Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blundering toward productivity, Part 3: smart enough to feel stupid

Part 1 is about goofing off as the spawning ground of good ideas. Part 2 is ostensibly about whether the goofing off part can be circumvented, but really about the value of working with smart people who aren't afraid to look stupid. In this post, I answer the second question from Part 1: how can the process of turning undirected play into good ideas be accelerated?

The obvious answer, which I intended to write about: have a workshop, get a bunch of smart people from different but interacting disciplines together, and give them time to educate each other AND time to freewheel. I got to experience this for real at the sauropod workshop in Germany last November (see here and here). The importance of this is not to be underestimated. This is why we talk about particular institutions having a "critical mass" of workers in a field, and it's why Berkeley was such a fun and inspiring place to be a grad student.

Another answer, which I discovered in the course of writing the previous post: hang out with smart people who you are not afraid to look stupid in front of, and who are not afraid to look stupid in front of you. This is harder than it sounds, because people who know enough to make worthwhile suggestions are prone to being at least a little bit insecure or defensive about their knowledge, especially compared to others. I would be horrible collaborator with many people in my field because I would never let my guard down; it would kill me if they found out how stupid I am capable of being.

Given that, a further suggestion would be to consider collaborating with your best friends regardless of what they work on; by being vulnerably, stupidly open with each other, you might have enough good ideas fast enough to either find something midway between your specialties, or for one or the other of you to fall in love with a problem in the other person's field. Hence the project on rabbit heads with Brian. I wasn't particularly interested in rabbit heads but I am interested in pneumaticity and we figured the project would be about rabbit sinuses. It turns out we're going to do something completely different and much more interesting, which was not on the radar for either of us because neither of us had made the necessary discoveries (you would call them observations, but for us they were discoveries), which has roots in some papers we read back at Berkeley but really germinated in the soil of undirected conversation.

And this accounts for the feeling that I had when I started this essay, that time spent chatting on e-mail is not always a waste of time. Sometimes it's not just productive time, it's the most productive time it's possible to have. Because it is the spawning ground of new ideas.

Chatting on e-mail with distant colleagues is better than exchanging snail-mail letters or not talking, but it's still vastly inferior to meeting in person. In the past year I have spent just over a month with Mike (one evening in LA last summer, two weeks at his house in August, two weeks in Germany in November, one day at the AMNH last month), but out of that month we've gotten two manuscripts mostly written and plans made for at least half a dozen more. A couple we had sketched out on e-mail, but most of them wouldn't exist even in concept if we hadn't had some time to just hang out with fossils. I suppose that is another potential idea-accelerator to add to the list:

(1) have lots of wide-ranging conversations
(2) don't be afraid to look stupid
(3) collaborate with your best friends
(4) in person as often as possible
(5) with the objects of your investigations at hand

If you're an astronomer and there is a physicist you'd like to work with, meet up at the observatory or the cyclotron or more likely the computer lab where you play with your data. If you're a paleontologist or zoologist, go on field trips and museum visits with your collaborators. Happily, that's probably something you were going to anyway. But now you know it's not just a convenience, it's a necessity. And having a few beers together at the end of the day is not a waste of time, it's an investment in your joint idea bank.

The other implication of this last one is that if you are on your own and you've got some time to kill, you should probably go to where your potential data is and just let your mind and body wander. There is a great bit in one of David Quammen's essays in which Quammen is roaming the Montana State University library and he comes across Jack Horner sitting on the floor between two rows of shelves with journals spread out all around him. Quammen says, "Hey, Jack, what are you doing here?" Horner looks up and says, "Having ideas." The best part is that the journals weren't even paleo journals, they were ornithology journals.

That's yet another important point: it's good to have at least a nodding acquaintance with every field that bears on yours. Which, depending on how broadly you think, might be all of them. And what's more, you should get more than a nodding acquaintance with the ones that are likely to be most important. Birds are living dinosaurs, so if you are looking for new ideas to test about dinosaur biology, it makes sense to camp out in the ornithology section. Crocs are also relevant and elephants are not completely irrelevant, but people have been thinking about dinosaurs as big crocs and slow elephants for a long time. The MSU library run-in happened in the early 90s, when the idea of dinosaurs as stem birds had not yet penetrated paleobiological thought (it still hasn't, fully). Even now, if you were looking to really push things, it would be a good idea.

The downside of jumping into a new field instead of just soaking your toes at the shallow end is that it will make you feel stupid. It doesn't matter what line of work you're in, whether it's paleontology or programming or construction, there is something that you are an expert on now that you weren't when you started, whether it is taphonomy or recursive subroutines or knocking down walls. But you weren't an expert when you started, and when you started you probably spent a lot of time feeling stupid. But you learned quickly, partly because you were anxious to get past feeling stupid, and partly because trying dumb stuff is a good way to learn what works and what doesn't.

I am starting to think that becoming an expert can be dangerous, because feeling smart feels better than feeling stupid, and the risk inherent in expertise is that you stay put and never push the field as much as you might by taking a risk, feeling stupid for a while, and mastering another body of knowledge.

I almost hesitate to say that here on teh intert00bz, where it is often alleged that becoming an expert is dangerous for another reason, which leads to the hopefully non-trivial discussion of cranks in the next post.

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