failed simulations and the surprising psychology of impressiveness
January 21, 2012 9:52 AM   Subscribe

...Failed Simulations & the Surprising Psychology of Impressiveness: "Accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do", posits Cal Newport of Study Hacks ("Decoding Patterns of Success" - at work, at school). (via AskMeFi)
Also from the blog: The Passion Trap ("How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable") and Beyond Passion ("The Science of Loving What You Do").

What happened inside your brain when you read the descriptions of David and Steve? According to a clever series of experiments conducted by G. Daniel Lassiter, a psychology professor at the University of Ohio, your first response was to look into the proverbial mirror. Or, as Lassiter describes it, somewhat more formally, in his 2002 paper on the subject: we have a “pervasive tendency…to use the self as a standard of comparison in [our] dispassionate judgments of others.”

Put another way, to evaluate a person’s accomplishments, we imagine ourselves attempting the same feat, allowing your own capabilities to provide a convenient benchmark for assessing others’.

(In Lassiter’s experiments, students took tests made up of difficult mathematical puzzles. He showed that when a student was asked to rate the intelligence of another student, this judging student used a self-assessment of his own intelligence, combined with how well he did on the test, to construct the rating.)

Let’s walk through the logic here. When you first encountered David and Steve, your brain began to compare them to yourself. In essence, your brain asked: “Could I do that? And if so, what would it require?”

For David, this question was easy to answer. Assuming you had more or less the same athletic ability, you could imagine yourself becoming captain of the track team: show up on time to practice, work hard, respect the coaches, etc. The Japanese calligraphy is even easier to imagine yourself learning — it requires only that you sign up for lessons. You might conclude that David has more natural athletic ability and is a harder worker than yourself, but neither of these assessments leads you to think of him as a star.

(Admissions officers would agree. They’re not looking to build hardworking and diligent classes. Instead, they want to build classes that are interesting.)

Then there’s Steve. Your attempts to mentally simulate Steve’s path likely derailed. How the hell does a 16-year old end up lobbying delegates at an international UN conference? Your failed simulation then lead to a powerful conclusion: he must possess something special. This conclusion is soon followed by a feeling of profound impressiveness...

This is the secret of Steve. He’s not brilliant. super passionate, or ultra-hard working — instead, he accomplished something that’s hard to explain. This is why he is more impressive than David, even though his high school career required less time devoted to extracurricular activities.
posted by flex (15 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
yep. very cool. for a guy with a very narrowly focused blog: get into $SELECTIVESCHOOL, he's got some very interesting and generally applicable observations.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:11 AM on January 21, 2012

I guess the fact that I was more impressed by the caligraphy helps to explain my own unimpressiveness...
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:16 AM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is brilliant advice. And it does reflect into later life in terms of how people value professional work. Given equally useful work that took the same amount of time to prepare clients are far more impressed with the things they couldn't imagine doing themselves. This makes sense. You are looking for that insider knowledge, not just another warm body to execute tasks.
posted by meinvt at 10:23 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nice to see a career-advice sort doing a lot of reading of other science and other people's books rather than just self-promoting. This guy is doing a great job of summarizing.
posted by gusandrews at 10:36 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thought the major difference was that Steve's skills had real-world application somewhere like at college, whereas David can run really fast and draw pretty pictures. The latter feats are in one sense no less impressive, but as a college admissions officer, they're not ones I'd weight particularly strongly.
posted by Dysk at 11:00 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmm, on the Steve/David example: I actually do know quite a few kids like Steve from my time working in advocacy/politics. And I'm still impressed with him - because he showed initiative.

Steve didn't just luck into his opportunities - he went after them. He wanted to intern with a nonprofit, so he called a ton of them until one had an opportunity. He met the student from SustainUs and volunteered to do their press work, landing some really impressive clips (Time Magazine) that seasoned PR professionals would die for.

I think this is important, because he showed he could be successful at the kinds of things that are important once you get out of school. Saying that he just lucked into those opportunities seems to be sort of missing the point.
posted by lunasol at 11:10 AM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree with lunasol. What impressed me about Steve was that he was going out in the world to do some very adult things, with no blueprint or formula. David did a lot of good stuff, but they were all the sort of things kids do to put on their college applications. In fact, the Japanese calligraphy thing just screams that. If you had to ask me who was going to go further in life, my guess would be Steve. He doesn't wait around for anyone to tell him how to get involved.
posted by Edgewise at 12:00 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The writer is elaborating on a simple truth: the things that impress us are the things we don't understand.

His nice bit of insight is that we understand others by looking inward at ourselves. But the phenomenon is general. Stupid magic tricks are impressive before you know how they work. Cooking is a miracle until you learn by experience how easy it is.

The core of his advice is that to stand out you have to be different. Everything is familiar, cliche, and demystified in everyday life, especially in this era, so if you show somebody something that they can't easily explain you've got their attention. Double rainbow, what does it mean?
posted by gonna get a dog at 12:03 PM on January 21, 2012

In the Beyond Passion article, he writes:

Research reveals that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the key to loving what you do. So how do you get them? There are different answers to this question, but the strategy that I keep emphasizing on Study Hacks has two clear steps: Master a skill that is rare and valuable. Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards.

This is good advice.
posted by storybored at 12:31 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Cal Newport makes me angry because he is so much smarter than I am.
posted by miyabo at 1:02 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

The interesting thing is that hearing about Steve's story made him sound better to me. In the initial descriptions of the kids, David sounded like someone who actually puts work into what he does, while Steve sounded like a douche who just showed up where his dad's connections needed him to be. That's not to say I didn't see what Newport was talking about - it was clear that "Steve was the star," but I've known too many Steves in my life to be impressed by volunteer tourism for resume purposes.

There were some other factors at play between the two boys as well, I thought. First, adding "in Johannesburg" to Steve's list of accomplishments is technically meaningless, but adds to the impressiveness nonetheless, somehow. So remember kids, if you're going to do something interesting, it counts how glamorous the location is.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:03 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

First, adding "in Johannesburg" to Steve's list of accomplishments is technically meaningless, but adds to the impressiveness nonetheless, somehow.

Yes. I think the better explanation for the appeal of Steve's description is that it accords better with an impressive stereotype we have (future world leader). David's resume does not invoke any impressive stereotype and his activities actually detract from each other, since somehow being captain of a track team clashes (aesthetically) with calligraphy. Imagine if his description had instead read:

David — He learns calligraphy from a master in the ancient Japanese tradition; he wrote his application essay about how he perfected his brushstrokes by studying the 7th century Kyoto editions of the Lotus Sutra.

This suggests the idea of a brilliant and culturally aware artist. Better, right?
posted by shivohum at 4:42 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think this is all interesting and worth considering, but I think he's really bashing a strawman version of passion.

For instance:
Explanation: Steve showed “passionate” commitment.
Issue: So did David. He stuck with track through four grueling years and kept up his calligraphy throughout this same period.
I'd argue that Steve actually showed more passion. Someone passionate about what they're doing doesn't "stick with it" -- they take initiative, because they want to keep going further into what they're doing. To me, that's the thread running through Steve's story -- he's really engaged by the day-to-day process of what he's doing.

Or this:
“[I] chose to pursue the career I knew in my heart I was passionate about: politics.” ... Rationally, he should be happy with his work: “I love my office, my friends…even my boss.” Yet he’s not.
Well, duh. Going into politics because you're passionate about politics is like going to work in a meat factory because you like sausage. You need to be passionate about the work -- the things you actually do all day -- not the subject matter or the end product.

Personally, I love being a software engineer because I love to build things. I think I could be a happy carpenter, while I would probably be miserable doing just about any other software-related job. "Doing work" is by definition about process -- that's the place you need to look for your passion.

Moreover, I'd argue that his considerations, while they might be good things to look for in a job, are really secondary in terms of career development. You're never going to find a job with autonomy or relatedness unless you have competence, and it's really hard to build competence without passion.
posted by bjrubble at 5:02 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wish they'd teach you this type of stuff when you meet with advisors to review your Personal Statement. Or the basics of successful self-promotion. How to take what you have and make it stand out. I was smart and motivated, but positively floundering at putting together anything impressive...I didn't have a clue. Cringe-inducing, that.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:04 PM on January 21, 2012

So I have been following Cal Newport's blog for a few years (I was the person who mentioned this in AskMe). I started perhaps too late to truly follow his advice: I did the pointless SAT courses, the honor club, etc, etc, and got to Stanford in a mostly normal way. I say mostly: inspired by the article on going into the clouds, I worked hard in the lab and we have a publication in peer review now.

But in my dorm in Stanford are the scary folks. My good friend is finishing up his physics major as a freshman; I just read over a 50-page paper that his roommate is revising for publication, which would be his 4th paper. Across the hallway is a 19-year-old commodities trader: we talk about evolution.

Neil Postman's work may have strange bearing on this. He's famous for writing a media theory book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, but he also wrote an interesting work called The Disappearance of Childhood, where he argues that the conception of childhood comes from the necessity of universal literacy. In 1950, television, an absolutely egalitarian dispenser of information, comes about. Unlike a teacher, the television doesn't know who is watching it. Movies, also egalitarian. No separation of adult and childish tastes, and that spreads to the rest of society. He wrote that in 1982.

If we apply that to the new elephant in the room of media studies, the Internet, we have an idea of the possibility of a new literacy, and a new, second levelling of taste and culture even in the literate sphere. A new levelling of the possibilities for our passions... For the Internet literate, and those only.

Many of the computer science people I meet are singularitarians. Not surprising that it is in vogue, given the pace of technology today. But I always hear of the coming of artificial additions to the human mind, and laugh, because we have plenty of those today. Plato's Socrates was getting pissed off about an artificial addition to the human mind in the Phaedrus- writing!

I had a short correspondence with Cal himself once, about Zen. Specifically, Zen sociology, the paper that bilabial recommended once here about some thread about efficiency in daily life. Watch the TV without turning it on. Supposed to give the students self-knowledge about what TV really is. I told him about it, and told him that I was going to see how it worked against procrastination. Here's what he said:

If you try it, I'd be interested to hear how it goes. Though I'm not quite sure what the equivalent of watching a soundless television is when if comes to, for example, web surfing.
posted by curuinor at 5:04 PM on January 22, 2012

« Older 365 days in the life of a bike in NYC   |   Terminator Babies Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments