“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

Understanding introversion and its strengths and weaknesses

I just finished reading “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” which makes me want to talk!

Cain’s book is a fascinating account of the latest research on introverts and extroverts. It pulls together ideas from antiquity up through today about what distinguishes these basic personality types, how they form (nature vs. nurture?), and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Cain’s tone throughout is a bit defensive or apologetic (hence the title’s emphasis on the “power” of introverts) due to our cultural bias in favor of extroversion – but both sides are discussed. Introverts will find advice herein about how to connect, communicate, and thrive (and know yourself better).

The main message I got (which fits my own life experience) was that introversion is likely an inborn trait (not an environmentally imposed one), but we can (and do) adapt to situations as needed, including performing as extroverts if it’s in pursuit of a goal that we highly value.

One aspect of introversion that was new to me is that introverts tend to be more sensitive to the thoughts and actions of others. I am reminded of how I would anthropomorphize everything as a kid, including feeling sorry when I stepped on rocks in case it “hurt” them. Here I’d thought that everyone did that :) And it’s true that I find it nearly impossible to rest if I think I’ve inconvenienced, hurt, or annoyed someone. I feel compelled to address and resolve it.

I was also surprised to read that “at the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability” and that “introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees.” Cain does not argue that introverts are smarter than extroverts (in fact, she points out that IQ tests show no difference), but that they are more focused, invested, and studious – traits that are rewarded in academia. In contrast, extroverts are better at “handling information overload,” perhaps because introverts are devoting “cognitive capacity” to reflecting on experiences as they are happening. I can identify with that!

But the part that really hit me hard was the discussion of being “reward-oriented” versus “threat-oriented” (one way of thinking about extroverts and introverts). Reading through this characterization, I realized that this theory captures my own behaviors remarkably well. And I went through a short existential crisis, because this is not how I have ever viewed myself consciously, and it felt like a disappointment. While there are up sides to being cautious and conscientious and thorough, it seems … less impressive, somehow, than being a risk-taker and go-getter and achiever. I’m not sure that I want to think of myself as motivated by fears.

An industrious individual converted Cain’s short 10-question quiz into an online quiz, so if you don’t have access to the book, you can still determine where you fall on the reward-threat spectrum.

Cain shares the results of studies on how well people think and work in solo situations versus group settings, with important implications for your own productivity and for the workplace. She makes some powerful points about the need for both introverts and extroverts for balanced decision making (e.g., in financial markets, but everywhere else, too).

There are also chapters devoted to the teaching or parenting of introverts. I found these less compelling or insightful. The main message is about awareness of diversity in personalities and strengths. As an introvert myself, I find the recommended strategies to be overly meddlesome, but it’s always possible that others would find them beneficial.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking read that yielded some new insights about myself and my behavior. I wrote extensively in the margins and will likely come back to browse and review over time.

The OK Plateau

In Joshua Foer’s excellent book on the art of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, he mentions the “OK Plateau” as something that all humans learning anything will encounter. This is the stage you reach once you’ve moved past “beginner” and are able to execute a task with some degree of automation. For example, when you first learn to type, you look for and consciously press the right keys. But at some point you learn where they are and can type without looking (or really thinking about individual keys). Foer pointed out something I’ve always wondered — if we tend to get better at something over time, why doesn’t everyone end up being a 100+ wpm touch-typist?

The “OK Plateau” is reached when you are doing a task “well enough” for your needs, and your brain moves on to focus its conscious effort on something else. So even though you might be typing every day (email, reports, documents, forms), you probably will settle into some particular typing speed that never really improves.



Excellent depiction by imagethink.

This is fine for tasks in which “good enough” is, well, good enough. But there are some things in which you want to become an expert, or at least push your performance to a much higher level. To do that, it seems, you must push yourself back into a conscious awareness of what you are doing and examine and explore where you are making errors or performing suboptimally.

“[Those who excel] develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance.” (Foer)

This means constantly pushing yourself to do more, work faster, tackle harder examples, and so on, and then to learn from your failings or mistakes.

I have been thinking about this in terms of my pilot training. There are significant parts of flying that I can now do with some degree of automation, and it is tempting to declare them “learned” and move my tired brain on to the other big poles. But it is also clear to me that complacency is not something you want to develop in flying – nor in driving – nor anything else that requires a good depth of experience and tuned reflexes. I’ve come across advice in different pilot venues that urge you to continue polishing and refining. How precise can you make your short landing? How precise can you be on airspeed and altitude? If you picked out an emergency landing spot, fly low and actually check it out. Is it as obstacle-free as you thought from higher up?

I expect there is probably a transition you hit once you get your pilot’s license. You go from regular lessons with an instructor (with performance expectations and critiques) to absolute freedom to fly when you want, where you want, with no one watching over your shoulder. At that point, it is up to you to maintain that same level of scrutiny and to critique your own performance. My instructor told me to always have a specific goal when I go out to do solo practice. I’ve encountered the recommendation that, after landing, you give yourself a grade for every flight. What did you do well? What was borderline? What new questions came up that you should research?

Foer describes chess players who learn more from studying old masters’ games (and reasoning through each step) than from playing new games with other players. Studying past games can be more mindful. Pilots can benefit similarly from reading through accident reports to gain knowledge about how things go wrong. AOPA offers a rich array of Accident Case Studies that provide a wealth of scenarios to think through and learn from.

For any hobby or skill, there are similar opportunities to make your practice time more effective at increasing your ability. Instead of playing through your latest violin piece, try doing it 10% faster and see what happens. Try transposing it to a different key on the fly. On your next commute, grade yourself on whether you maintained a specific following distance, how many cars in surrounding lanes you were consciously tracking, how well you optimized your gas mileage, or some other desirable metric.

Employing this approach to everything you do would be exhausting and impossible to maintain. But for those few things that really matter to you, for which the OK Plateau is not good enough, it could be what catapults you to the expert domain. If you’re interested, check out Foer’s short talk summarizing the OK Plateau and his advice for escaping it.

A famine of ideas?

Have we trained ourselves out of thinking about big ideas?

That’s the thesis behind a recent NYT editorial titled “The Elusive Big Idea” by Neal Gabler. While much has been written about the decline of attention spans and the distractions created by social media and the general motion towards shorter sound bytes at the expense of longer, thoughtful analysis, this article takes such criticism a step further.

“[W]e are living in an increasingly post-idea world,” writes Gabler. By “post-idea” he means a deliberate choice not to think! He argues that we’ve come to focus on collecting knowledge and given up on actually thinking about it.

“We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.”

Information overload is not a new concept, but Gabler’s sketch of a society in which we are not only overwhelmed with information but we deliberately choose to continue glutting ourselves on it instead of taking the time to carefully chew over what we already have disturbs me in the way that only an idea with a kernel of truth can. Every time I glance at my RSS feed, I get that exact feeling: there is too much information, too much that is new and interesting and that I want to read, and nowhere near enough time to really think about it. This observation is exactly one of the reasons that I have this blog: a chance to stop and think about something, not just skim and nod and move onto the next nugget. This goes beyond a missed opportunity for reflection and increased insight. If Gabler is right, it could be habit-forming. Is there no room today for a Thoreau, an Emerson, a Twain? If they did appear, would they be systematically ignored, their essays too long, their ideas too musing, their observations demanding too much of the limited time any reader can bear to spend on any single source?

Gabler hints at the impact such a shift in priorities can have for society. How can we find space and time to incubate the next Big Ideas? How can we recognize and pay attention to these insights when they don’t fit into 140 characters? We have more people alive today than ever before, more thinking capacity at the ready — if we choose to engage it. This isn’t just about being an intellectual, engaging in some elite snobbery; it’s the chance to choose between cultivating what is new and exciting and valuable, the unique outcome of human cognitive capabilities, versus drowning in a vast, passive sea of trivia and unending distraction.

I thank Mr. Gabler for his timely essay and for giving me the inspiration to indulge in a moment of reflection myself. I’ve repeatedly come across advice about journaling in a work context, just taking 5-10 minutes every day to write down the thoughts bubbling in the back of your head. Every time I’ve made time to do this, I’ve had new ideas pop up or crystallize or point the way to some new direction. I won’t claim that these qualify as Big Ideas, but maybe they can guide the way. This is an activity I already hoped to indulge in more regularly during my sabbatical. After reading this essay, I’m all the more motivated to create a new habit, one dedicated against the post-idea slump.

Money by the pound

A chance discussion at work raised the question of how much our leaders at Caltech and JPL earn. Some investigation turned up interesting results.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the president of Caltech (Jean-Lou Chameau) was paid a staggering $765,260 in 2009 (most recent numbers). He also serves as a director of MTS Systems Corporation, earning ~$150,000 per year in fees and stock awards. Impressive.

In contrast, the most recent salary reported for Charles Elachi, director of JPL (which is a division of Caltech), was $455,820 in 2006. At that time, the president of Caltech (David Baltimore) was paid $590,000. It is not clear whether Elachi’s salary has grown with the president’s; turnover in Caltech presidents seems higher than that of JPL directors, which could lead to faster salary growth.

Now a point of comparison. The president of the United States is a job with a fixed salary dictated by Congress. My understanding has been that one goal is to never position this job as something one might do for the money — that being perhaps a poor motivation for applying. The reality is a little more complex. Most of us learned in school that the president earns $200,000 per year. This had been in effect since 1969 (a long time for any salary to remain fixed!), but changed in 2001, when the salary was bumped up to $400,000 per year (at the instigation of Bill Clinton, whom it didn’t benefit; George W. Bush was the first to enjoy the increase).

Initially it seems a little strange that the head of Caltech (or JPL) is compensated at a higher level than the president of the country. But again, the president isn’t meant to be the highest earner in the country. And when you dig a little deeper, total presidential compensation tells a different story. In addition to salary, the president of the U.S. receives “a $50,000 expense account, a $100,000 non-taxable travel account, and $19,000 for entertainment.” Further, the president is provided with a home (while in office), meals, transportation, security, etc. After leaving office, the president continues to earn a $191,300 per year pension and also receives a government-provided office with staff and travel funds. Wow!

I present these figures not in any way to snipe at our institutional (and national) leaders, but more as an awed observation of the fact that any individual could be paid so hugely. I know there are other individuals that undoubtedly are paid more (we’ve all heard about crazy CEO salaries and compensation), but it just boggles my mind that anyone could even make use of such a huge sum in any practical fashion. No doubt they have good financial advisors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they contribute large sums to charitable institutions, which can certainly make use of the money. But otherwise — how much can a single individual (or family) realistically spend in getting through life? And once those needs are met, what else is there?

For people with this kind of disposable income, it seems a perfect opportunity to think big. Fund research for diabetes! Make that mission to Mars happen! Invest in technology that can fundamentally change how we interact with, or how we understand, the world (and each other). No one person can solve every problem or investigate every idea. But money can be the lever to swing the massed efforts of others in a productive, world-changing direction. In that way, these seeming excesses of compensation instead can compensate us all.

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