There are exactly two ways: one, and many

Draft of 2008.03.03 ☛ 2015.06.14

There are two ways to succeed in the complicated, burdensome flowless interrupting world we’ve made. Two ways to Get Things Done; anybody telling you there’s only one is selling something. Two ways to satisfice and maybe even to excel.

One way, which is the way Most Often Sold, is to specialize: Look at all that stuff clamoring for your attention. Decide what’s Good, what’s Boring, what’s Dangerous, what’s Too Big. Give the least important things up, and focus like a champ on what your world, your peers, your bosses, and your bank tell you is the crucial, vital, right now most important stuff. Write all those things down in a big (but carefully limited) To Do list, ignore and dispense with inconsequential stuff that doesn’t give those stakeholders their immediate payoff. Cross off the thing that implies too much immediate risk. Pick the one most important to Everybody, and dammit start Getting Shit Done.

But not all that other shit. “Your” shit. By which pronoun one means, in fact, “their”. English is handy for this, since there is no distinction between singular and plural “you”: “your shit” getting done may well be others’ too. We just like to slide that in there, for convenience.

More the merrier, right?

Now, as I said, there is another way. At least I think there may be. A much harder way, and riskier, and less predictable. A way that for success surely takes some grace and skill and plenty of luck and more patience than the world grants most of us. A way of constant, embodied attention.

Ad hoc, ad loc and quid pro quo. So little time—so much to know!”

Just stop a second (write it on your little list) and imagine you’re allowed to be a generalist. As it happens, I believe that we all are generalists as a default, but I’m odd so maybe you need to purposefully imagine it. Set it up like a thought experiment, like an Empathy Roleplaying Training Exercise, OK?

You suck as a specialist; you’re not evolved to be one. Your meat wants you to pay attention to what’s around you, what’s inside you, the top part and the bottom part and the inside part. Your head keeps dragging you back into meandering daydreams. Your heart keeps making your head change, from day to day, subjecting your mythical “rational” mind to physiological buffets modern life doesn’t even have nonpathological descriptions for. Flowing through your blood are cortisol and adrenaline and you get a little jolt of reinforcement whenever you see a new pattern, a novelty, a pleasing distraction. Art. Ideas. Love. Facility. Engagement. Tits and six-pack abs. Any of those things.

In the Real World (not the thought experiment), we call these “attention deficit”. “Inefficiencies”. “Lack of focus”. Distraction. Setback. Obstruction. Unforeseen circumstances. Delay.

All these things you look at, in your role of the “imaginary” generalist in my experiment; all these roses you stop to smell, these friends who interrupt you with demands, these places you go and things you see and people you meet. They are delays of what? Of you?

In what way am I delayed by paying attention to more, different, inarguably interesting stuff? Gratifying stuff?

They delay completion of my many projects, right? I do so much, that nothing is ever really done. I step away from my workbench to make a new tool; I find a book on toolmaking and see another nearby; I see the book is from a series; I see the series is from the 1920s; I note that people in the 1920s could make things of metal, by themselves, with their bare hands, in their home shops; I want a home shop; I militate among my friends to make a collaborative shop where we can share costs of tools, insurance, materials, maintenance. And so on.

Am I delayed? Don’t be stupid. I’m busy. The only person experiencing “delay” was, if she existed, the customer wanting the thing I was doing at the workbench originally.

By this argument, the only real “delays” are experienced by the people who call them by that name. A delay is something that comes with an obligation to perform. I have not been delayed in sitting down to write this rant, unless by “delay” we refer in a backhanded way to the invigorating flow, the speedy and surprisingly purposive typing, the fact that I am editing and re-editing fifteen or twenty times before you see this. Am I “delayed” because I stepped away and spent almost two weeks acting on these ideas, before coming back to post it to my blog? Am I “delayed” because this is a different draft, a tighter, more coherent whole than what I would have posted two weeks ago? Perhaps my laundry is delayed; my taxes, my system administrator duties, my business ventures were “delayed” by this.

In writing this (counting both the day I started it, and the day I finished it) I have left undone one hour’s worth of the things expected of me. And in the coming days, I’ll probably be distractedly thinking back to what I’ve written, carrying it forward, and thus perhaps my “performance” will suffer.

I’ll Get Less Done.

It seems to me this morning (and still, two weeks later), that you might take all those diverse, attractive baubles of the world, the many facets that show you alluring patterns and inconstantly draw your eye and your mind and your heart—you could take them all every goddamned one of them and still manage to think about them all at the same time. No, not the “same time”: all the time.

Frame the world and model its diverse parts, and envision them as just what they are, as arcs of the Big Circle. “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.” And as Charlie implied but I will say outright: it’s all one big circle.

In every one of those supposedly flitting ephemeral things that catch your eye, you should realize the common thread. I allow you, hereby and henceforth, to realize it. Go thou, be empowered, get your act together, and do so: These distractions have caught your attention because they are by definition related to one another. They draw you away from the focused, acceptable path of specialization, the burden of diligence, if only by the simple fact that you have seen them.

You are a link. That’s the point. You’re not watching the world, you’re part of the world. In it. And better yet: you’re the part of the world that links these things together..

That’s the responsible path. It’s a burden. To be part of the world takes grace, and effort, and rigor.

One cannot see one pattern everywhere. You are not a generalist but a crackpot if you see everything as connected to your personal model of the world. When you cast everything as a nail to be struck by your One Important Hammer, you’re just falling back on another flavor of specialization. The world is diverse—more diverse than any single description or model—and the proper generalist cannot be parsimonious, cannot be efficient in trying to force the world to fit.

She can’t afford to. A generalist has no more time or attention than any other person. She doesn’t see the whole of the world all as being the same, as being proof of something.

She slices the world in a different direction. Along a different axis, a personal axis.

Insofar as you have seen these many and alluring “distractions” around you, and insofar as you want or wonder or intuit something about them… then by that very argument, they are linked. They are linked because you have seen them, attended to them. They are linked through you.

So here’s what I’d like to formalize, nail down, pass on: I see these many things, all the time, and I know they are linked because if nothing else I have seen them, and perhaps if I’m lucky they are linked for deeper reasons, because of the real patterns in the real world, that like any animal I am evolved to see everywhere. The shapes that transform data into knowledge: it’s what we do. We’re made to see pattern.

The notion of Distraction, at its root, is just a symptom of the dominant cultural model. This is a model enmeshing our institutions and our lifestyles, our dominant business culture and our academies. It blocks so many paths, it canalizes our culture. If you try to do anything but specialize and focus, you try to mix your apples and your oranges, your work and your personal life, your scholarship and your business, your body and your mind, then the steady hum of the world whispers to you: it is delay! You have no right to disrupt others’ diligence.

It is a tacit sin.

And yet there are those among us who manage, despite the constant pressure of the winning side—the specialists’ team—to see and live and work in this longitudinal way I’m trying to point out.

We cope. We learn not to offend, to delay, to bring our tacit sins to light. Or else we don’t, and we fail in real and practical ways that have to do with foreclosures and divorce, an entry on the DSM… punishments society and our peers and superiors mete out to maintain their own To Do lists’ progress.

I’m talking about the Life of the Mind. The Life of the Mind is not professorship, not building a long curriculum vita, it’s not being a talking head with a big wizardy beard and a floppy hat on Discovery Channel. It’s the cultivated ability to span boundaries, cross borders of disciplines, bring what you’ve learned over there to bear over here, where they haven’t seen the connection.

The Life of the Mind is merely acting on the belief that what we see around us fits together. That everything is, in some context, of use.

Aristotle had it pretty close. “The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.”

A friend of mine, a man who could never settle down and do one thing, he points out that there are two states of problem-solving: exploration, and exploitation. His “exploration” is random sampling, the long-reaching jumps, the saltations, the visions, the major revolutions: call it “fancy”. If you want a practical use, in machine learning we think of this as something like model-discovery, the consideration of totally different meanings and patterns, qualitative alternatives. Some other fellow, he might call them “paradigm shifts”.

His “exploitation” is not a negative, not the social evil the word connotes; it’s taking what you have right now and polishing and refining and improving incrementally; call it “diligence”. In machine learning, we might think of this as parameter tuning, as finding the right numbers to optimize the fit to the model we’ve agreed upon.

Another unruly friend of mine, who I sadly haven’t heard from in a long while, he called these same notions “order” and “chaos”. Isn’t it interesting, when you think about it? Both “exploitation” and “chaos” can connote badness: errors, disruption, totalitarianism. And “order” and “exploration” they are good things: benefits, framers of our world, knowledge and progress.

And yet they’re opposites. Turns out I never noticed that before, in almost twenty years of throwing the words around. I’ll have to jot that down.

Oh, right—I just did. Where was I? Ah, yes. The path of fancy, and that of diligence.

So perhaps some of us, we should be moving towards new models, not better fits. Towards connections not yet explored. Not mere revolutions, but memories of what has been forgotten, attention to what is ignored, and the idea of what it is for.

That crap they call “innovation” these days. Morons. “We need more innovative companies!” they cry. Just think about that. Just sit for a second and think about that, about what I’ve just told you that implies and demands. An “innovative company” is probably not going to look anything like a company at all. Not if your “company” means what everybody else’s does.

So note well: The generalist should not be headed for any place where he is “done”. When are you “done” paying attention? When are you “done” talking, considering? When are you “done” learning or seeing? Specialization is easier, simpler, more comfortable not because the world demands it, but because it can be measured, commoditized, evaluated and rewarded. Because it’s a worklife that is obvious, and transparent, and self-explanatory.

Just what is it that you do?

So note well: The generalist is not headed for the place where she can take a break and spend some time with the family and get a promotion and really start on the hobbies or retire or finally have some fun. She is working, always. Maybe the work is more spread out, more even. But there is no “work day”, no “hobby”. In the limit, there is nothing that is not also something else.

I look around me, and in every case the best step ahead moves me closer to a place where even more such “work” awaits. More of the kind of work I want to do. I go to work every morning, I dream work, I am working now.

Just what is it that you do?

And I say: This.

Sometimes I wait a little while for them to hear me, because I want to see the light that tells me what I’ve said means something. “I. do. this.”

So rarely, though. So rarely. So little light, these days. So then I just make something up. Some crap about my job, some random interest. But… but I do this.

It’s true whenever I say it. No matter where I go… this is what I’m probably doing.

There is something interesting in everything; if not in the act or the thing itself, then in what it implies, in teasing out the hidden system that gave birth to it, in proposing the process that could fix it, in building the tools that the one task of Drawing the Circle demands. Go out and squat in your gravel driveway and pick up a chunk and see the fossils or the crystals in it. Go to the library and find the book that has remained on the shelf the longest, and read it, and explain it to somebody. Go to your neighbors, and see what they’re doing, and try to help them with their work. Learn to run a letterpress; learn to build a house; learn to sell old books; teach a machine to think; build infrastructure for tsunami victims; explain the origin of life.

Because that’s your work. Not those specific things, because they’re taken. That other thing you’re doing instead.

The specialist avoids what distracts, and for so many people the worst distraction is the thing that connotes meaning. When you specialize, you must not seek more questions; you seek answers.

And yet these days some of us are crippled, are considered broken, are in fact and practice avoided by society and our employers and our institutions of learning and governance, simply because we walk a path that leads to more choices, more insight, more connotation, more questions.

The best questions are the ones that raise the most follow-on questions. Not just in the Ivory Tower. In life.

You are not allowed to be a generalist, of course. For your own good. Every advisor will tell you how hard it will be to “keep more balls in the air”, to focus on so many tasks, to split your precious attention and time so many ways that you will in the end get nothing done. Nothing will ever be finished.

So smile at these advisors. Nod. But just ask them, next time they press you in your business, in your school, in your entrepreneurial training session, in your software day-structuring To Do list program, just ask them about what it means to “finish”.

Just what is it that you do? And when will you be finished?

Called a flighty dreamer all too often, I think increasingly that I stand on the side of realism. I will be finished when I’m dead.

And so will you. Anybody who tells you different is selling something.