Sunday, March 18, 2018

Multidimensionality, trade-offs, and perfectionism

Willie Dixon, the great blues singer, laid out in specific form one of the general problems that people face in decision making when he sang “I’m built for comfort, I’m not built for speed.” (Howlin’ Wolf did versions to which I’m partial.) The general principle is that sometimes there are multiple desirable characteristics that compete against each other.  In automotive design, one common trade-off is the choice between comfort and speed: higher speeds want lower weight vehicles with stiffer suspensions, which means a bumpy ride, while greater comfort wants a softer suspension and greater weight, for a smoother ride.

One could say that a designer could seek both—indeed, it’s possible to seek both comfort and speed, but generally at some other cost (for example, more care in the design process, and more expensive components): a Porsche may not be any faster than a top-of-the-line Nissan, but it will cost more.

Real-world decisions involve many different considerations—different dimensions on which something can be evaluated. The Howling Wolf example explicitly invokes two dimensions, but most decisions involve far more than two dimensions.  One difficulty in evaluation processes is in balancing different evaluative dimensions. 

Consider, for example, the evaluation of an athlete in a team sport. Strength, size, speed, quickness/reaction time, agility, and balance all matter. So do intelligence, confidence, judgment, and ability to work with others. A professional team that considers adding a player to its roster must consider all of these, as well as considering the player’s future prospects, and the cost of signing that player. Do you get the greatest talent, at possible cost to team chemistry, or do you get less talent to support chemistry? In baseball, two of the greatest second basemen of all time exemplify this question: Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins were near contemporaries.  There is little debate that Hornsby was the better hitter, but his teams didn’t do particularly well, and often traded him away. Collins, on the other hand, played a key role on multiple championship teams.  Who was greater?  There isn’t a clear answer.

One trade-off that is central to writers is the trade-off between time and quality, about which I’ve written before. You can choose to spend more time on a project in order to improve its quality, but that additional time spent on the project is time that cannot be spent on other projects.  For researchers, this is essentially a never-ending conflict: research never answers every question—indeed, every answer will lead to new questions (Jorge Luis Borges lays out this problem in his essay “Avatars of the Tortoise”).

Perfectionism inevitably runs up against this reality.  There is no “right” answer to these questions.  There are only decisions that one must make.

I suppose my suggestion for a perfectionist is to look beyond any single project to look at something bigger—something that encompasses any single project—a career, for example.

If you focus on one project and want to make that project perfect, that’s great. But what if making that project better means that you don’t spend time on another project?

Where do you focus perfectionist intentions? On individual projects, at possible cost to your career or to your life? Or do you focus your perfectionist intentions on your career, which might lead to making compromises on an individual project?

Again, there isn’t a clear answer, which is why this is such a thorny issue.  You have to make a decision that serves you.   When there are multiple dimensions on which to make an evaluation, and when there are trade-offs, choices become difficult and there is no really objective standard by which to judge. The choice is yours--don't think you've failed because you chose to make a compromise.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The boy who cried wolf and ad hominem arguments

The story of the boy who cried “wolf” is the story of a person who lies, and as a result is not believed when he tells the truth—to his great detriment.

As an academic, one ought not give in to ad hominem arguments--arguments that a claim is false because the speaker is untrustworthy. A liar who tells you that the earth orbits the sun is telling the truth, even if he/she lies very often. Just because a speaker is untrustworthy, doesn’t mean that she/he isn’t telling the truth on a given occasion. This, indeed, is the resolution/denouement of the story of the boy who cried “wolf:” In the end, the boy falls victim to a real wolf because, having given people reason to doubt his veracity, no one is willing to help him when there is a real wolf.

As an academic, it is always appropriate to check the accuracy of statements that other people make, regardless of who makes the statement.

But in real life, having a record of telling the truth matters.  There’s a reason that The New York Times is more respected than The National Enquirer.  The Times is far less likely to publish utter falsehoods.

If you regularly tell lies, people will stop trusting you.  Someone should tell that to Donald Trump, who made a speech on Wednesday in which he proudly announced that he made up stuff when talking with Justin Trudeau of Canada. Trump may tell the truth sometimes. He may tell the truth often. But if he lies often, then people will stop trusting him. And that may be fine for some contexts, but it will surely make it harder for him to negotiate with foreign leaders who will become disinclined to listen to his promises.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What do you want, and what are you willing to do to get it?

Sometimes I go to a local creative writing group. (My main thing, of course, is writing about the process of writing, but sometimes, as recreation, I work on fiction. I don’t work hard on fiction because it’s relaxation--when I’m ready to focus and deal with frustrations, I turn my attention to writing about writing. Currently I have a book proposal out for my book on using academic literature/writing a literature review, and am working on a draft about choosing a topic/writing a proposal).  

At the creative writing group, we were talking about what we were trying to accomplish. There were four of us. Of the other three: one is trying to complete a book to publish on smashwords; one, a poet, is working on something to give to his family at the holidays; and one is a non-fiction essayist who writes for the therapeutic value while dealing with health issues.  

These differing purposes all call for different approaches and choices about what is important.  Each involves its own sort of compromise: for those seeking publication (me, for my non-fiction; the novelist for his fiction), we have to consider how to finish, how to find an audience and distribute the work.  The poet said “I’m not trying to publish because I want to do what I want to do, not what someone else wants.” Quite rightly, publication in a commercial setting requires having some eye to markets and to pleasing others.  For the novelist, there is less concern on these lines, given the choice to publish on a website that allows all authors to produce their work (providing it meets certain guidelines—it cannot incite people to violence, for example). For me, when I send a proposal out to a publisher or an agent, I have a very focused need to please the publisher or the agent, which means being aware of their desire to sell books (or to represent books that will sell). The attempt to please a publisher/agent/audience certainly does shape a work, but it doesn’t imply necessarily abandoning one’s central precepts. After all, there is still a need to do something original, and that means that something has to come from how I see the world differently from others.

In any event, it is necessary to understand what it is that you want and what must be done for it.  The better that you can identify your desires, the better you can focus on achieving those desires. And this is especially important if you have desires that may conflict.  For the poet in the creative writing group, part of his expressed desire was shaped by previous experiences attempting to publish works of fiction. Those experiences shaped his approach—they made him say : “I don’t want to try to please others with fiction that they will like; I’d rather write poetry that I will like.” Being aware of the different demands, the poet is able to act without confusion, but it does require making some compromises: in order to write what he wants, he sacrifices his opportunity to publish. He may still want to publish, but as a matter of choice, that’s not where he puts his efforts.

If you’re a graduate student writing a thesis or dissertation, there is often some tension between doing what you want and doing what your professors want. For many, this causes serious emotional distress. While facing such battles is not necessarily pleasant, it’s important to keep in mind what you want to accomplish.  Do you want a degree? If so, it’s necessary to figure out a way to please your professors. Do you want to pursue a question in your own way, at your own time? That’s a different path, and a different choice.
(In the case of graduate students, it is often the case that what the professors want is closer to what the student wants than the student realizes. We all have a lot to learn, but if you’re a graduate student, there’s a good chance that your professors will want you to do something that might actually help you, even if you don’t want to do it. After all, there is or ought to be a place in the process for learning, and for learning from your professors, in particular.)

Often people want multiple things that conflict: you might want to lose weight at the same time that you want to eat lots of food. You might want to attend two events that occur simultaneously. You might want to keep money in your wallet and also buy something nice.
If you are clear on what you want, you are in a better position to make good decisions on what you are willing to do to get what you want.

If you want a graduate degree, you have to be willing to satisfy your professors.  If you want to ignore your professors’ requests, you have to be willing to sacrifice getting the degree.  Understanding what you want, and prioritizing what you want helps make good decisions.
But recognize also, that satisfying what someone else wants (in contradiction to your own desires) can often lead to learning and to developing something better. I didn’t always want to do what my professors wanted, but often, having been forced to it, I learned that what they had wanted was to my own benefit.

Accomplishing goals often involves making a sacrifice.  Understanding your goals—all of them—can help you make the right choices in which sacrifices you are willing to make.

(I want to publish a blog post every Monday, but this week I was under the weather, and I wasn't willing to push through my discomfort to write. It was a choice.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Too many ideas and writer's block

On his 1932-1933 work schedule, Henry Miller wrote a list of “commandments,” the first of which was: “Work on one thing at a time until finished.” In many ways, it’s not a commandment that is entirely practical, but in others, it’s crucial to having a successful experience as a writer.
In the long run, it’s good to have lots of ideas and to start lots of projects. That way, when a forced lull comes in the work on one project, there is another project to work on. This is especially true at the later stages of work. If, for example, you’ve just submitted a final draft of something and are waiting for page proofs to come back for proofreading, then there’s no work that you can do on that project.  It’s a time to start a new project, even though the current one isn’t finished.  And, from the other perspective, it’s good to have an active curiosity, which will suggest many projects of potential value. Exploring those projects can be good to some extent—so long as they don’t confound focused effort.
In the short run, however, having many projects demanding attention can be very counter-productive. Having a lot of ideas that demand attention can prevent giving any one idea sufficient focus.

Here’s what happens to me often:
I have a great idea!
I start to write about the great idea! and decide it’s flawed.
I have another great idea!
I start to write about that new great idea! And then I realize it’s flawed.
repeat ad nauseum

When an idea first comes to me, it’s not fully developed or fully thought out. Writing helps me develop it and work out the problems, but that’s the thing: in the process of working out an idea, I discover problems. Discovering problems can lead to frustration. Frustration can lead to avoidance.
If I have a lot of ideas, then frustration can lead me to briefly engage many different ideas and abandon them all in frustration.  But if I only have one idea—if I stay focused—then, when I hit a problem, I work to resolve the problem, or at least I work to find a resolution.

I can get stuck if I don’t stick to one idea because I can shift through a number of ideas, get frustrated with each, and then get frustrated with the whole process and stop working altogether. 

Working through an idea carefully can be time consuming and difficult. Working with an idea tends to reveal dimensions that I had not previously considered, and then it takes effort to deal with those dimensions. All of that requires focus on the one idea—thus the value of Miller’s “work on one thing.”

If you have a lot of different ideas, they can compete for attention, and each one will seem more exciting and viable from a distance, where the difficulties are less obvious. If you have writer’s block, cut down your focus. Pick one small thing to write about, and put aside all the other cool things that you could write about.

In Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is an anecdote of a writing student who was having trouble writing about her town. The teacher told her to write about one street, then about one building, and she continued having trouble. Eventually she tried writing about one brick in one building, and from that point of focus, she was able to produce a lot of writing.
That anecdote captures the sort of writer’s block that a lot of writers face, I think: there is a torrent of ideas waiting to come out, and their competition to come out blocks the process.

Write one thing at a time until finished.

Don’t get blocked because you have too many ideas. If you think that you have nothing to write about, reconsider. Try finding one really small idea that you could write about and work on that idea, and that idea alone, until you’ve made progress.

I partly chose this subject today because I was having trouble finding something to write about—I had skipped over a number of possible ideas and was feeling frustrated. And I recognized that frustration as related to my unwillingness to put in the effort to make any of my ideas work.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

"Take the guns first. Go through due process second."

As has been widely reported on sites across the political spectrum, Donald Trump said that we should suspend due process to take people's guns.

Hey, how awesome: the president of the USA suggesting that we discard fundamental rights that have been guaranteed since the Constitution received its first ten amendments--the Bill of Rights. The president of the United States takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. Donald Trump just expressed a cavalier willingness to ignore the Constitution's second, fifth and fourteenth amendments.

The men who voted for the Second Amendment could not have possibly imagined that they were voting to allow people to carry weapons that could kill dozens of people in seconds or minutes. Guns were still muzzle-loaders. You could kill more quickly with a gun's bayonet than with its bullets. But no matter: the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.  I believe that there are reasonable limits to the right to bear arms--nobody in their right mind is arguing that people should be allowed to buy their own personal nuclear armaments, even though a nuclear bomb could be classified as "arms." Similarly, I don't believe it's undue restriction on the freedom of speech to outlaw incitement to violence ("Let's kill him," is not just speech when it inspires action). But the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. Any move to change that should be approached with deliberation and care.

What bothers me more is the willingness to discard due process. The Republicans like to talk about the rule of law--will they stand up for the rule of law when the president calls for suspending due process?  The Fifth Amendment states that no one shall " be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Fourteenth, adopted after the Civil War to curtail the right of the individual states to limit any person's rights, repeats these words, guaranteeing that no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Due process of law is one of the things that truly does make the United States of America better. That the US has done as good a job maintaining due process is one of the things that truly makes the US great. The US has not always given due process, and those failures are among the nation's greatest shames.

Due process can be difficult and tedious, but due process is what separates a civilized nation of laws from lawless mob rule.

The U.S. Constitution is not without its flaws, but it remains a great work. Its aspirations toward setting up a stable system of Democracy that guarantees individual liberties rather than the rule of despots are noble. Its guarantee of liberties may be nobler than their historical manifestation, but even so, the U.S. has been viewed as a land of freedom and opportunity by people from around the world because many national governments do not offer the same liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, are documents that are fundamentally concerned with guaranteeing individual liberties--they are fundamentally liberal documents. Let's hope that Donald Trump's hostility to liberals does not end up in ignoring the fundamental liberties that make this nation great.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Writing without inspiration

For people who have writing projects to complete, a regular practice of writing is valuable and effective. But keeping a regular practice means that sometimes it’s necessary to write even if you have nothing in particular to say. 

For people who don’t write regularly, it can be pretty common to slip into the feeling of not being ready to write, or of needing some sort of inspiration or focus.

I’m writing this today partly because I don’t have any particular inspiration, but want to write something to post on my blog.  And not writing, and not practicing writing, are big pitfalls that many people struggle with when engaged in a writing project.

If you’re not producing enough writing, or if you’re struggling with writer’s block, starting to write—writing anything—can feel like an almost insurmountable hurdle—one that can be overcome with inspiration. But inspiration is elusive.

For me, at least, it’s especially elusive when I sit down to actually write.  If I’m waiting in line at the grocery, or out for a run, or otherwise occupied, I may feel some momentary inspiration—but such inspiration often fades as soon as I sit down to write about it.

I have three suggestions for people who have writing projects to complete and who are struggling with resistance:
  1. Do something small and simple
  2. Write about one thing and one thing only
  3. Make mistakes

1. If you’re having trouble getting engaged with your project, do something small and simple. Fix a citation. Fix one typo. One little thing at a time, pick up the small and simple tasks that don’t require heavy thinking.  Consider such activities as a form of “warm up” exercise: start thinking about the project without having to worry about the large-scale difficulties.  Fix one thing; Celebrate fixing that thing; Feel good for having accomplished something. Repeat frequently.

2. I strongly believe that one of the biggest problems that many or most writers face is that they have too much to say.  Having a lot of ideas can often start to feel like having nothing to say at all: A variety of ideas compete for attention, and every time you try to focus on one, the others draw your attention away, suggesting that you’re not writing about the most important issue. It's a pretty short series of steps from "this isn't the most important thing I have to say" to "this isn't very important" to "this isn't worth writing about; no one will care." You don’t have to write about the most important issue—just write about one issue. Get into detail. Tighten your focus. Don’t get stuck because you have five equally good things to say, and all are imperfect: pick one, say something about it, and try to discuss the concerns that you have about that one idea. Write about whether that idea was worth the effort you put into writing about it. You’re never going to write out all your ideas—make a focused presentation about one thing. And then move on to others later.

3. Ideas that seem great at a distance, look more problematic when you put them down on paper and examine them. If you write something and it looks wrong to you, don’t cross it out, unless you have a better alternative. Instead, try to write about why it looks wrong to you—what is the weakness of the claim? What is the strength? Where do you agree and disagree with what you just wrote? Write with a willingness to be wrong, and then you can explore possibilities to see if you find something you like.  Researchers will often go through mountains of material looking for the few pieces that matter for their research, and at the same time, as writers, they will expect to get their writing correct on the first try, when they would benefit from a similar willingness to spend time on something that might be worthless in hopes of finding that one elusive thing of value.

It doesn’t take much to have a lot to say and a lot to write. Writing it all down, however, is difficult and frustrating, and can often make a person feel incapable. The feeling of inspiration can be elusive—chased away by the difficulties of the task. But inspiration isn’t always necessary. Engage in the practice of writing in some small and simple way—free writing, fixing grammar or citations, etc.—and keep at the practice until you come across some issue that you do feel motivated to write about. Inspiration blooms more easily when supported by a practice. Rather than looking for inspiration that will enable you to write, practice writing as a method of finding ideas worth examining.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Celebrate rejection

My biggest difficulty as a writer is not producing material, but in giving material to other people. Right now I have a book draft and a book proposal, and the next step is to send it to someone. I can do that now—sending it to publishers or agents—or I can put that off and self-publish. But even self-publishing involves trying to get someone to read your work, and risks rejection. (Update: the proposal was sent before posting.)

I don’t relish rejection, and I assume that you don’t either. But sometimes it’s necessary to take a chance, and if you are uncomfortable with rejection, as I am, it can be useful to look at what there is to celebrate about rejection.

As a writer, rejection presupposes an accomplishment: I can’t have a work rejected without finishing that work--without making a commitment to giving a draft to someone else (and thus a commitment to stop working on the darn thing). I absolutely should celebrate finishing both the draft and the proposal. Writing an entire book draft is a real accomplishment for me—something I’ve managed to do only twice before on my own (counting my dissertation in addition my book on dissertation writing)—and so, finishing a draft of a new book is something to celebrate, and finishing a book proposal even more so, because I find the book proposal much harder to write than the book. The proposal is all about acceptance/rejection. When I’m working on the book, it’s about helping people, which feels good. When I’m working on the proposal, it’s about getting my book accepted which doesn't feel nearly as good. Anyway, the proposal is finished (and now sent). I’m not going to rework it any more. It’s going to fly or crash on the merit of what is there now.

The well-known principle “you can’t win if you don’t play,” is important here. But the principle presupposes that you can play: in the metaphorical poker game of manuscript submission, I have something to ante into the pot.  I certainly ought to celebrate that good fortune (not really good fortune, but the product of a lot of consistent effort over several years). I already believe in the value of working hard, so I don’t begrudge that past effort, but rather view the effort with some pride, even if no one ever reads my book.

I don’t entirely look forward to reworking my proposal for a new agent or publisher, so that aspect of possible rejection is not awesome. But the book process would hardly be over, even if I had a great response on my proposal. Getting accepted would almost certainly carry with it some specific requests for revision and for other information. The publication process would eventually require proofreading, too. So rejection doesn’t radically change the necessary effort. And, realistically, I like writing as work: it’s often frustrating, but I feel that the more I work at it, the greater are the rewards in proportion to the effort.

Submitting a proposal—whether accepted or rejected—is not the end of the process, but it is a real landmark. If bringing a book to publication is a road race, this is a significant milepost—it’s the halfway point, at least. And just as I would celebrate the halfway point in a road race, I can celebrate hitting this mark.

If you worry about how your work will be accepted, I understand. I worry about how my work is accepted, too. It’s natural. But rejection is only part of a larger picture, and in that larger picture—the picture of a person working on a piece of writing—the rejection is a real sign of accomplishment. That’s what I told myself as I geared up to hit “send” on my proposal. 

Now that I have sent the e-mail, a difficult period of waiting for a response begins. To help support my mood through that wait, I’m going to celebrate my accomplishments so far.