Slow science

The equilibrium in which academia operates is not optimal. It does not look right. The incentives seem to be wrong.

Academic careers are mainly determined by publications. Most of the time all that matters is the number of papers. An idea is considered good if it is rapidly publishable. In a university, fast and furious research is king, teaching is torture.

This has several repercussions, such as retractions and borderline fraudulent practice. A race for a purely higher number of publications in fields like medicine might have disastrous consequences.

Things could be different.

First of all, teaching could determine a larger portion of one’s future prospects (with respect to what it currently accounts for). And not only the quantity of teaching, but also it’s quality. Instructors would then care deeply about how best to deliver their knowledge. There could be more teaching conferences. In graduate schools, we attend classes like “research methods,” but never “teaching methods.”

Most probably, an average academic has more students than readers of his/her research. Research has a very limited readership and it is highly impersonal. Teaching is contagious. A more balanced approach is needed. Colin Macilwain (Nature) and Paul Basken (The Chronicle of Higher Education) discuss in detail how that balance could be reached or easily disrupted by funding policies.

Finally, research should be slow. It should possibly feature bigger projects with higher impact. It should be high risk, high return. And when there is no return, it shouldn’t matter much. The important thing should be to dive in an issue and catch the biggest fish possible.

The question shouldn’t be “is this publishable?”

It ought to be “is this important?”

Here is an article that discusses the concept in detail. And an eloquent post on slow science (in Turkish).

Inception

“Inception” is not just a film where spies wander around in people’s dreams.

It is real.

The owners of a project have a choice to make. They can force their ideas to people that work with/for them. Or they can make a compromise and share the ownership of the ideas with the workers.

Think about it. When you have an idea and explain it to other people, there is a better chance that you will face friction than acceptance. The comments will be mostly critical. The more direct you are, the more resistance you’ll receive.

Instead, take it slow. Make it into a conversation. Let the other party come up with and gain ownership of part of the innovation. That will make sure that all the parties have an intrinsic motivation to improve the idea and achieve the best outcome.

Being direct almost never works.

The right crowd

Say you have a project. Any project. It is still just an idea and you are stuck. You have to take it further, make it bigger. You are missing something.

Who would you discuss it with? How many people would you need to sit around a table, listening to you and actively participating in the storm of ideas and comments that contribute to the project? And what kind of people?

Is “two” the right number; another person that shares your enthusiasm. Would that be enough? Should that person be older or younger than you?

Or maybe you need ten people from different backgrounds. But then perhaps things get out of hand. There could be trust issues. The group could digress from the main topic. You could lose control of the idea.

I suspect the answers to these questions would depend both on the project and its owner. However, I also suspect that when these are controlled for, one could identify the optimum number and composition of individuals that a brain trust should include.

My hypothesis is that one is not enough, three may be too much.

Agency of application

The academic world thrives on new ideas and methods. I can speak mostly for psychology, decision making and management sciences. Great minds, years of hard work and advanced technology together produce a huge amount of knowledge.

To what end exactly?

Well, we are advancing as human beings I am sure. But this is a slow process of which the effects surface slowly and serendipitously. Generating theories and scrutinizing over them is the scientific way of course, but there is a need for an added feature sometimes; a concrete link to the practical world.

We need an agency of application, which links academic outcomes to practical situations. We have to make a massive number of decisions, ranging from trivial to life altering, from personal to managerial. We need all the tools and help we can get. Science should help us make better judgments and be less susceptible to deception.

In many ways, popular non-fiction literature is an agency of application. A writer compiles scientific content to provide insights to readers on daily and personal issues. I would argue that at the end of their careers, every scientist should have a 100-page booklet where they share their contribution to the people of the world using words that everyone can understand.

I would collect those books.

Good gossip

“You know I don’t like him. He talks too much and is very arrogant. The other one is a nerd. When he talks, he makes no sense. Boring. The girl we just saw is weird. She told me that she doesn’t like you because of the thing that happened the other day. Come on man. She is not that smart you know. Oh and she is always talking behind people’s backs.”

“Dude, aren’t we doing that right now?”

“What?”

This is an addiction. I am sure about that. I bet it raises the level of some obscure hormone in our prefrontal cortex so that we feel intoxicated while gossiping. It is a process that is hard to stop when it starts. And it is often hard not to start.

There are explanations for it in many domains, including evolutionary and group psychology. So be it. Any benefits though? It seems to be a complete waste of time. There is absolutely no creativity involved. No contribution to ideas. No learning. No value. No use. It’s more like a shot of tequila than a proper conversation. And one never stops at one shot.

If there is no way around it, perhaps there is a way to transform the content, make it useful. Instead of talking about the man or the woman, what they might have said or done, we could talk about their ideas. And only ideas! Who knows, that might generate a new set of ideas, which can be the topic of another session between other people.

Addictions are hard to get rid of. Bending them to give them a positive spin is almost impossible. In this case, that might just be possible.

Scheduled dreaming

We were climbing on two different ferries, departing at the same time. We were going to the opposite ends of the city. She stopped at the newsstand to get a magazine.

“Would you like to get something for the road. I’m going to get something to read.”

“No, I’m OK.”

“Do you have a book?”

“Not with me, no.”

“You left it at home? It’s one-hour ride plus you might need to wait for the bus afterwards. Get something to read. You’ll be bored.”

“I have stuff to dream about. I’m busy.”

“What?”

I do this sometimes. I actually schedule daydreaming sessions. Generally I have to be on the move, but shouldn’t be spending a lot of energy. I cannot dream while running for instance, or driving. But walking works. Ferries are the best, though, they are slow, the sea is relaxing, you are away from everything. Water is magic. I know a guy who solves all the issues in his head while swimming. He gets out of the pool a different man.

I had scheduled a session for that afternoon. I was going to drink tea, enjoy the ride and dream with no strings attached. About existing projects, about future ones… Who knows? This blog entry, for instance, along with a couple of upcoming ones are the fruits of that session.

People seem to schedule such sessions always for a particular time: At night, in bed, before going to sleep. That, I think, is a waste of time; a waste of ideas. What is dreamed there is forgotten the next morning.

One should definitely schedule dreaming sessions at work.

Virtual bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is inevitable. And the consequence of any kind of bureaucracy is that you have to wait. Hence, waiting is inevitable.

The other day I was waiting, again. I had gone to a public office to collect something. I arrived at 10.59 according to my ticket, which also showed my number: 370. I looked at the counter; it was at 169. The place was packed. Everybody had something in their hands, mostly their cell phones, playing games, tweeting, googling, reading, writing on other people’s virtual walls.

169 people were attended since 9.00. That would make my waiting time more than two hours. After just five minutes, I gave up and went to my office. I worked, ate, killed time.

At around 12.50, I decided to make the 15-minute trip back to the place. It was still very crowded. I hesitantly looked at the counter. The number was 367. After two minutes, I was attended.

There has to be an easier way.

All these people had their smart phones in their hands, constrained to wait there, doing nothing smart. I thought the counter could be online. People could be at their homes or offices, looking at the counter on their smart phones. They could go there before their turn and avoid all the hassle. That would be smart.

This is not very difficult to do. Yet you don’t see it everywhere. Hence perhaps bureaucracy is designed to make you wait.

Hence, waiting is inevitable.

Drunk or not

There are many rumors about the relation between drugs and creativity. There seems to be no established link between the two, but there are a lot of anecdotes proving or disproving the effect of alcohol or other, harder stuff on creativity.

For instance, some suggest that the name of the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (by Beatles) was actually inspired from LSD. John Lennon, though, said that this was purely coincidental (more on that here). In any case, the debate about drugs and good playing/painting/writing is out there. Here are more anecdotes on creative people on drugs.

All I have is also a personal anecdote. Recently, I had to arrange a song for a project. The song was about a drunken guy’s frustration towards women and his past relationships. He longed for some of them, wanted to forget others, but most of all he was drunk and frustrated and unpredictable. The song had to be like that. I had to come up with that feeling.

So, needless to say, I got wasted and handled the song in that state. I do not have absolutely any idea whether or not alcohol scientifically helps you become more creative, but that was the perfect opportunity, the perfect case. The producers liked the result and the arrangement is ultimately being used for the song.

However, I did change several things the next day. Perhaps that is the key notion about the relation between drugs and creativity.

The song was essentially handled by not one, but two people; drunk me and sober me.

Forgetful

“Wow, we really came up with some nice ideas. Look at these notes! I used half of the notebook.”

“Indeed. It’s been real nice. I think in the end we figured out exactly where we want to go with our idea.”

“Yes. And speaking of going… Where are the car keys?”

“S#@t, we left them at the restaurant!?!?”

“Man! I’ll run and get them.”

“No, no, not at the one that we just ate.”

“Where then?”

“I think we left them at the restaurant where we stopped before, wondering if we wanted to eat there. You used the toilet, I sat and looked at the menu and then we decided not to eat there. Remember?”

“That was more than 2 hours ago!”

“Yes, hurry.”

We did recover the keys. But this happens too frequently to discard it as a “well these things do happen sometime” kind of an event. And it’s always something different that is missing. So you never get used to it.

Forgetfulness might have a lot of reasons (more on possible causes in here and here). I think engaging in a creative process might also be another one. Such a process forces your mind into a loose state where the ideas have to be fed by possibly all kinds of inputs coming from every angle of your brain. This is sometimes so intoxicating that you end up losing focus on physical things around you, be it your keys, your laptop, yourself.

One solution is consistency. For instance, it helps to always wear a jacket where you store everything and can check every five minutes whether or not something important is missing with a few hand and elbow movements.

But then, one nice and sunny day, you forget the jacket somewhere.

Future perfect

“I knew that was going to happen” is something that I used to say frequently as a child. Obviously I was wrong and annoying for saying that often, mostly because I did not know what was going to happen, but after the fact, it felt as if I knew it all along.

This is called the hindsight bias, which is related to how things seem foreseeable once they occur. We tend to forget that what had occurred was only one of the possibilities. Now that we know what happened, everything seems obvious. Hence, “I knew that was going to happen.”

This is a problem, but some people saw the upside. If we are so good at “predicting” things backwards, what if we do the same thing before they actually happen. This is the essence of “future perfect thinking.” When you are trying to predict something, you transport yourself in your mind to a distant future where the outcome you are trying to predict has already happened. Then you look back from that hypothetical place to guess what has happened. It turns out, this exercise will give you a clearer idea about what might actually happen.

Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba’s extensive discussion on future perfect thinking by can be found here. Some scientists applied this concept to the organization of Sydney 2000 Olympic events (can be found here).

I was wondering whether or not one could use this method to improve the creative process. I could not find any suggestions or clues on the subject.

Say, you are tying to come up with some original music. Would it help if you started thinking about people’s reactions to it when they will have listened to it? Or your feelings once you will have finished playing it?

Would it lead to enjoy the creative process more?

The separation

There is a red tape, a division. It is between doing something for money and creating something for the pleasure of it. Although this separation can be fuzzy, there has to be some degree of it. One should not completely mix creative hobbies with mandatory tasks that require tedious and consistent productivity. There can be some overlap, but they should never be one.

I read about this subject in great detail in Hugh MacLeod’s book “Ignore Everybody.” He is a cartoonist who started displaying his creations in his blog. Then he issued a manifesto in the same site where he shares his advice on how to be creative.

He talks a lot about the line one has to draw between creative endeavors and routine jobs that have financial rewards. The idea is that creativity is damaged beyond repair when one tries to do things for the non-creative reasons.

The trick is, then, to do some things just because you can! Forget everything else. Then the rest will follow. Or not. If you think about it, it does not matter really.

I guess creating something should be like eating your favorite meal. Nothing more, nothing less.

Big surprise

The relation between success and creativity is complicated. Clearly creativity is considered to be a determinant of success, but the correlation is far from perfect. An idea could be impeccable, but apparently chance has a lot to say about the outcome.

How then can one predict whether or not a creative process will lead to a desirable outcome? How can one judge the quality of one’s insight and brilliance when introducing a new concept or product?

When thinking of creativity, we primarily base our judgments on how successful the idea will be. We even use creativity and success interchangeably sometimes. Is that a healthy way to look at things though?

Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba’s book Dance with Chance is full of illuminating anecdotes on the issue. For instance it quotes instances from recent history of technology, where it emphasizes the surprise factor in creativity based success. It tells the story of Google, whose $1.6 million price tag was considered unacceptably high by internet giants, just a decade ago. Silicon valley success stories did not see coming one of the greatest ideas in their own world.

But wait a minute. Google’s insightful creators tried to sell their own super-successful idea for just $1.6 million. It seems the success of their idea was a surprise for them too.

The book provides many other examples, including how Apple’s visionary and creative leader Steve Jobs was rumored to have almost given up his stock options in 2003, which made him a multi-billionaire, just 4 years later. Somehow, he also failed to foresee his own uncontested success.

I wish you surprise yourself big time one day.

Easy empathy

“Is this going to go on like this?” he asked, with no emotion in his voice. I did not respond. It was dark and thus he could not see my eyes shouting “I will beat you up right here right now.”

It was a four-minute video I just had finished shooting with my two artist cousins, right there in the middle of the living room, where he was asking the question from. It was for a song my father had composed for a non-profit project. We shot it in several hours with amateurs’ enthusiasm, using very primitive material, edited it with the best of our capacity and were watching it for the first time. We had to make it in one take and our “actress”, unpredictable as she was, did a great job (I returned her back to the pet store after the shooting. She was possibly scared, but alive and well).

Unfortunately, we had to watch it with him, who had just dropped by to see one of my cousins. Why could he not just shut up for four minutes? Maybe he had a point, but I was in love with my creation. I feel he should have respected that love affair.

It is some kind of an owner’s curse. You see more pros than cons in your creation, whereas other people, including competitors and most of the time friends, do the opposite. It happens when an original idea is shared. I believe people often comment with good intentions but the way they do it makes the whole difference. I remember once a friend of my father’s, upon listening to one of his recordings, said: “Elton John would have played this better.” And well, he was probably right. But seriously, come on!

At that precise moment I recall looking at my father. He had the same look in his eyes as I had when the guy asked how long our video would go on like that.

A little empathy goes a long way.

Here is that video we shot to the song “in the morning of a day.”

Life saver

There are many great ideas out there. From arts to science, technology to popular culture, everyday we face new concepts that affect us. We do not have to like them all, but at least most of them deserve our respect and understanding.

Lifesaver Bottle is beyond that. It is almost too good to be true. It is not only a great idea, but it has already been developed into a great product. I haven’t seen one. I never used it. But it sounds absolutely fantastic.

The idea is very simple. It is a small, portable bottle that transforms any dirty, disease-infected source of water into a safe, drinkable, sterile one. You can literally get some water from the nearest muddy and filthy pond, filter it through the Lifesaver Bottle and drink it after just a few seconds.

When a disaster hits, finding clean water becomes one of the main concerns. In many parts of the world, you do not even need a disaster to make drinkable water scarce. People die by millions. One small bottle can prevent it.

I am disappointed in myself. Why did I not find out about this before? As far as I can tell it has been around for some time. Why aren’t news channels and government agencies shouting about this bottle? Why aren’t there any competitors with similar products/technologies?

Here, you can hear its inventor talk about the Lifesaver Bottle and see what it accomplishes.

Is it too good to be true?

It cannot be done

“Hey. I had an idea. Why don’t we try to do it like this?”

“It cannot be done!”

That is the expert speaking in an expert way. It is frustrating to hear these same words for the hundredth time.

Part of being an expert is indeed about defining and encouraging boundaries. Experts are experts also because they know the limits of the subject they are expert in. That is what defines their expertise. That is their expert area, where they tend to dig deep, but sometimes lose vision in that darkness. That is where creativity and expertise go opposite sides.

“It cannot be done!” is one of the first phrases an expert learns and uses. However, it is an indication that the expert is not expert enough. It is a dangerous weapon that not only would inhibit innovation, but also in the wrong hands it can cause a lot of talent to go to waste.  The true expert would not allow that to happen. The true expert keeps an open mind, at all times.

In her 1998 article in Harvard Business Review, Prof. Teresa Amabile identifies expertise as one of the three main factors that leads to creativity. But still, without mixing it with appropriate amounts of motivation and creative thinking skills (whatever the hell they are) one does not get to be creative.

That is why sometimes the combination of a true expert and a naïve rookie, mixed with a motivation to reach a common goal can lead to a productive and highly creative synergy.

Here is more on the subject of creativity vs. expertise from New York Times.