Arnold Kling  

What I've Been Reading

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Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. It is about a year that he spent honing his memory sufficiently to win the U.S. memory championships. Most of the book is about memory and its relationship, if any, to intelligence. He never really reaches a firm conclusion, but the book is delightful to read.

What I focused on most was the chapter on the "plateau" phenomenon. That is, when you try to master a skill, you may reach a point where you are no longer improving. Foer, citing Anders Ericcson and confirming with his own experience, says that what is happening at a plateau is that you are doing too much on auto-pilot. Instead, you have to jar yourself into engaging in the activity more consciously. Thus, if I were trying to get better at my Othello endgame, I could not just play more and more games the way I have been playing them. Instead, I would have to study the endgame, identify my weaknesses, and work to correct them. In fact, that is exactly what I did in 1987, when I had my best year. This is not a pleasant process, however. By reducing the role of your autopilot, you actually get worse for a while.

I wonder if there is an analogy with firms or even larger economic units. That is, a firm is bound to operate on "autopilot" to a large extent, but if it does so it will reach a plateau. And maybe firms or larger economic units sometimes have to cut back on autopilot and do worse for a while in order to escape a plateau.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
PrometheeFeu writes:

"I wonder if there is an analogy with firms or even larger economic units. That is, a firm is bound to operate on "autopilot" to a large extent, but if it does so it will reach a plateau. And maybe firms or larger economic units sometimes have to cut back on autopilot and do worse for a while in order to escape a plateau."

That seems to me to be a very good description of the innovator's dillema. Firms get on auto-pilot tweaking their working business model, doing marginal improvements on their product and so on. They can't really improve much anymore. (Or their rate of improvement drops very low) But very often, some truly disruptive innovation is within their reach. But in order to get there, they're going to have to spend money in R&D, cut back on their existing products (finite resources and all that) and start competing against themselves wasting a lot of money in the short run. That's very unpleasant. But if they don't do all of that, they'll die out because eventually somebody will see the disruptive innovation and outcompete them. I imagine it's the same as your Othello game. Eventually, your opponents will get wise to your weaknesses and you will start loosing more and more unless you are willing to force yourself out of your comfort zone and patch your weaknesses.

Andy writes:

It was an enjoyable read. It was a bit dismaying that the memory techniques really only apply to the narrow task of remembering lists or numbers, and not for what I would like to improve -- to remember things I've read. No shortcut that I'm aware of for that unfortunately.

Craig Fratrik writes:

There's a relevant passage from an econtalk episode. O'Donahoe is talking about how to encourage his team to find innovations.

As leaders--great leaders will come in. This has less to do with Frito-Lay and more to do with the military--when I was in the military, we were given problems that were just unsolvable given the resources we have at hand. So, hey, you need to go and hold this piece of territory north of Kirkuk, and by the way, you way, you have 60 guys to hold 300 square miles. Can't be done. Great. You still have to go do it. You don't get to say: I disagree. Phenomenal leaders, who kind of came in and said: Guess what, we are going to have to partner up with the local people; and then you have figure out how to do that; but that was a way, a vehicle, of going in and solving the problem. Or you want to take a census of the local population, who is there. Inventory, how many people come to the local watering hole; and then you get to know the locals because they have to get their water from someplace. Necessity is the mother of all invention. Great leadership can either stifle or enhance all the lightbulbs. Bird's eye view of where the good ideas are coming from; then that reinvention can take place. But it's hard to do. It's the hardest thing--I think of Clay Christiansen about this--innovator, solution, dilemma; how do you disrupt yourself while retaining your part of the marketplace. That was a phrase you used numerous times in our conversation in the store--using the phrase "disrupt" as a positive. To shake up. I want to do that. I will plan disruptions with my team and it drives them crazy, where I'll take away a team member today, just to see what they do. Figure out how to do more with less. You have to self-disrupt, with anything in life. That's how you get better.
Tom Davies writes:

If you have to get worse before you improve, perhaps 'local maxima' is a better description than 'plateau'?

J Oxman writes:

The concept of doing too much on auto-pilot at plateaus is complementary to Geoff Colvin's discussion of deliberate practice in "Talent is Overrated."

The idea is that practice alone doesn't help past a certain point. Deliberate practice is done by identifying your weak points and focusing on improving your performance on those points.

Steve Z writes:

I love the point in the book where he exposes the so-called "savant" as a highly-skilled faker. It is depressing that, as a society, we value people who have skills by freak more than those who develop skills through effort.

IAM writes:

The comment about medical practice is also interesting;

'Unlike mammographers, surgeons tend to get better with time. What makes surgeons different from mammographers, according to Ericsson, is that the outcome of most surgeries is usually immediately apparent—the patient either gets better or doesn’t—which means that surgeons are constantly receiving feedback on their performance. They’re always learning what works and what doesn’t, always getting better. This finding leads to a practical application of expertise theory: Ericsson suggests that mammographers regularly be asked to evaluate old cases for which the outcome is already known. That way they can get immediate feedback on their performance'

so focus has to be on how rather then the time spent- 'to force oneself out of autopilot'

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