Friday, June 08, 2012

Checklist and the frontier

(This post violates my 15 minutes of writing rule, and I keep delaying its publication thinking about it, so I'm just letting it rip)

At the end of Atul Gawande's "Checklist Manifesto", the author calls attention between the simultaneous importance of checklists and the discipline required to adhere to them and peoples' resistance to them.  "Discipline is hard -- harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness.  We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures.  We can't even keep from snacking between meals.  We are not built for discipline.  We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at." Indeed. We hate for some little piece of paper to tell us what to do, no matter how beneficial their potential effects.

At the extreme end, this called to mind the resistance to the Direct Instruction methodology that Ian Ayres details in "Super Crunchers."  Direct Instruction, for those to whom the term is new, is a methodology for teaching kids math and reading and other core blocks of learning using extremely scripted techiques, like teachers metronomically tapping out a beat on the blackboard and having kids read along one word at a time to the teacher's beat.  Ayres claims that many studies show it to be the most effective way of teaching kids a lot of basic stuff. I'm sure this is debatable, I don't have time to do any kind of review of the literature on the topic, but the key thing is that it sounds horrible for the teacher. Where's the carpe diem in beating out a beat on the black board? Where is the teacher's ego?  Checked at the door. The teacher becomes a mere vessel for the delivery of rote learning. However effective it may be, it sounds horrible.

I suspect that, particularly for Americans, a lot of this aversion goes back to the basic dynamic that Frederick Jackson Turner laid out in 1893 in his landmark "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."  The 1890 census had shown that the frontier, defined as a realm of unsettled land into which Americans might move when the mood so struck them -- had disappeared, and that this would profoundly alter the American character:  "That coarsenees and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes with freedom -- these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier." Again, there are many critiques of Turner, but this rings true.  This is how we are raised to think of ourselves.  Having lost the physical frontier, we kept looking for others, eventually finding space, the final frontier, where Kirk, Spock, Bones McCoy and the crew could act out the dialectic of constraint and individuation for us.

I remember working at that big investment bank back in 2008, being disenchanted by the extreme transactionality of the people:  they would never sit back and talk to you qua you. It was all "nice to meet you, what are we doing here, what do you need from me?"  I found it very demeaning, but in fact it was just that they were in tune with what their organization was there for and focused on doing it. They were trying to optimize their status as cogs in a wheel because they believed in the wheel and that it would bring them more money and even fulfillment.

Over time, I see that that's what truly high-achieving people are like.  They figure out what they're up to and then the subordinate their personality to it, or integrate their personality with it.  You just have to. At the end of the day, you need to get home to your kids and take care of things and chill. Different cultures tolerate different degrees of "play" in this principle, or deviation from it.

A really extreme example would be Keith Ferrazzi's concept of the "deep bump." Ferrazzi, master networker of the world, tells us that to develop real and deep relationships with the people we come into contact with, we should be ready to be vulnerable with them quickly and share some deep memory from our development to create an emotional bond with them and loosen them up. Having created such a "real" relationship, one is better positioned to transact.

Anyway, back to Gawande.  The guy is great. He's very focused on his concept and makes a strong case for it, but by the time I finished the book, I was sitting outside of University Mall by the temporary public library, crying copiously. It was embarrassing. Thankfully, nobody was there to see me.

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