The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Props to the willfully oblivious

One of the first signs of overtraining that I get is trouble sleeping. The strange thing is that it creeps up on me. I don't really notice that I'm not sleeping all the way through the night: it feels normal somehow to wake up every hour or so. Yuck. But in looking for ways to correct it (including backing off some workouts) I was doing some research into yoga connected with sleep, and came across the "6:8" breathing system. Basically, you just breathe for twenty minutes using an "inhale for 6 counts, exhale for 8 counts" system. Because you start building up carbon dioxide in your blood, your brain starts guiding you toward sleep REALLY fast: it wants to render you unconscious so that it can get back to normal breathing. Man, really works like a charm.


An old friend of mine had an accident, and I had to visit him. He's at Good Samaritan, the hospital where I was born, and where my mother died. It was very odd, but I haven't been back there since Mom, twenty-five years ago. Almost to the day. She died right between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I've always felt a holiday twinge. But visiting the same hospital on the 25th anniversary felt almost as if I was getting a nudge to finish letting go. Embrace and enjoy the holidays with all my heart: Jason deserves a daddy fully in the Santa spirit. Anything less is cheating.


And speaking of that...a reader asked me why he (I assume it's a he) should care about future generations if he himself has no children or grandchildren. Why not eat, drink, and be merry? My answer is that if you don't feel it, it ain't there. I WOULD like it if such people would clearly label themselves, however. I have a real sense that there are LOTS of people who just don't give a shit about what will happen to the world after they die, but they don't come right out and say it. Rather, they try to persuade the rest of us that there is nothing to worry about, rather than making their REAL argument: "I don't care."

It would be honorable to speak up and say their truth. The rest of us would then have a right to decide if and how we want to interact with such folks, knowing that they don't care if our grandchildren starve or bake or thirst, or die of over-population related wars and disease. Fine. Could they have an official T-Shirt or something? "I'm going to go in the ground alone, and I want to take the rest of the world with me..." or something like that. Naw. I'm sure there are much nicer ways to express that core philosophy.

But Frankly, this is one of the reasons why I have my three basic standards. Not that there aren't lots of good people who:

1) have no significant other relationships.

2) Have little concern for their physical well-being

3) Make little or no money.

But it is my observation that those who have these three things automatically tend to evolve the kinds of empathy that leads to balanced growth and adult levels of responsibility to the community and world and self. Even if you have no children: what about nieces and nephews? And if you have friends, do you care about THEIR children? If you have a spouse, what about his or her brothers and sisters and cousins? If someone really has no external emotional connections, and has never been the recipient of enough love and caring to awaken that part of their heart...

I honestly, sincerely feel very sorry for them, and wish them a good life...but I hope they will be honest that they just don't care, and not try to hide that behind flawed argumentation.

I see a lot of this. Someone who has a, say, Biblically-based belief about homosexuality or the role of women will try to logically "justify" their beliefs, but the truth is that the logic is secondary to the conviction. Even if you cleared up the logic, or proved that their information was wrong, they would still be left with a strong sense that "it" is wrong.

Racial prejudice used to act the same way. Maybe still does. You "feel" group X is inferior. It's just in your gut, a belief that you got from Momma and Pappa when you were a tyke. All your other beliefs about the evils of race-mixing, or integration, or whatever is just the logic structure you've built on top of this, like a castle built over a cess-pool.

There are few things more frustrating than getting into a long, drawn-out argument with someone, demolishing all of their "logic" and then finding out that the logic was never the point. That they will believe what they believe regardless, and you have wasted your time.

(For instance: with me, it was an article of faith that blacks were not intellectually inferior. Regardless of the fact that I had no direct "proof" of this in some ways, presenting me with a mountain of "evidence" in the form of crime statistics, intelligence tests, historical comparisons and so forth simply didn't cut it. I WASN'T GOING TO BELEIVE IT. Why? If I had, I would have hated God, and I wasn't going to go there. It wasn't until I read "Guns, Germs, and Steel" that I finally got the piece of the logic/scientific puzzle I needed to make sense of the historical comparisons. Once that was done, grasping that the undergroup is going to be at a ferocious disadvantage, and that the overgroup will disguise it's own greed and stupidity by projecting it onto the "other." My standard comment: no way in hell I'll accept the evidence of group X that group Y is inferior or evil unless I see evidence gathered by either group Y or neutral observers or my own personal opinion/observation to the same end. In other words: who made, interpreted, and administered those tests? Who is dominantly on the juries, makes the laws, and enforces them? If it's group X, it would be a miracle if group Y came out even.)

Just an example of the way I protected myself from decades of very unsubtle brainwashing. At this point, I have lotsa intellectual reasons for believing I was always right, but in fact, it was faith, not logic. And such defensive mechanisms might just as well have been wrong. And on other subjects, I'm sure it has been, and will be.

But don't we do that? The world can say we're wretchedly stupid, or evil because we're gay or poly, or weak and inferior because we are women, or whatever. And our oppressors can have all the evidence on their side. I just got into too many discussions with people who apparently had all the evidence...only to find later that they had conveniently ignored any evidence not to their liking.

More disturbingly, people on both sides of any discussion seemed to do this. So another basic pattern I developed is that, unless the people on one side of an argument had a notable advantage in ALL THREE basic areas, I assume that their differences are a matter of perspective rather than basic qualities of goodness or capacity. In general, this has served me very well. Yeah, have a stack of interesting facts, but until I hear you debate them with someone as smart as you who has spent the same amount of time looking into it from the other direction, I'll reserve the right to say "meh." Thus, Liberal and Conservative ideologues just don't sway me, even if they know more about some specific issue. And no religion can convince me they have "the answer." And Christians can't convince me they haven't been picking and choosing which Old Testament verses to pay attention to. And so forth.


Have any of you ever had to create emotional shields to prevent you being convinced of something that would have been damaging or limiting or bigoted or whatever...despite evidence you couldn't immediately refute. It could be as simple as a teacher saying "you're stupid" when you fail a test. Or an ex saying "no one will ever love you as much as I did." Or whatever.

Sometimes, willful obliviousness is all that protects us.

But man oh can also drop you into a world of hurt if you can't error-check.


The thrust of the article: it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. If you haven't invested that much time, you have no right to complain that you aren't good: you simply never decided it was worth it.


Menduir said...

I’ll fess up. I posted the devil’s advocate question last time. I don’t really feel that way but I’ll admit I’ve considered it. (By the way, I object to wearing clothing that would identify me as part of a group to be scorned by the majority.)

Let me pose a different question. It seems to me that what you are looking for is some connection to a community: close kinship, friends, in-laws. The assumption seems to be that the connection will trigger a desire to maintain things for the next generation ... a sort of instinctive programming?

How do you reconcile differences between the programming you reject on your path (example: the “other” is automatically bad) and the programming you accept (it’s expected to sacrifice one’s own desires, for the next generation of the community)? Do you examine every one and make a value choice that some are “bad” and some are “good”? Or are some still “beliefs” for which logic is a shield, rather than logical conclusions? And how can you tell the difference?

For the record, I know that my own efforts at conservation and “leaving smaller footprints” are based on my “for the good of the country” programming as a child, which is why I asked the devil’s advocate question in the first place. I’ve found that if you don’t ask the question, it’s a lot harder to find out the answer.

~ Jas. Marshall

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Unrelated, but probably interesting: Elizabeth Bear on being loyal to the method of writing that works for you.

Shady_Grady said...

"There are few things more frustrating than getting into a long, drawn-out argument with someone, demolishing all of their "logic" and then finding out that the logic was never the point."

=) This is so true.

Michael Palin: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition.

John Cleese: No it isn't!

Christian M. Howell said...

Though I agree that hard work is the only way to excel, I don't think 10,000 hours is accurate.

Of course, it gets back to the level of underachievement evident nowadays.

People think they need only act competent. I personally have done several professional jobs without a college education. Right now I'm an enterprise software developer. I was a Windows Server administrator and a Mechanical Engineer.

I had a Top 10 hip hop song on and was one of the best football players I had ever seen (I was Jack Tatum's MEAN brother).

So if you look for what the creator left for you it's there, but if you dilute with the opinions of others it won't be.

I live my life like a saying from William Goldman: "Nobody knows Nothing" which means I have as much of a chance of figuring things out as anyone else.

That's why I define my own religion, science, philosophy, etc. I'm going out with my own creativity. I mean, hell, look at this vermin world. I don't want NONE of that stuff on me.

Steve Perry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Perry said...

There have been some definitive studies done on expert performance. LEARNING AND PRACTICING SKILLED PERFORMANCE, by Francis Mechner, still seems to be available as a PDF on the web -- that's where I got my copy.

Psychology Professor K. Anders Ericcson's research at FSU goes into great detail, and the 10,000 hour number seems to hold up pretty well.

If you want to get really good at something, you have to practice it. A lot.

Popularity and/or sales do not automatically equate with expertise. Britney Spears is an adequate singer and performer. Danelle Steel is a competent writer.
Both of them will top their charts; however, I don't either of them gets a gold star for "expertise ..."

Marty S said...

This 10,000 hour stuff makes zero sense to me. I'll take my own field, statistics as an example. One fundamental technique in statistics is regression analysis. I could spend 40 hours a week for forty years or eighty thousand hours running different data sets through a regression program and never learn anything new about regression analysis much less become an expert statistician. Becoming an expert is about learning and stretching yourself.I tend to believe that how long an individual takes to become an expert depends to a balance between mastering what you currently know and on how quickly you move on to try new things.

Steve Perry said...

Marty --

For the purposes of the 10K discussion, the "practice" includes mindful training to learn and get better. Obviously if all you do is to repeat ineffective techniques over and over, all you do is get better at being ineffective.

For you to become a world-class violinist, for instance, you don't play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" over and over to the exclusion of other material.

The studies -- you should read some of them before you decide -- address the ways that the practice of a discipline need to go to get there.

Marty S said...

Steve Perry: You've now introduced another variable into the equation which makes the 10,000 hour figure questionable. You used the term mindful training. This correctly implies that to become an expert requires training by someone who is expert. But all experts are not equally expert in any discipline and the best expert need not be the best teacher. So ignoring the supposition that the student's talent has nothing to do with how many hours it takes to become an expert we now need to assume that the competence of the instructor is also irrelevant. To me this doesn't make common sense.

Travis said...

Initially I had a whole lot of thoughts on the main post but getting foogy headed and not going to bother right now. Hate to chose sides but I'm with Steve on this one. Marty S- using your Regression analysis example I guarantee- that's right guaranteed or your money back- that at the end of those forty years you will be the freaking KING of running regression analysis. True, you may not know anything else about statistics but you will HAMMER those regression analysises! I spent a couple of summers building school busses, you wouldn't believe how fast a guy whose been riviting for 15 years gets. (that's working as a riveter for 15 years; not 15 years straight of riveting. And realisticlly people rotate positions in the plant some so this number probably isn't quite accurate but you get the idea).


Marty S said...

Travis: I guarantee your wrong. It is perfectly possible to do something for forty years and still do it wrong. You put a data set into the computer regression program and it spits out answers. If all you do is look at the answers the regression spits out your going to reach wrong conclusions because some data sets have problems and you need to find the problem data points to reach correct conclusions. As manager of a group of statisticians I have seen highly experienced statisticians reach wrong conclusions using regression because they didn't look for or failed to identify problem data points.

Steve Perry said...

Marty --

Your response is interesting. How, then, do you suppose that one gets more adept at an activity?

And why, after the studies that have been done, do you think the 10K hour figure is bogus? (It's not exactly that number, but there is a range, and it's based on a bunch of factors, including finding out how long world-class experts in a given field practiced to get to that point.)

Seems perfect common sense to me to ask folks who really know their stuff how long it took them to get there and then look at the results. The numbers will vary, but if there is an average, how is that invalid?

What it sounds like you are saying is that it doesn't feel right to you. So I'm asking -- based on what?

Marty S said...

Steve Perry: My misgivings revolve around the interpretation being given the results. If you are talking about becoming expert at a simple repetitive task, I would still have some doubts about the results, but they don't fall into the don't make sense category. If you try to extend the results beyond that then they don't make any sense to me based upon my life experiences. So, I believe that 10,000 hrs of practice might produce an expert forger who could exactly replicate the Mona Lisa, but I don't believe spending 10,000 hours will produce an "expert" artist capable of producing an original painting in the class of the Mona Lisa

Marty S said...

Steve Perry: I partially take back my last comment. The part about it making sense for repetitive tasks. Consider the games Tic Tac Toe and Chess. Does it make sense that both these games require 10,000 hours to master. Anyone with normal intelligence should be trainable as an expert in Tic Tac Toe in less than 1 hour.

Travis said...

"If all you do is look at the answers the regression spits out your going to reach wrong conclusions because some data sets have problems and you need to find the problem data points to reach correct conclusions."

Apples and oranges. My point is that you will be a hands down master of the process you've done for decades. I absolutely agree you may not know didly about the larger implications.

And you know, some of your other points are valid. No matter how many hours I put in, even if we role back time and I can start from birth, I would never race on the same track as Usain (sp?) Bolt. Might be more accurate to say that with an appropriate learning process and aptitude it takes a substantial period of time, roughly 10,000 hours according to studies. Of course if one has done something wrong for a decade they have trained themselves to be an expert at doing it wrong.

Marginally related- a quote about my first martial art teachers, a husband wife team, 'You guys are very good teachers, you're students make all the same mistakes you do.'

Steve Perry said...

Marty --

The simple task question is addressed in the research. It points out that one can learn in 50-100 hours to do two-move chess problems as well as most grandmasters. But that doesn't put you into a winning match with one for the rest of the game.

Being a world-class athlete, violinist, or anything else that requires great skill takes time. People have done the studies. Which, if you haven't read, you really don't have much in the way of ammunition to refute 'em.

Marty S said...

Steve Perry: I skimmed the Francis Mechner pdf and found nothing about 10k hrs. Only about the role of practice and learning. I read a few summaries of Ericcson's work. The 10k hours appears to come from a study of musicians. I read nothing to indicate that this particular number holds for any other endeavor. Only that the methodology of "Deliberate Practice" works. I don't disagree with this methodology, only the general application of the 10k number. It still makes sense to me that the required hours of practice would be different for different skills. That is you need more hours to become an expert Yahtzee player, than Tic Tac Toe, and more hours to become an expert chess player than Yahtzee player.