Process, outcomes, and random discoveries

I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with Brad Pitt, the guy who plays Billy Beane in the Moneyball movie, and Pitt said something very interesting: Billy Beane realized that baseball is mostly about “process” and maximizing your odds. A single pitch or a single at-bat is basically random; a terrible player could homer, a great one strike out. But if you have faith in the process and fidelity to it, you’ll maximize your chance of success over time. Notice those words: “maximize your chance of success.” You won’t automatically succeed in whatever the endeavor might be, but we live in a chaotic, random world where no one is guaranteed anything.

So I heard this interview about a week ago. Since then, I’ve seen a bunch of similar stuff, which keeps reappearing like, if I were a person who wasn’t convinced things are random, the world is trying to tell me something. Here’s a description of Steve Jobs: “What was important to Jobs was not making money per se, but the process of creation.” That word, “process,” appears again: if it’s right, the money will follow if you get the process right. When a Playboy interviewer asks Justin Timberlake “Why [. . .] some celebrities crack and fade and others, like you, just keep on keeping on? Have you figured that out?,” Timberlake says he doesn’t know but will speculate, and he goes on to say:

I think it’s about process. If you care about the process of what you’re doing, you can care about the actual work. You’ll stick around. The other thing is, you always need to be learning something new. In whatever I’ve done, I’ve always looked at myself as a beginner. Hopefully I can continue to do that for the next 30 years as I grow into an older man.

He’s trying to do with music what Billy Beane is trying to do with baseball and what Steve Jobs was trying to do with consumer technology. Or what Alain de Botton describes in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in which the author sees a worker in a Belgian biscuit factory whose “manner drew attention away from what he was doing in favour of how he was doing it.” If you attend to how you do something, the outcome will tend to improve more than absolute attention to the outcome. It seems like a lot of experts, a lot of people who can do good work year after year, are really focusing on process refining. This might map to “experimental” and “conceptual” artists, to use Galenson’s terminology in Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. As I read more about what makes artists, scientists, and others succeed, I increasingly realize that a focus on process is essential, if not the essential thing.

And it’s something I’m noticing over and over again, in a variety of contexts. When I started grad school, I began going to the University of Arizona’s Ballroom Dance Club. This is hilarious: if you asked a girl who had the misfortune of going with me to high school dances about what I’d be like a couple years later, I doubt any would’ve guessed, “Dancing.” Fewer still would’ve guessed, “At least being a competent dancer.” To aspire to “good” or “masterful” is probably unwise, but “competent” is well within my reach—and within almost anyone’s reach, really, if you have the desire. And ballroom club is all about the fundamentals too: here’s how you should move. Here’s how you isolate a single part of your body. The overall look, feel, and flow of any dance is composed of individual motions and a dancer’s control over those individual motions, which eventually come to appear to be a single, fluid motion. But it isn’t. It’s the result of the dancer breaking down each individual part and practicing it until it becomes part of him.

One time, a guy who’d been dancing for about a decade had us spend about half an hour of an hour-long classes on spins. Skilled dancers can perform nearly perfect 360-degree spins every time. I can’t. I usually end up ten to fifty degrees off. I can’t get my body, shoes, and motion harmonized sufficiently to ensure that I can perform perfect spins. But I keep working on it, in the hopes of improving this seemingly simple but actually complex activity. I’m doing in dancing what Billy Beane is doing in baseball, Justin Timberlake is doing in music, Steve Jobs was doing in technology, and you should probably be doing in your own field or fields.

And if your practice isn’t as good as it should be this time, focus on improving your process so you’ll be better next time. As you, the reader, might imagine, the same principle applies to other things. Like classes. Since I now teach and take them, I have a lot of experience with students who want to fight about grades. I don’t budge, but every semester students want to fight either during the semester or the end. I try to convey to them that grades are imperfect but they’re really about learning; concentrate on learning and the achievement, whether in grade or other form, will eventually follow.

Most of them don’t believe me. This is unfortunate, since most students also don’t know that, as Paul Graham writes, there are really Two Kinds of Judgment:

Sometimes judging you correctly is the end goal. But there’s a second much more common type of judgement where it isn’t. We tend to regard all judgements of us as the first type. We’d probably be happier if we realized which are and which aren’t.

The first type of judgement, the type where judging you is the end goal, include court cases, grades in classes, and most competitions. Such judgements can of course be mistaken, but because the goal is to judge you correctly, there’s usually some kind of appeals process. If you feel you’ve been misjudged, you can protest that you’ve been treated unfairly.

Nearly all the judgements made on children are of this type, so we get into the habit early in life of thinking that all judgements are.

But in fact there is a second much larger class of judgements where judging you is only a means to something else. These include college admissions, hiring and investment decisions, and of course the judgements made in dating. This kind of judgement is not really about you.

To be fair, I am trying to judge them correctly. But the second class of judgments bleed into grading: the grade is the means of trying to get students to be better writers. When they want to fight about grades, they haven’t fully internalized that I’m trying to get them into a process-oriented mode despite the school setting. The grades are outcomes and a necessary evil—and, besides, some students are simply more skilled than others.

But if students have fidelity to the process—to becoming, in my classes, better writers, or in other classes, better at whatever the class is attempting to impart—they’re going to maximize the probability of long-term success. And I wonder if students internalize the outcome-oriented mode of school—”My worth depends on my grades”—and then find themselves shocked when they’re plunged into the process-oriented real-world, where no one grades you, success or failure can’t be measured via GPA, and even people who do everything “right” may still fail for reasons outside their control.

This is probably doubly painful because students are used to type one judgments, not type two, and instructors don’t do much to disabuse students. Instructors don’t do enough to encourage resilience, and maybe we should, or should more than we do now.

By the way, I’m not just climbing the mountain and shouting at the unwashed masses below. I tell myself the same thing about writing fiction (or blog posts): I’ve probably gotten dozens of requests from agents for partial or full manuscripts. None have panned out; some still have pieces of the latest novel. But I tell myself that a) I’m going to write a better novel next time and b) if I maintain fidelity to the craft of writing itself, I will eventually succeed. Alternately, I might simply start self-publishing, but that’s an issue for another post. The point here is about writing—and about what I’m doing right now.

I keep writing this blog not because it brings me fame and fortune—alas, it doesn’t—but because I like to write, I think through writing, and because some of the writing on this blog is and/or will be useful to others. And I like to think this blog makes me a better writer not only of blog posts, but also a better writer in other contexts. I’m focused on the process of improvement more than the outcome of conventional publication. Which isn’t to say I don’t want that outcome—I do—but I understand that the outcome is, paradoxically, a result of attention to something other than the outcome.

Columbia or prison: similarities and differences?

Terry Gross’ interview with Scott Spencer (of A Man in the Woods) notes that the author has “taught fiction writing at Columbia University, and in prison” (1:10; I think she says “in prison,” although it might be “at prisons”). The tone sounds like this sort of trajectory is completely normal, like a sandwich and soup. To me, it invites questions:

  • Can I be the only one who finds the juxtaposition of those two fine American institutions curious or notable?
  • How many writers or professors have taught at an Ivy League school and a penal facility?
  • Is teaching at the one pretty much like teaching at the other?
  • If you’ve currently got a gig at a prison, how do you make the transition to Columbia? I assume relatively few people want to make the opposite leap.
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