the small changes you can make it your life that will make you more approachable. This will open up personal, professional, and intellectual doors that you won’t have access to otherwise.

If Mr. Plant Cataloger put on some decent clothing and stopped staring at his feet when he spoke to people, he might find some fascinating new opportunities to catalog exotic plants along side his mind-bendingly brilliant and gorgeous life partner. Good luck to you, Mr. Plant Cataloger, I wish you the best.

The Outsiders

May 30, 2008

Grady Towers wrote an article in 1987 called “The Outsiders” (republished here), which 20 years later is still relevant.

Towers raises several questions that I’d like to explore in more detail. I’ll cover one of the interesting ones in this post.

One of the problems faced by all gifted persons is learning to focus their efforts for prolonged periods of time. Since so much comes easily to them, they may never acquire the self-discipline necessary to use their gifts to the fullest. Hollingworth describes how the habit begins.

Where the gifted child drifts in the school unrecognized, working chronically below his capacity (even though young for his grade), he receives daily practice in habits of idleness and daydreaming. His abilities never receive the stimulus of genuine challenge, and the situation tends to form in him the expectation of an effortless existence [3, p. 258].

This is a serious problem for gifted children, including my own.

I avoided it by being curious and irrational. I bet against the status quo by doing poorly in school in favor of the subjects that interested me, and it so happens that I won the bet. But you won’t. No one can expect to win a bet whose expected value is negative, so it’s silly to make that your policy.

Still, it does seem that the status quo doesn’t work for us. My advice is different depending on your age:

To Young People

If you are a young person of high intelligence who wants to conquer this creeping blasé, I suggest doing some of what I did and not doing other parts. Like I said, it’s not in your best interests to fully bet against the school system. Instead, play it.

Worst case scenario, slog through your classes doing the minimum to keep a B average. Meanwhile, pursue your passions. Do something monumentally difficult — bonus points if it looks good on a college application.

Alternately, make it your goal to manipulate the situation such that you can set up a non traditional educational setting for yourself, that will allow you pursue your passions while getting educational credit for doing so. You can do this in a number of ways, including Existential home schooling, or a special arrangement swith the school district or individual teachers.

It’s a difficult social engineering problem, but you’re a genius, you’ll figure it out.

At the end of the process, if you must, go to a top school for the most difficult subject you can imagine, or don’t go to school at all.

To Adults

I think you may have it worse. You may be the slightly dysfunctional product of a school system that failed you. At this point I think you should find a difficult problem of some social importance, and make that your obsession. I know it may be difficult for you to work and obsess separately, so I suggest you work as little as possible, and try to live with some austerity. Alternately, set a reasonable time period and develop a plan to become independently wealthy, which really isn’t that difficult.

The effect of finding a difficult problem to obsess over is that you will train your mind to be curious. If you have a tangible issue to solve, you will be forced to learn about it and tinker with solutions. The act of learning, which has been largely stolen from you by a lifetime of rote memorization and negative affect toward the educational machine, will become second nature when you put it in a practical, interesting context. I have no doubt you find something interesting and know a great deal about it, but I bet it’s not of practical value.

People with your affliction have the minutia of the fictional Star Trek universe emblazoned on their short term memory. They know everything about a particular genus of organisms like birds or dinosaurs. They memorize hollywood movies complete with scripts, actors, and meta information.

These are the rabid flailings of an idle mind with more horse power than it has information to process. If a mind like that can be trained to focus on problems of difficulty and importance, instead of wasted as a repository for disconnected taxonomies, the possibilities are endless.

You will live a happier life if you are engaged in a meaningful pursuit, and if that pursuit helps others as well, all the better.

I have a tendency in my life to look for solutions to problems, then move on. This is how my career works, and how most of the pursuits I undertake work. When I started writing here, I discovered shortly that the goal I had in mind — to reflect upon and then unravel my loneliness once and for all — wasn’t a sensible goal. As I said in the previous post, it’s not really a difficult problem per se.

The thing is that more than any other material I’ve written, I get a high volume of emotional feedback from this blog to this day, despite not having updated in many moons. I seem to have hit an emotional chord with people, and I really enjoy providing a forum for other people of high intelligence to vent their frustration in what I hope is a positive way.

That’s why I’ve decided to revisit my writing here. This time I’ll bring my secondary goal to the front and forget trying to “solve” loneliness: I want to speak to those lonely geniuses, and provide them an outlet and maybe a mirror through which they can see their own lives, and my hope is that I can help them find more fulfillment in a world that isn’t made for them.

The Fact of the Matter

January 16, 2008

The fact of the matter is this: geniuses are lonely on average because they are rare, and therefore unlikely to congregate at random. If I want to find companionship, I will have to look for a group of smart people, and go to them. It’s really not a complicated issue warranting its own blog.

There’s the business of signaling such that they accept me, but I imagine it working something like this:

1) I find a group that does interesting, revolutionary things
2) I say hello, and show them the interesting, revolutionary things that I have done
3) We like each other’s work, and therefore work together

Problem solved, blog over.

Rock on, don’t take yourself too seriously.

In the future computers will translate our language effortlessly. At first it will look like a hearing aid that can recognize speech, translate the words, and output the translation into your ear as a synthetic voice, roughly modulated to match the original signal (so people still sound the same, just speaking a different language).

This technology will allow an English speaker to have a fluent conversation with a Spanish speaker, a mandarin speaker to speak with a Russian, etc.

That is just the first step.

At first new languages will be added manually, and available for wireless download such that you can select a “translate to” language that you understand, which will have an array of “translate from” definition files, just like a text translator works now — English to Spanish, Spanish to English, etc.

Next, professionals will grow tired of maintaining an exponentially growing repository of To and From definition files. They will invent an intermediate language that is made up symbolic constituent parts (theoretically human understandable, but not practical for use as a direct language). This is the same concept as modern programming platforms like Microsoft’s .NET. The reason it’s possible to use several different programming languages in the same system is because they are all translated to the same intermediate language– in the case of .NET, that language is called creatively enough “MSIL” or “MicroSoft Intermediate Language.” As with the language I’m talking about, technically you can read and write MSIL directly but it’s not meant for that purpose, and it’s more difficult than just using the higher level language.

This intermediate language (IL) for translation will allow new language definitions to be produced by the linguists without regard for how it will be translated, because all languages will only have to be translated to IL, then they can be translated from IL to any other language. This will make the maintenance of language files at least an order of magnitude less difficult.

Either following on the heels of or simultaneously with that development, a new context recognition engine will take hold, that will intelligently add to and modify existing language definitions. For example, you speak an unusual dialect of an obscure language which has a phrase for which the universal IL has no conceptual match, a listener will ask: “What does that mean?” You will explain the meaning, and just like a human would do it, the engine will decipher the network of concepts you describe to point to a working definition of the previously unknown phrase — this definition (any definition, really) can be modified slightly over time given more information about the network of concepts that support it. That’s how real language works too.

But here’s where it gets interesting: how will the engine synthesize that new sound? What will the new word sound like? There are many options here.

For example, what if the word in question is a noun about which the listener has no knowledge, like some kind of exotic animal? Should the new translation simply use the original word since there is no analog, or should it try to translate relative to the accepted taxonomy of animal life? There’s a 25 foot tall ape in the jungle. He’s called Kong — should your translator call him “Kong” or “Very Large Gorilla”? Should it do something else? “Korilla”?

What if it’s a more complex web of ideas? In Hawaii the word “Aloha” is used for hello and goodbye. The actual translation of the word is “I love you because you exist,” which is a fascinating concept, and sheds much light on the culture given its common usage.

How will the engine translate it? Like a person, it could bear the definition in mind, but continue using the word itself, appropriated directly from the original language; that would miss the subtle meaning of it, because unlike a human, the translator’s job is to convey a complete, and culturally accurate picture of the meaning, and just because the translators knows the definition, doesn’t mean that it’s clear to the listener. It might use the whole English phrase such that whenever a native speaker says “Aloha,” you hear “I love you because you exist” — but that isn’t correct either, because it doesn’t convey the salutory (salutational?) meaning that way.

The answer may be individual. Right now, foreign phrases are often misunderstood or ignored entirely. A human can decide that the conceptual difference between “soy” and “estoy” in Spanish isn’t important, and that he’ll just memorize the situations in which one or the other should be used to mean “I am.” Others might not recognize that there was ever an important distinction to begin with. Thus, complexity of translation within an individual is scaled perfectly according to the cognitive complexity of the person himself.

A general translation engine will not have such an option: it will be tasked with precisely and completely translating language at a very fundamental level, to all possible listeners. A person can choose to think of Aloha as hello and goodbye. A person can fail to understand what the literal translation even hints at. This is a limitation of human kind that we call “Lost in Translation.”

Translation engines are going to end this phenomenon, but an essential difficulty is this: in communication there is a sender, a medium, and a receiver. Even assuming the sender is clear, and the medium is relatively noise free, the receiver ultimately decides upon the meaning conveyed based on cultural factors, physical factors, intelligence factors, and others that I’m not thinking of. That means that each person’s translator will have to be calibrated to their particular strengths and limitations in order to deliver unfettered meaning.

It also means that that meaning will be different per person. My engine will translate Aloha differently than your engine, so even though we’ll all be having a conversation about the same thing, even if we both speak English, we’ll be hearing different words.

Consequently, as time moves toward infinity, our languages will diverge, no longer inhibited by the previous physical limitation of convention: in the past, language depended on shared meaning through similar voice modulations that would produce decodable strings of “words” that roughly matched in conceptual meaning between sender and receiver. Now that rough matching is no longer necessary, the symbols connected to our shared concepts will be tailored to the person.

I would hope that such tailoring could bring about a new age of thought. Our language determines our world view in many ways, and if the complex concepts we use could be encapsulated in individualized language, then we could jump up a perhaps limitless hierarchy of concepts very quickly.

Essentially we’ll keep our own language definition, updated in real time to be translatable to IL.

A pleasant side effect of such a system would be implicit debugging of our concepts as they are communicated. Something That Eli Yudkowsky talks about frequently, as in this post on Overcoming Bias is the “Great Idea,” which normally turns out to be not as great as we had hoped.

I can postulate an idea and call it something new like “God” or “Dragon,” but something curious will happen when I try to tell other people about it. Their translation engine will choke, and they will get the word “Dragon” with no additional meaning, and their answer will be this: “What do you mean?”

Here’s the cool thing, though. In our world right now, “What do you mean” is not at all profound because it’s hard to share meaning in our current system of language, and in what “what do you mean” is the primary way of forming the conceptual framework for whatever new concept we’re attempting to understand. But that will not be so with ubiquitous translations, because when someone makes a statement that is even remotely comprehensible given their current conceptual web, the translator will convey that meaning in a precise and penetrating way. That will all but eliminate “What do you mean” as the translators do the work of conveying exactly what the speaker means without any additional effort — that will become the default condition.

That means that when a person has to ask “What do you mean,” it will mark either a truly new leap in concepts, or it will mark nonsense. It will also mean that “what do you mean” will be heard as a precise request for a specific set of information, because even if a person doesn’t exactly recognize where the conceptual disconnect is between his web of meaning and the new concept, the translation engine will know precisely that, and therefore when the speaker asks for more information, the translator will be able to formulate a much more precise question.

The end result is that new concepts will quickly either be connected with the conceptual framework that exists in the intermediate language space, or it will be sussed out as nonsense — an independent web of concepts with no bearing on reality. When such a web is a work of fiction, it’s interesting entertainment, when such a web is a culturally held belief system, it is dangerous.

Another side effect of this individualized language system is that depending on one’s expertise and interests, his concepts will be wildly divergent from another person’s. His concepts will encapsulate what he has already learned and mastered.

For example, a modern person has a concept of “desk.” When spoken to a cave man, it becomes clear that this desk concept has many subconcepts, which in turn have their own subconcepts — eventually, a person would be able to explain a desk to a caveman because the caveman has concepts in his mind like wood, the use of tools, maybe labor — all the concepts encapsulated by “desk.” The problem gets indefinitely more difficult with higher order concepts.

Right now when a man says “desk,” to a caveman it is his responsibility to divide the concept until the meaning is shared. With the ubiquitous translation engine, the man will say “desk,” and the caveman will hear what he needs to hear to understand what the man means. But that’s problematic in that it takes far longer to explain a desk than it does to simply say “desk” so it would seem that there would be some lag in communication. The man talking about a desk might have to wait days or weeks to be understood.

How this difficulty will be resolved, is to move away from the “hearing aid” form factor.

Eventually, it won’t be a hearing aid device at all. It will be implanted, then later genetically installed prenatally, then simply passed down through generations of modified humans. If human beings were to catastrophically lose their technology and history, new generations wouldn’t recognize their mode of language as “technology” at all, just a natural state of being.

It will shortly pass over the auditory senses entirely, allowing us to pass vibrations to each other to be understood in a more direct way, eventually giving way to a medium that isn’t as prone to noise, perhaps like wireless computers now. This would, in effect, be indistinguishable from being telepathic.

This would also allow for much faster transfer of conceptual webs, so that our desk man and cave man would have a similar exchange, and even though the cave man would still have to form the web of concepts in his mind, such formation wouldn’t be constrained in any meaningful way by time as it is with auditory sensing; the information would still take time to propagate through the brain, but at a rate several orders of magnitude more quickly that the ear hearing the vibrations in order, the brain decoding it, then translating it, then interpreting it relative to existing knowledge.

The other question is, what effect will our individualized language have on babies? It seems plausible to have shared meaning, then diverge on the symbols we use to represent the meaning, but how will a being with no meaning at all create a symbolic system from scratch? Will the whines be translated as “I want something but I don’t know what”? and eventually to “I am hungry” or “I have a shitty diaper”? Will parents’ words in response be translated to comfortable cooing, or will it be necessary to calibrate a new translation engine to simply convey the sound offered, so that the child can form a basic foundation (just like humans do now) for future divergence? Can the noises that are currently nonsense to the infant be translated to nonsense that is tailored to be easily understood by his particular brain pattern?

One of the more titillating questions to me is whether such a thing has already happened. What aspects of our experience seem natural to us but at some point were invented and created by previous humans or other intelligent entities, only to be forgotten? What if what we think of as our immune system is an invention of nanotechnology that was seamlessly integrated with our DNA? What if our system of communication, or other sensory systems, are the result of ingenuity rather than nature?

What if we ourselves, in our entirety, were inventions of some intelligence that has since left, or exists in a way so fundamentally askew from our mode that we cannot perceive them readily?

Alright, so it’s a tangent, and it’s far from original, but when one traces the line from where we are, to a possible future that looks an awfully lot like the present, such a tangent seems all the more plausible.

Happy New Year.

Signaling Genius

December 5, 2007

I wanted to write a post about how to form a community of geniuses, but it immediately occurred to me that the fundamental problem is how to find genuine geniuses (say that 5 times fast), and let them know that you too are genuine. That is a question of signaling, so I’ll talk about that instead.

We are wired through evolution to signal many things, especially availability to mate. We have ways of signaling group membership, but they are insufficient to signal genius because they are all superficial. For example, I can easily integrate with a clique of teenagers by being a teenager, dressing exactly like they do, and holding similar opinions about superficial topics. I could signal my availability to mate by playing with my hair and showing a potential mate my wrists. That’s easy.

Not so easy: how do I walk into a room and spot a genius? The short answer is that I can’t. The first issue is that there are no reliable, outward signs that a person is intelligent. There are signals that I can rely on to give me a statistic-level knowledge of a person — their mannerisms, their mode of dress, their vocabulary, and others. This level of knowledge is an acceptable heuristic for day-to-day interactions, but it can do nothing for uncovering an individual’s true nature. This works for mates (in an evolutionary sense) but not for geniuses because potential mates make up a significant proportion of the population and tend to behave similarly, whereas geniuses are rare and tend not to have common characteristics that reliably map only to genius (eccentric people might just be insane).

To complicate matters, there is motivation for other people to lie about their group membership. People “front” all the time for various reasons. Some people want to be a member of the “genius group” because they like the internal narrative it allows, and they want the social benefits (hah) of being considered wildly intelligent.

I would be lying if I said that I don’t catch myself “acting the part,” even under this veil of anonymity. “Why,” I ask myself, “would I still try to ‘sound smart’ if I cannot possibly derive any benefit from doing so?” I think it’s because I’m trying to signal — I’m putting a sign out front that says “Geniuses Enter Here.” And of course, just as I am skeptical of other people’s genius, those who visit here must be skeptical of mine, so I’m trying to prove my genius preemptively. Of course this isn’t very effective.

The way I personally try to signal genius, and decode incoming signals of genius is through conversation. I try to stay away from fluffing the actual words I use, and being susceptible to the fluff of other people. I am not always successful at either, but it’s something I strive for.

Even if I could strip down communication to the bare essentials in order to really evaluate the merit of a pure idea, when would the bulb flash on? What can be said that guarantees that the speaker is a genius? What attitudes can be held that do the same? Is conversation really a reliable signal of genius, or is it merely a method of finding people who agree with you that you can assume are geniuses thanks to confirmation bias?

The Dull Saw

December 5, 2007

There’s a guy who stumbled into a lumberjack in the mountains. The man stops to observe the lumberjack, watching him feverishly sawing at this very large tree. He noticed that the lumberjack was working up a sweat, sawing and sawing, yet going nowhere. The bystander noticed that the saw the lumberjack was using was about as sharp as a butter knife. So, he says to the lumberjack, “Excuse me Mr. Lumberjack, but I couldn’t help noticing how hard you are working on that tree, but going nowhere.” The lumberjack replies with sweat dripping off of his brow, “Yes…I know. This tree seems to be giving me some trouble.” The bystander replies and says, “But Mr. Lumberjack, your saw is so dull that it couldn’t possibly cut through anything.” “I know”, says the lumberjack, “but I am too busy sawing to take time to sharpen my saw.”

-Retold by Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

There is no time to improve in this environment, unless one steals it.

I liken this situation to a couple in crisis saying they can’t attend marriage counseling because they are too busy… arguing.

I have pushed myself hard enough throughout my life to be able to listen to my mind and body. Other weight lifters will attest, it’s possible to know what kind of nutrient one is hungry for, it’s possible to have a keen and nuanced sense of thirst, it’s possible to know how hard one should or should not push one’s self.

Similarly, I have studied enough to know when I’m burning out. I can appraise a set of information and I’ll know about how long I’ll need to absorb it and what the most effective method for me is. I also know that if I try to absorb it a different way, or I expend too much energy on it, I’ll be less effective. It’s not just a matter of diminishing returns: I’m talking about negative returns.

So the question is: How can we develop this sense of limits within a culture, instead of just within a person?

A person develops this intuition of limits by:

  1. Hitting them and suffering the consequences
  2. Caring enough to pay attention
  3. Changing behavior as a result

I think the unfocused, “good enough” mentality of mediocre organizations ensures that the limits are hit, but prevents attention from being paid, and therefore from changes being made. Typically, a person never gets to witness the results of their failings because they don’t have a mental model of what success would look like. Take Jim for example:

Jim is a nice guy. He is of relatively high intelligence, and wants to live a productive life. He walks into his first job interview out of college, and here’s where the story diverges:


Jim wows the interviewer. He’s sharp, he smiles, he maintains eye contact, he’s well-groomed. He gets the job with ease, and continues to impress people as his career progresses. Jim isn’t a prodigy, but he’s a hard worker, and knows how to relate to people and get things done. He eventually retires to the Bahamas, and is widely considered to have been successful

…Or Maybe Not

Jim says good things in that interview… but his body language is all wrong. He accidentally signals uncertainty by slouching, and failing to maintain eye contact. He touches his face a lot unconsciously — the interviewer thinks he’s dishonest. He is nervous and forgets to smile, making him seem boring and sullen. He doesn’t get that job. Eventually, though, he lands an okay job. He works hard — maybe he gets laid off a time or two, but he’s a good worker so he he’s never without employment too long, but he never seems to break the ranks of middle management. Eventually he retires, living in the home he bought decades ago, and then fades into oblivion.

Jim-with-bad-body-language was never able to reflect back and say “Damn, I didn’t end up in the Bahamas because I didn’t pay attention to my body language” — he never knew the difference. He didn’t realize how important it is, so he never had a model of what his life would be like if he did know how important it is. There is no ironic scene in the movie to let the audience know what he sacrificed — that possible future of success faded quietly into oblivion with him.

My point is that mediocre organizations don’t have a “mental model” of excellence, so they are prevented from reflecting on their mediocrity. They can’t imagine that hiring the right people and letting them do the right things might change the organization in fundamentally revolutionary ways that would ensure its place in history.

Maybe a person inside the organization could plant the seeds for that “model of excellence” through story-telling. One might imagine aloud a future that seems radical but possible. Getting the people who are in control, and who generally disseminate the culture of the organization to buy into a vision of the future that is more grand than this quarter’s half percent increase in stock price.

What would such a story sound like? How might it be delivered?

This is my first post in the Corporate Critique section of this blog. I’m not entirely certain the category even fits into the subject matter of this blog, but it is a place to expose an outsider’s perspective on an institution that is central to our culture’s status quo. In that sense, the category is very appropriate.

I work at a corporation where I feel like an alien — the culture is totally foreign to me, coming from an entrepreneurial background. It is clear to me that despite many people’s complaints about individuals within organizations such as these, there are systemic reasons for the culture and processes found at many large corps, including the one I work for.

Because my work doesn’t occupy all my time or mental energy, I find myself studying the way things work, not unlike an anthropologist, although I don’t pretend to be approaching this scientifically. I see my work here as a temporary opportunity to learn about how a large proportion of the population interact with one another.

I plan to write about the strengths and weaknesses of large business, and their underlying causes. I also plan to write about the potential solutions, both in a top-down systematic sense, and a bottom-up practical sense.

I sometimes tell people that I like programming media applications because they combine a few disciplines that I really enjoy working in, like math, art, and information design. The response I often get is a condescending smile, and the phase:

“Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”

Ah, spoken like a true anyman. If you are a genius, you should put this cliched colloquialism out of your mind forever.

Of course there are limits to the acquisition of knowledge, but the phrase isn’t used to start epistemological conversations. It is used to disparage people who have multiple talents: the only function it has is to discourage people from expanding their horizons for fear of some phantom mediocrity which will inevitably settle upon their every action.

I think it started with the fear within people that they are not meeting some external standard of excellence, or that they can not compare to the people around them. They invoke this phrase as if it’s a law of nature, in the hope that it will expunge their responsibility to be the best they can be since, after all, it’s impossible to be excellent. Right?

Another interesting theory starts with psychological scripts, and Robin Hanson Eliezer Yudkowsky (thanks for the correction, Eliezier) at wrote an interesting article in which he renames the concept of scripts “caches.” The idea is that we deal with far too much information at any given time to actually process it all in real time, so we rely tremendously on “cached” thought, so even though a person hasn’t really considered the implications of what they are saying, any mention of high aptitude or interest in multiple subjects will immediately call to mind the cached thought: “jack of all trades, master of none.”

I can see both of these forces and others still being responsible for the phrase’s staying power.

I guess the thing that allows the perception to exist beyond the psychological convenience of it, is confirmation bias and in-group, out-group thinking.

For example, a racist may think that black people (the “out-group”) are stupid. They will attribute any behavior by a black person to this stupidity, confirming their bias. When faced with a black person who clearly and undeniably isn’t stupid, instead of reevaluating their position on black people, they will assign the person as an “exception.”

Similarly, most people are average (no seriously, that’s the definition), and so they exhibit no exceptional abilities. Occasionally you’ll find a person with one exceptional ability, but rarely will you find a person who excels in many diverse areas… and therefore, it’s very easy to assign those multitalented people who do to a special exception category.

There is a limit to human skill that prevents any person, genius or otherwise, from becoming more proficient after a certain point. Presumably, with directed practice and commitment, one can reach that point. For a person gifted in that discipline, the amount of time it takes to reach that point is smaller than for others. For a genius, there are at least a few particular areas in which that time is very short compared to most.

That’s why Leonardo DiVinci could be an artist and a mathematician: he was skilled in both disciplines far beyond the capacity of most people to be skilled in even one. That’s because he was a genius! Imagine if he had listened to some slack-jaw who told him early on: you can’t be good at more than one thing, so you should give up on all but the thing you’re really talented in. How does a guy like DiVinci narrow down what he’s “really talented in”? How would you?