June 2, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 19: Minimal viable progress, collaborative creativity, and the outsider test

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. As people become more informed on a subject, they diverge, not converge

"Yale law professor Dan Kahan surveyed Americans about their political views and their beliefs about climate change. As you would expect, those two things were highly correlated. Liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to agree with the statement 'There is solid evidence of recent global warming due mostly to human activity such as burning fossil fuels.' So far, not surprising. The twist is that Kahan also measured his respondents' 'science intelligence' with a collection of different questions.

"If knowledge and intelligence protect you from motivated reasoning, then we would expect to find that the more people know about science, the more they agree with each other about scientific questions. Kahan found the opposite.

​"At the lowest levels of scientific intelligence, there's no polarization at all—roughly 33 percent of both liberals and conservatives believe in human-caused global warming. But as scientific intelligence increases, liberal and conservative opinions diverge. By the time you get to the highest percentile of scientific intelligence, liberal belief in human-caused global warming has risen to nearly 100 percent, while conservative belief in it has fallen to 20 percent.

​"The same funnel-shaped pattern shows up when you ask people for their opinions on other ideologically charged scientific issues: Should the government fund stem cell research? How did the universe begin? Did humans evolve from lower animal species? On all these questions, the people with the highest levels of scientific intelligence were also the most politically polarized in their opinions." — From The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef

There is a presumption that those with little knowledge of a subject are most entrenched in their beliefs. The thinking is that because of how little they know, the complexity of the topic eludes them.

Reading more books broadens the scope of a subject. In many ways, reading isn't so much a practice of learning as it is a practice of discovering how much there is to learn. As we learn more about one subject, the gray area of unknowns expands.

When I finish reading a book, I don't think, “Ah yes, now I understand that so much better.” Instead, I'm scrambling to find another ten books to devour to answer the hundreds of questions the previous book presented. This leads me to believe that people who have a deep understanding of one subject tend to see that scale as being equally applicable to others. A person who lacks this level of mastery can often underestimate the sheer magnitude of a discipline.

I imagine this activity as a tree. The trunk represents the beginning of the learning process, where everything looks linear and straightforward. The higher we ascend, the more things branch off into hundreds of tangents.

Deep knowledge of a subject can be a double-edged sword. Galef writes that being knowledgeable and having a high IQ can lead to a false sense of security in our reasoning. Because we're so informed, we believe our beliefs are much better researched than everyone else's, making us less inclined to consider the viewpoints of others.

“What do they know? I've been researching this topic for over a decade!”

We're inclined to believe experts in a field, and this study does not diminish that fact. The experience is not the problem; it's the biases towards existing ideas we're addressing.

John Maynard Keynes once remarked, "It's not bringing in the new ideas that's so hard. It's getting rid of the old ones." Einstein, too, attributes much of his success to his "curiosity, concentration, perseverance, and self-criticism." The first three qualities don't require explanation, but self-criticism may seem out of place. Warren Buffet's business partner Charlie Munger had this to say about Einstein’s quote: "By self-criticism, he meant becoming good at destroying your own best-loved and hardest-won ideas. If you can get really good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift."

While intelligence is essential and a high IQ beneficial, these don't protect from cognitive biases and can make people more susceptible to falling into patterns of motivated reasoning.

2. Creativity is collaborative

"Many of us have a romantic idea about how creativity happens: A lone visionary conceives of a film or a product in a flash of insight. Then that visionary leads a team of people through hardship to finally deliver on that great promise. The truth is, this isn't my experience at all. I've known many people I consider to be creative geniuses, and not just at Pixar and Disney, yet I can't remember a single one who could articulate exactly what this vision was that they were striving for when they started. In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself." — From Creativity Inc by Edwin Catmull (co-found of Pixar)

Catmull is describing two myths of creation that circulate in society:

1. The myth of the lone genius

2. The myth that creativity is a “flash of insight”

The myth of the lone genius, like all great myths, contains elements of truth.

J.K. Rowling locked herself in a hotel suite to write the highly anticipated conclusion to her Harry Potter series:

"So I came to this hotel because it's a beautiful hotel, but I didn't intend to stay here," [Rowling] explained. "But the first day's writing went well so I kept coming back… and I ended up finishing the last of the Harry Potter books here."

This trend continues with other modern authors such as Neil Gaiman and Michael Pollan, who both own secluded log cabins for writing. In the 1800s, writers such as Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, and Roald Dahl all owned isolated buildings for working on their craft.

Some writers worked in seclusion, but few lived that way. Many artists and inventors took the opposite approach in synthesizing their creativity.

Leonardo da Vinci learned from his peers in the crowded centers of Florence, Milan, and Rome. Using the minds of others, Leonardo was able to sharpen his creations, refining them into what we now call masterpieces.

While working on what would become the lightbulb, Thomas Edison had thirty assistants, many of whom were scientists. The lightbulb itself has become a symbol representing the single moment of inspiration striking, yet Edison himself described the arduous process:

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." [1]

It would seem then that creativity contains three parts:

1. Collect influence, ideas, and perspectives from the world.

2. Synthesize these disparate pieces of information in solitude, away from the coloring of other minds.

3. Experiment with the results in public to collect feedback that can be used to further refine the work.

Practical Advice

1. The outsider test

"The thought experiment Grove and Moore did is called an outsider test: Imagine someone else stepped into your shoes—what do you expect they would do in your situation? When you're making a tough decision, the question of what to do can get tangled up with other, emotionally fraught questions like, 'Is it my fault that I'm in this situation?' or 'Are people going to judge me harshly if I change my mind?' The outsider test is designed to strip away those influences, leaving only your honest guess about the best way to handle a situation like the one you're in." — From The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef

The goal of imagining someone else in our shoes is not necessary to reach the right decision but to broaden the range of options.

Other people in our position would make decisions based on their experience, temperament, and worldview. Although these are not necessarily the right decisions, they help reveal a range of possible options that we perhaps are failing to consider.

2. Minimal viable progress

"A popular idea in Silicon Valley is 'Done is better than perfect.' The sentiment is not that we should produce rubbish. The idea, as I read it, is not to waste time on nonessentials and just to get the thing done. In entrepreneurial circles the idea is expressed as creating a 'minimal viable product.' The idea is, 'What is the simplest possible product that will be useful and valuable to the intended customer?'

"Similarly, we can adopt a method of 'minimal viable progress.' We can ask ourselves, 'What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?' — From Essentialism by Greg Mckeown

As a project approaches completion, its scope tends to expand. We start an article with an outline, only to find that the more research we conduct, the more we wish to include.

This notion of expansion applies to all areas of life, particularly habit formation.

If we don't have time for a 60-minute workout, we can adopt the minimal viable progress method instead of skipping it. We could ask: “What is the smallest amount of progress I can make with my available time?” Fifteen minutes of push-ups, squats, and burpees are an effective workout and far better than nothing.

Done is better than perfect.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Brian Tracy on the importance of forming good habits:

"Good habits are hard to form, but easy to live with. Bad habits are easy to form, but hard to live with."

2. Steve Jobs on the malleability of life:

"When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way that it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world and try not to bash into the walls too much. But that's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is that everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that are no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. And once you learn that, you'll never be the same again."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere


[1] Edison may not have invented the lightbulb or many of the inventions he took credit for. As noted, he had 30 or more people working for him around the clock. Many of his inventions may have been influenced or outright invented by these assistants, but there is no definitive proof. Whether or not Edison was the inventor, my purpose for including the passage remains. Creativity is a slow process, often requiring many minds to work in tandem.

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