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The Attention Span. “Mind’s the Gap.”

On what just might, maybe be a universal principle for personal and business success. And sadly also a source of great suffering.

“Mind’s the Gap.”

[8 minute read]

“Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope…. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

- Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), Good Will Hunting.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome. Source: Getty Images.

Speaking as someone that has had the experience nine times in his life (so far), the phrase “a dislocated shoulder is painful” is factually correct. However I can assure you that it contains none of the delightful sensory content. Prose strips vitality from reality through the process of abstraction.

From the ideas we use to communicate with each other, to the data we use to interpret the world, everything is a necessary abstraction. A map is an abstraction that helps us navigate the real-world territory. The space between Adam’s finger and God’s in Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling.

A universal principle for successful engagement in life, business, and investing is closing the gap between map and territory.

Indeed, the most dangerous thing is when our abstractions fail to keep pace with the ever-unfolding flow of reality. As an excellent recent article in Aeon puts it:

“People with severe depression have often formed a precise expectation of their own behaviours and responses — a predictive self-model that actively inhibits the joyful or playful exploration of their worlds, and which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy of powerlessness and retreat.”

Essentially your view of yourself has become too fixed. Your depressed self-assessment, such as “I am worthless,” is resistant to all contradictory outside evidence.

We have a toddler. We watch a lot of Pixar. We’re probably bad parents. The movie Inside Out has a moment when the characters get caught in “abstract thought.” It nearly kills them. Abstract thought is fundamentally disconnected from life, by definition. Hell is living only in the model, not the world.

This "closed network" conceptualization has support from a scientific understanding of complex systems. As John Arden writes in the book Mind, Body, Gene:

“Complex adaptive systems are by nature open systems. We need interaction with the environment to grow and change. Closed systems, by contrast, are isolated, with no exchange of information with the environment. They are forced to feed on themselves. From a psychological perspective, depression, with its associated behaviors of withdrawal, isolation, and lack of effort, may be thought of as promoting a closed system.”

Anhedonia, or spiritual depression, is a kind of total detachment from everything, including emotion. It’s like a prisoner in solitary confinement watching the world through a tiny window.

To escape the abstract, the same logic goes, widen the filter. Reconnect and break down the rigid model. This fits with the emerging theory of “neural annealing.” Annealing describes the heating of a metal above its recrystallization temperature, keeping it there for long enough for the microstructure to reach equilibrium, then slowly cooling it down. This enables it to release stress and allows new patterns to crystallize. Similarly, if our brains have become too rigid, disconnected and imbalanced, annealing is a potential remedy. It’s why we seek out high-energy states from time to time, in healthy or unhealthy ways.

So what?

We all know managers, investors, or “permabear” pundits who simply haven’t updated their mental models and vainly shake their fist at reality as the price moves inexorably against them. “VHS rental is coming back!”

Meanwhile the world itself has shifted dramatically towards digital abstraction. As we wrote recently, this has led to a business environment where ever-fluctuating intangibles are the dominant source of value. A recent report from Michael Mauboussin demonstrates that this leads to many more binary outcomes as colossal fortunes are won and lost far faster than before. The territory itself is moving very, very fast.

A simply vast amount of business, investing, and consulting guidance is focused on telling people how to build better models and frameworks. This is because it’s much easier and safer than helping people destroy them. So how do you know when your model is wrong?

Former Knall/Cohen/Pence “Most Interesting People in the World” speakers Jaron Lanier and Rory Sutherland both talked about how W. Edwards Deming rapidly and radically revolutionized Japanese manufacturing after World War II. He did this through relentless focus on establishing consistent quality. Deming’s conclusion was that:

“The consumer is the most important part of the production line. Quality should be aimed at the needs of the customer, present and future.”

For example, U.S. consumers came to prefer Japanese-made transmissions because their superior precision led to the cars running noticeably better. This sounds embarrassingly obvious, but Lanier has maintained that many modern digital businesses are insufficiently focused on the genuine wellbeing of their end consumers. It reminded me of one of Pip Coburn’s five key questions for management: “How do you use customer complaints SPECIFICALLY to create a better business?” As they’re based in the real world, the consumer helps you tear down the model. It’s about knowing where the edge of your network is, and getting the best feedback from it.

The Toyota Production System uses two related principles: Gemba (the place where the work is done) and Kaizen (the philosophy of continuous improvement).

When senior management have a two-way relationship with the Gemba (factory floor or end-consumer), they have fresh information about real-world impacts. This allows efficient feedback loops, or Kaizen. They can adapt rapidly to changes in the real-world. Their model is moving fast. The revitalizing energy comes from the edge of the network, not the boardroom. This precisely mirrors the essential cognitive process of dynamic cycling between model and reality.

Amazon’s wildly successful private label business, AmazonBasics, “starts from the consumer and works backwards.” They use their unparalleled insights into customer preferences to rapidly develop new products. Even more dramatic is the process by which many networks now trust individual users to directly alter the product. Rather than centralize management, let the edge of the system itself take some control. As Joshua Cooper Ramo puts it in The Age of the Unthinkable:

“Once users step into active engagement, the dynamics of the system shift forever: users stop being consumers and become participants. This pushes the opportunity for innovation to the edges of a network, where users reside, instead of leaving it in the hands of some slow-moving, committee-oriented, centralized manufacturing center.”

The mean time for a Wikipedia error to be fixed is now under five minutes. As the 1990 edition of Encyclopedia Britannia gathers dust on your shelves.

As always – learning about one thing single thing in complex systems can tell you a whole lot about thriving in the world. The fastest way to reinvigorate something is through a burst of outside energy. Meanwhile, flexible things priced as if they are rigid, and vice-versa, will continue to provide historically unprecedented opportunities.

Related reading.

  • Read. The value of uncertainty- Aeon (47 minute read)
  • Why read. A long but staggeringly interesting article from Aeon.
  • “This suggests that there are ways to hack our own predictive minds so as to escape at least some of the traps we have been examining. This is true in cases where people yearn for a more varied and engaging life. But similar principles underpin some of the most devastating psychopathologies, where, just like in the case of learned helplessness, ingrained expectations about the volatility and unpredictably of the environment are resistant to revision even when agents find themselves in more favourable environmental circumstances. A host of psychological and affective disorders such as major depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be broadly understood within those terms.”
  • Read. User Gemba by John Hunter (4 minute read).
  • Why read. A super-quick article from The Deming Institute on customer experience, quality, and gemba.

More resources on depression.

I’ve read a lot on this topic over the years, also recommended:

  • Depression by Scott Siskind (77 minute read). All of Siskind’s work is too long. But this is one instance where length is an asset: it’s an extremely comprehensive rundown of the different facets of depression written by a polymathic psychiatrist. “By far the most powerful treatment for depression is GETTING AWAY FROM THE DEPRESSING THING. After that: diet, exercise, sunlight, and hygiene/routine/behavioral activation.”
  • Adventures in Depression in “Hyperbole and a half” by Allie Brosh. An evocative cartoon strip on Brosh’s own depression.
  • Anatomy of Melancholy (90 minute read) by Andrew Solomon.
  • A few thoughts on depression by Noah Smith (19 minute read). A solid explanation of what depressed people in your life might need from you.

Stay in the game.

Have a good weekend!


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