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The Attention Span. "No Pain, No Gain."

A short piece on the one (highly topical!) question I’ve wrestled with for the longest:

What’s the relationship between genius and psychological discomfort?

“No Pain, No Gain.”

[6 minute read]

Source: Getty Images.

The dominant theme of today’s macroeconomic environment is tension and contradiction. We have the Federal Reserve raising rates into a possible recession. This week the Bank of England enacted emergency Quantitative Easing into massive inflation. Tom Pence’s recent investment outlook illustrated an unusual array of powerfully conflicting signals. As he puts it:

“I feel as if the deflationary forces are already advancing. Therefore my belief is that the rapid run-up we are seeing in rates is largely the result of aggressive quantitative tightening (QT) rather than natural market forces. These two trends appear to be in conflict with one another. But it is not clear to me that this divergence is going to solve the labor supply problem anytime soon. Something else may be at work there. If I am right on that, then I wonder how much destruction the Fed is willing to inflict upon the economy before it accepts the reality that QT and Fed Funds increases may not be the appropriate tool of macroeconomic policy to address the current challenges they are confronting.”

We are therefore watching and waiting to see how things play out. This is in spite of the fact that in the investment industry there’s often a lot of pressure to produce definitive answers in uncertain times.

A fascinating Hidden Brain podcast with Naomi Rothman explored the research on mixed emotions (below). Conflicted leaders and experts are judged more harshly. On earnings calls, emotionally ambivalent management teams are treated more skeptically by both the analyst community and the market. This is especially true for female executives.

However, appropriate cognitive dissonance can actually make your forecasts more accurate. Conflicting emotions reflect the nuances of a complex world. They prevent biases and premature conclusions. If you’re feeling ambivalent, you even process new information in a more cognitively flexible manner. I’ve been unable to find a single trait that’s more important than cognitive flexibility.

Dissonance may even be a precursor to genius:

“Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, 'How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
- Mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota

Just as in today’s macroeconomic environment, such problems often present as paradoxes or direct contradictions. Harvard psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg meticulously studied the lives of Nobel laureates and world-changing scientists. He found that they had often spent considerable time “actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously.”

The longer you wait, the higher the chances of an unexpected breakthrough. Einstein himself said “It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.” This is why comedian John Cleese’s recent short book on creativity (insights here) recommends that you should never produce creative work any earlier than you need to. The broader implication is that a degree of psychological tension is required for significant creative progress; there’s no forward movement without friction. This dissonance is fundamentally uncomfortable.

Creative tension is also a highly effective principle of business and innovation. For example, TRIZ is the Russian acronym for the "Theory of Inventive Problem Solving." It’s a highly complex system developed in the USSR between 1946 and 1985 by engineer and scientist Genrich Altshuller. TRIZ’s intensive research across literally hundreds of thousands of patents found that inventive solutions typically require overcoming a dilemma or trade-off between two contradictory elements. TRIZ has been widely credited for a transformative creative culture at companies like Samsung.

What’s the personal application of this idea?

I recently listened to a very popular podcast on dopamine by celebrity doctor Andrew Huberman (below). He attributes massive importance to dopamine in influencing our energy, motivation, and pleasure. Aside from the podcast providing corroboration for life-hacking clichés like cold water exposure and intermittent fasting, it’s clear that keeping your baseline dopamine levels low is beneficial. This means reducing stimulants and notifications on your phone. It’s impossible to really sit in necessary tension if you’re being constantly distracted. His conclusion is to try to find enjoyment in the challenge itself, rather than any rewards. Easier said than done of course!

I once heard the expression “if you don’t give a working dog a job, it will find one.” Essentially, if you have a Beagle bred for hunting or a Collie bred for herding and you keep them cooped-up in your apartment, they’ll probably tear it apart. I treat my overactive intellect the same way. I give it big ideas to wrestle with, then try and stay with them for as long as possible, sometimes for years. Then, out of nowhere, an answer sometimes appears. I can’t claim to understand it, but I know it works. Like Feynman, this means first deciding which questions are important to you and then being willing to sit with them for as long as it takes.

Appropriately enough, the question I’ve been wrestling with for the longest is related to dissonance itself. Does the length of time you spend struggling with a question correspond to the magnitude of the eventual insight? Does more pain mean more gain? I hope I’ll find out one day.

“Stay with the contradiction. If you stay, you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.”
- Jacob Needleman

Related reading and listening:

  • Listen. Hidden Brain with Naomi Rothman on Mixed Emotions (58 minute listen).
  • Why listen. Coincidentally recommended to me by author Annie Murphy Paul last week, this ended up to be perfect background to this piece.

  • Read: Why the Paradox Mindset is the Key to Success in the BBC (12 minute read).
  • Why Read. A really helpful comprehensive rundown of the use of paradoxical thinking in business and life.

  • Read. Focus and Finding Your Favorite Problems by Frederik Gieschen (12 minute read).
  • Why read. I shouldn’t really be surprised by coincidences at this point, but my friend Fredrik wrote this piece after I’d already written this one.
    • “I would encourage you to go through the exercise of making your own list and contemplating the layers and questions that are not immediately obvious. Consider how these questions have changed over the years. Which ones are truly important and refuse to disappear? Which ones can turn into action or creative work?

  • Read. Janusian Thinking by Michael Michalko (12 minute read)
  • Why read. Clear examples of how the ability to embrace paradox produced dramatic breakthroughs for Einstein, Bohr, and Pasteur.

  • Listen: Controlling Your Dopamine for Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction by Andrew Huberman (2 hour 16 minute listen).
  • Why listen. I’ll confess I’m wary of both the celebrity doctor genre and the chemical model of the brain. However if dopamine is even a small amount as important as Huberman claims it is, this podcast is still worth listening to.
    • Dopamine is the primary determinant behind how excited we are, how motivated we are, and how ready we are to push through things to get what we want.
    • We all have a dopamine set-point: if we continue to participate in dopamine stimulating activities, eventually we won’t experience the same joy from those behaviors.
    • Cold plunge (temperature of the water will depend on cold adaptation) can boost dopamine up to 2.5x above baseline – but is sustained for up to three hours post-exposure.
    • Access reward from the process and associate dopamine release from friction and challenge you are in during effort instead of only once goal is achieved – convince yourself the effort part is the good part (e.g., intermittent fasting).

Have a great weekend,


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