Monday, August 29, 2011

The Calculus of Grit

Venkatesh Rao's Blog

I think I now understand the reason I reject the generalist label and resonate far more with the specialist label. The generalist/specialist distinction is an extrinsic coordinate system for mapping human potential. This system itself is breaking down, so we have to reconstruct whatever meaning the distinction had in intrinsic terms. When I chart my life course using such intrinsic notions, I end up clearly a (reconstructed) specialist [..].

Extrinsically situated creativity with reference to some global, absolute scheme of generalist/specialist dimensions is unworkable. At best we can hope for local, relative schemes and an idea of intrinsically situated individual lives [..].

The problem with this generalist/specialist extrinsically situated creativity model is that the extrinsic frames of references are getting increasingly dynamic, chaotic and murky. To the point that the distinction is becoming useless. Nobody seems to know which way is up, which way is down, and which way is sideways. If you guess and get lucky, the answers may change next year, leaving you disoriented once more [..].

So given that most excitement centers around short-lived fruitfly non-disciplines, how do people even manage to log 10,000 deliberate practice hours in any coherent journey to mastery? Can you jump across three or four fruit-fly domains over the course of a decade and still end up with mastery of something, even if you cannot define it?

Yes. If you drop extrinsic frames of reference altogether.

We need another supporting notion before we can construct an intrinsic coordinate system for human lives [..].

You might wake up one fine day and realize that your life, which makes no sense in nominal terms, actually adds up to expertise in some domain you’d never identified with at all [.. A]t some point I realized with a shock that I had accidentally logged several thousand hours along a marketing career path without realizing it. I had just completely misunderstood what “marketing” meant based on the popular image the field presents to novices [..]

If there is no external frame of reference, how do you know where you are, where you are going and whether you are progressing at all, as opposed to bumming around? Can you log any old time-sheet of 10,000 hours, slap a label on it, and claim mastery? Thankfully, intrinsic navigation is not quite that trite. Grit is the enduring intrinsic quality that, for a brief period in recent history, was coincident with the pattern of behavior known as progressive disciplinary specialization [..Grit is] probably the best predictor of success in the modern world [..].

Grit has external connotations of extreme toughness, a high apparent threshold for pain, and an ability to keep picking yourself up after getting knocked down. From the outside, grit looks like the bloody-minded exercise of extreme will power. It looks like a super-power [..].

But the subjective feel of grit is not my concern here. I am interested in objective, intrinsically measurable aspects of grit [..] In endeavor space, field, domain and years of experience get replaced by three variables that lend themselves to a convenient new 3Rs acronym: reworking, referencing, releasing [..] What does navigating by these three variables look like from the outside?

If you only do a lot of internal referencing, that’s like marching along a straight, level road. If you do a lot of internal referencing and a lot of rework, that’s like marching along a steady uphill road that’s gradually getting steeper from an external point of view (in other words, you are on your own exponential path of progress). What you are doing will look impossible to observers. It may look like you are marching up a vertical cliff [..].

The environment that really matters isn’t the external world. It is pretty much pure noise. You can easily find and process the subset that is meaningful for your life. It isn’t about harder, smarter, faster. If it were, I’d be dead. I’ve been getting lazier, dumber and slower [..]. Exhortation is pointless. Humans don’t suddenly become super-human just because the environment suddenly seems to demand superhuman behavior for survival. Those who attempt this kill themselves just as surely as those dumb kids who watch a superman movie and jump off buildings hoping to fly [..].


It is the landscape of your own strengths that matters. And you can set your own, completely human pace through it [..].

The only truly new behavior you need is increased introspection. And yes, this will advantage some people over others. To avoid running faster and faster until you die of exhaustion, you need to develop an increasingly refined understanding of this landscape as you progress. You twist and turn as you walk (not run) primarily to find the path of least resistance on the landscape of your strengths [..].

The only truly new belief you need is that the landscape of disciplinary endeavors and achievement is meaningless. If you are too attached to degrees, medals, prizes, prestigious titles and other extrinsic markers of progress in your life, you might as well give up now. With 90% probability you aren’t going to make it. It’s simple math: even if they were worth it, as our friend [Tom] Friedman notes with his characteristic scare-mongering, there simply isn’t enough to go around [..]

If you’re paying attention to the Chinese kids who score a perfect 800, you’re paying attention to the wrong people. I mean, really? You should worry about some Chinese kid terrorized into achieving a perfect-800 math score by some Tiger Mom, and applying to Grinnell College?

It’s the Chinese kids who are rebelling against their Tiger Moms, completely ignoring the SAT, and flowing down the path of least resistance that you should be worried about. After all Sun Tzu invented that whole idea [..].

So rework, reference, release. Flow through the landscape of your own strengths and weaknesses. Count to 10,000 rework hours as you walk. If you aren’t seeing accelerating external results by hour 3300, stop and introspect. That is the calculus of grit. It’s the exponential human psychology you need for exponential times. Ignore everything else.

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