Archive for May, 2009

Mastery

I just read this great interview with David Foster Wallace that was printed by Amherst Magazine in 1999. I knew that Wallace was a terrific writer but here he proves to be a great interview subject as well. How does he do it? He changes the structure of the interview to suit his strengths.

This interview was conducted by mail: Wallace was sent the questions and was able to draft his answers in his usual writing style: an original draft, two rewrites and two typed drafts. Rather than forcing himself to adapt to an unfamiliar structure Wallace makes the interviewer adapt to a format that works best for him. The lesson here: don’t just play to your strengths, make others play to them as well.

Not only does DFW control the format of the interview, he makes this format explicit within the interview itself. I’m guessing that many interviews I’ve read in magazines are conducted over email, or over extended periods of time, and then presented as short conversations between interviewer and subject. Wallace refuses to buy into this conceit and, to her credit, the interviewer (or editor) follows suit in the way the interview is printed. Example: when asked a question about the limits of entertainment as a means of communication DFW answers “Unanswerable within the constraints of a condensed back-and-forth like this (see Q14).” This answer would be impossible to give in a conversational interview since the subject would not know the content of future answers. Here Wallace calls attention to the structure of the interview in a way that expresses his own style. So lesson number 2: After establishing a favorable environment, exploit its features as much as possible.

These insights seem more akin to the teachings of Sun Tzu than the practice of a literary master. I guess it never hurts to have an edge, and David Foster Wallace was sharper than most.

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Buxton on Innovation

A BusinessWeek article by Microsoft’s Bill Buxton got a lot of links and after reading it I have to throw in my two cents as well. The article is titled How To Keep Innovating but offers advice that goes well beyond the stated goal. What Buxton seems to be talking about is how to stay engaged in your work and play by constantly challenging yourself.

Buxton’s method, in a nutshell, is to always be engaged in an activity that fuels his passion, and to continue to seek out new opportunities for doing this. The key is to accept being bad at something when you start it and to be willing to let it go after you’ve reached a level of competence in favor of being bad at something else new. Buxton’s article reminded me of a few different philosopbies of how to live a rich, satisfying and creative life.

Go With The Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow explains how one’s skill level at an activity and the challenge that the acitivty presents interact to create an experience. Flow (what MC calls the optimal experience) occurs when the challenge presented and skills brought to bear match each other. Buxton’s model plays into this but doesn’t really optimize for it. When you start any new pursuit, the challenge is going to be greater than your skill level at first, then your skills will improve coming into balance with the challenge. Eventually it becomes harder to stay interested as the pursuit becomes boring as skill outpaces challenge. Buxton recommends looping through this process again and again, which avoids boredom but also replicates the early period of excessive challenge.

What this tells me is the Buxton has a high tolerance for anxiety. He can keep starting new pursuits without being defeated by the learning curve. For most people this would cause anxiety, but there are some who flourish when faced with a challenge that is steeper than they can handle. Alternatively, Buxton could be a very fast learner, so he can meet early challenges in a short amount of time.

For the rest of us, Buxton’s advice may not work. In this case the key may be to continue to find new challenges in areas that we already feel comfortable in – otherwise mastery leads to boredom. Or perhaps it means starting a new pursuit in which you can use some but not all of the skills you have learned already.

Either way, it’s important to keep things fresh and expand your areas of expertise. This can make you not only more successful, but happier and more satisfied as well.

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If You Don’t Enjoy it, Quit

There’s one problem with trying ot acquire habits – we often strive to acquire the wrong ones. Not that we try to pick up habits that are bad for us, or impossible to do. The problem is that we try to pick up habits that are good for us but that we will never enjoy.

Life is Too Short

That’s right – I’m advocating what feels good. I’ve found that when something feels wrong, it usually is. That’s not to say that everything I’ve accomplished has been easy – far from it. But even the most challenging habits should feel right, even when they are challenging. In fact, it’s the challenge of some tasks that makes them enjoyable.

Of course, not all pursuits can be enjoyed immediately. Sometimes the learning curve is too great or the initial challenge to strenuous. Over time those activities can become enjoyable though. How long can that take? Well I’m no expert but I would say that after four to six weeks of engaging in an activity habitually you should have an idea of whether you can enjoy it.

So if you’re trying to take up jogging, or reading science books or knitting and you’re just bored by the experience – give up. Quit. Try something else that will be rewarding and make you feel good. Because without enjoyment there’s no passion, and without passion the best you can hope for is mediocrity. That’s no way to fill the days that you have.

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