What I read in February

Previously January 2023

Here is what I read last month (February):

# Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

What sets expert performers from the rest of us, and what can ordinary people do to improve their own performance in different disciplines? This is what the excellent Peak sought to explain, and I think it did a sterling job.

Key takeaways:

  • It is possible to get better at most things because the adaptability of the human brain.
  • In general younger brains are more adaptable than older ones, so training often has bigger effects in children and adolescents than in adults.
"The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest ways to overcome them."
  • The key to expert performance is deliberate practice, which is different from the usual kind of practice that most people do. In particular deliberate practice:
    • has goals
    • is focused
    • involves getting feedback
    • means always expanding the borders of one's comfort zone
  • The cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Use it or lose it.
  • The difference between experts and non-experts is that they have different mental representations.
A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.
  • Deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient and accurate mental representations of that particular activity. Hence there is no such thing as developing a "general skill".
  • Mental representations make possible pattern recognition, problem solving, learning, self-assessment , information extraction and organization, and other advanced abilities needed to excel. Hence when chess grandmasters look at a board of a realistic game they see patterns and can accurately recall the positions of pieces, but when given random, improbable positions, they do no better that ordinary people in recalling the positions.
This is the basic blueprint for getting better in any pursuit: get as close to deliberate practice as you can. If you’re in a field where deliberate practice is an option, you should take that option. If not, apply the principles of deliberate practice as much as possible. In practice this often boils down to purposeful practice with a few extra steps: first, identify the expert performers, then figure out what they do that makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it, too.
  • Learning skills take time, usually a very long time (though the 10 000 hours Gladwell popularized is fiction)
  • Focus more on skills, rather than knowledge. Bias towards action, towards doing, building, performing.
  • It is possible to improve without teachers, as Benjamin Franklin did with his writing, by copying what he considered good writing, thereby building mental representations of what make good writing.
To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.
  • Getting sufficient sleep is extremely important. So is general health.

  • Improving at a skill is often motivating in itself, setting up a virtuous cycle towards mastery.

  • Talent is largely fake. Expert performers work

And here we find our major takeaway message: In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent.
- Self improvement, continuously expanding the edges of our abilities is enjoyable, and is a gateway to flow, and finding meaning and joy in life.
And I would argue that we humans are most human when we’re improving ourselves. We, unlike any other animal, can consciously change ourselves, to improve ourselves in ways we choose. This distinguishes us from every other species alive today and, as far as we know, from every other species that has ever lived.
  • Man is man because he is a doer, not a knower.
We call ourselves “knowing man” because we see ourselves as distinguished from our ancestors by our vast amount of knowledge. But perhaps a better way to see ourselves would be as Homo exercens, or “practicing man,” the species that takes control of its life through practice and makes of itself what it will.

# Chase, Chance, and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty by James H. Austin

If you have ever heard of the four kinds of luck this is the book where they come from (via an ancient blog post). This book seeks to distill the fundamental elements of chance and creativity.

Key takeaways:

  • Discoveries (and good things) usually begin with the "chase" - seemingly random, unplanned things - childhood influences, a chance meeting, an eccentric relative.
I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way. - Franklin P. Adams
  • Variety of experience is a favorable condition for productivity.
Every specialist, whatever his profession, skill or business may be, can improve his performance by broadening his base. - Wilder Penfield
  • Many great things are entirely fortuitous, but you have to be sagacious - to recognize the opportunity - and bold - to grab it - when it arises.
If you are completely candid with yourself, you will soon discover how much your discoveries hinge on contingencies. Every now and then, when you happen to combine both boldness and skill, you may be able to exploit a few of the lucky situations that arise. But skill alone will not be enough, for much of the novelty in creativity is decided only when you are bold enough to thrust at chance.
  • There are four kinds of chance

    1. Blind chance.
    2. Chance due to action: Keep on going and the chances are you will stumble on something, perhaps when your are least expecting it. I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down - Charles Kettering
    3. Chance due to expertise: Chance favors only the prepared mind- Louis Pasteur
    4. Chance due to uniqueness: We make our fortunes, and we call them fate- Benjamin Disraeli
  • We can make/influence our own luck

Chance is unintentional, it is capricious, but we needn't conclude that chance is immune from human interventions.
- Chance II depends on motion, the basic need to release energy. This is the proverbial stirring of the pot.
A certain basal level of action "stirs up the pot," brings in random ideas that will collide and stick together in fresh combinations, lets chance operate. Motion yields a network of new experiences which, like a sieve, filters best when in constant up-and-down, side-to-side movement. Consistent centrifugal types of motion are what distinguish Chance II; its premise is that unluck runs out if you keep stirring up things so that random elements can combine, by virtue of your and their inherent affinities.
So Chance 11 springs from your energetic, generalized motor activities, and, with the above qualification, the freer they are, the better. It involves the kind of luck Kettering, the automotive engineer, had in mind when he said, in effect, "keep on going, and you'll stumble on something." When someone, anyone, does swing into motion and keeps on going, he or she will increase the number of collisions between events. If you link a few events together, you can then exploit some of them, but many others, of course, you cannot.
  • Chance III requires knowledge, expertise or experience to recognize it. It is for the sagacious- the observant, the prepared. This is how Fleming discovered penicillin, by quickly recognizing and combining together happenstance with deep knowledge.
Now, as we move on to Chance III, we see blind luck, but it tiptoes in softly, dressed in camouflage. Chance presents only a faint clue, the potential opportunity exists, but it will be overlooked except by that one person uniquely equipped to observe it, visualize it conceptually, and fully grasp its significance. Chance III involves a special receptivity, discernment, and intuitive grasp of significance unique to one particular recipient. Louis Pasteur characterized it for all time when he said: "Chance favors only the prepared mind."
- Chance IV is chance that arises from the unique traits of the individual. The individual because of his actions, unique history, and idiosyncrasies encounters and courts Lady Luck.
Chance IV is the kind of luck that develops during a probing action which has a distinctive personal flavor. The English Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, summed up the principle underlying Chance IV when he noted that, as persons, "we make our fortunes and we call them fate." Disraeli, the practical politician, appreciated that by our actions we each forge our own destiny, at least to some degree. Chance IV comes to you, unsought, because of who you are and how you behave. Disraeli was aware that our so-called "quirks of fate" are often oneman-made.
The way of fortune is like the milky way in the sky; which is a number of small stars, not seen asunder, but giving light together: so it is a number of little and scarce discerned virtues, or rather faculties and customs, that make men fortunate - Francis Bacon
  • Creativity is the "long and complex series of interactions between an individual and his environment that culminate in something new."
  • Creativity takes time, and the fruit often comes from seeds planted over time, in the most unexpected places.
  • Creative people often notice incongruities, Darwin in particular was noted for this. He had a quality of "never letting exceptions pass unnoticed".
If I were to limit myself to the five most important traits, I would quickly select: curiosity, imagination, enthusiasm, discrimination, and persistence. But this would be like trying to define the complex operations of a whole human being in terms of his five most vital organs: nervous system, heart, lungs, adrenals, liver. They are essential, but they, too, are only part of the total picture.
- Creativity makes us feel alive, to be human is to create.
Nowadays, we talk about being "turned on" by an idea. We may well he describing quite literally the satisfying state of alertness and pleasurable excitement triggered directly or indirectly by stimuli that fire some of the special neuronal systems deep within our brain. For it is important to note that we humans, too, have reward systems in our brains, waiting for us to find normal memorable stimuli adequate to turn them on.
  • The creative process is not linear, it is chaotic an fluid. Part of it is not even conscious.
  • We all need a a violin of Ingres a hobby or creative outlet that takes our minds of problems and allows the mind to process problems unconsciously, eventually arriving at unexpected insight.
The investigator must be both Shaw and Picasso, and all the men in between. He must swing back and forth from the freest flights of imagination to the most rigorous grinding logic. He may be struck by an intense flash of creative inspiration that hits with lightninglike impact. Or, he may pursue the vaguest of hunches, driven by an intuition corresponding to the faintest glow of one lone ember in the hearth. Then again, he may experience his enlightenment through a sequence of small sparks, each of lesser intensity and amplitude, which successively leap upward into consciousness. These, too, can collectively solve the problem with new ideas of all sizes and shapes which spring forth at intervals of hours, days, weeks, or longer.
  • Meditation can help the creative process.
  • Ultimately we are (mostly) the masters of our own fates and we have the tools to alter reality.
Our future is still malleable, still very much in our own hands. Nothing is predetermined. Chance can be on our side if we but stir it up with our energies, stay receptive to the glint of opportunity on even a single hair above the underbrush, and continually provoke it by individuality in our attitudes and approach to life.

# Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

A good fantasy book, different from the usual fantasy I usually read.