Unorthodox Thinking & Large Budgets

Unorthodox Thinking & Large Budgets

“Surprising, occasionally game-changing things happen when flights of unorthodox thinking collide with large, abiding research budgets,” writes Mary Roach in her book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Militaries face far more than just opposing combatants in war. Their needs go far beyond bombs, tanks, and fighter planes. Armies need lots of things for basic survival, and sometimes this means that large research budgets are devoted to small topics where institutionalized dogma has not set in. The results can be weird, sometimes less than what the army hoped for, and – as Roach notes in the quote above – sometimes game changing.
In Grunt, Roach highlights some of the examples of incredible, yet unexpected scientific breakthroughs that have come from military research. Medical trauma research, clothing research, and other less thought of research has been crucial for saving lives during war. These are not the first things we usually think about with armed conflict, but without winning in these small areas, armies may not be able to win on larger geopolitical stages.
Entire industries and societies may deal with problems for years without the huge funding and sometimes unorthodox thinking that an army can bring to a problem. Something small, like sweaty and sticky shirts, may plague people for years and be a minor annoyance, but for an army, where keeping moral and camaraderie up is a key for success, a sweaty and sticky shirt could end up being a life or death matter. Bringing in a scientific research team, that doesn’t have the same constraints as public researchers at a university or researchers for a for-profit corporation can open up new avenues of discovery. A researcher at a public university may be shunned away from research on sweaty, sticky shirts because they don’t want their colleagues to think they are working on a goofy topic. Private companies may not see enough of a profit motive in researching sweaty, sticky clothes and may not hire anyone in their R&D section to focus on the issue. But the army can provide some level of intellectual freedom in asking researchers to tackle strange areas and can bring the necessary funding to find a breakthrough. This idea is at the heart of the research that Roach presents in the book.
The sometimes game-changing breakthroughs are not the result purely of lots of money or purely unorthodox thinking. The breakthroughs are the result of a web of factors that include the money, the intellectual space for unorthodox thinking, and the willingness to allow people to focus on sometimes narrow or obscure topics. It also requires obsessives who are not afraid to spend years researching something strange or off-putting. the kinds of breakthroughs people make often don’t get much attention, even if they are very important and make it into daily life beyond the initial military use, but over time they pile up to become part of our way of life. Perhaps we would have gotten there independently of the military, but sometimes that extra funding and unorthodox thinking is needed to help push new innovations and discoveries.
Scientific Obsessives - Mary Roach - Gulp - Malcolm Gladwell - The Bomber Mafia

Scientific Obsessives

In the author’s note for his book The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell writes about people with obsessions. He writes, “I realize when I look at the things I have written about or explored over the years, I’m drawn again and again to obsessives. I like them. I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up every day life and just zero in on one thing. … I don’t think we get progress, or innovation, or joy, or beauty without obsessives.”
Obsessives, Gladwell argues, are neither good nor bad, but often play crucial roles in the advancement of technology, the winning of historical wars, and in the development of society. Making scientific breakthroughs, convincing large numbers of people to live their lives a certain way, and pushing through failure until one finds a new way to do something often requires an obsessive quality in order to persevere, connect minuscule dots along the way, and stay interested in something that others barely care about.  Mary Roach would agree.
In her book Gulp, Raoch writes, “Dr. Silletti was delighted to hear that  I wanted to visit the saliva lab. People rarely ask to visit Erika Silletti’s lab. I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry. I think it’s fair to say that some degree of obsession is a requisite for good science, and certainly for scientific breakthrough.”
Studying something as off-putting and seemingly boring as human saliva requires an obsessive quality about science, research, inquiry, and the human systems that form the first part of our digestive system. I can’t imagine lots of people are eager to listen to Dr. Silletti talk about her research, it probably isn’t fun dinner or cocktail party talk, but Dr. Silletti continues on with her lab. Her discoveries, and the discoveries of everyone working in rather gross areas of science, are dependent on a level of obsession. Without such obsession, the scientists and researchers would not carry on studying their particular fields, and we wouldn’t get the breakthroughs and discoveries that come from their science. This is the argument that Roach makes in Gulp, and it is part of her explanation for why she has written so many books that focus on the relatively gross side of scientific inquiry.
In the end, Roach and Gladwell reach the same conclusion. Technological and scientific advances require obsessives. Progress is not linear, science is not clear cut, and new discoveries and breakthroughs require patience and a willingness to believe that something is crucially important, even when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. Obsessives are the ones who will spend every minute of the day thinking about the tiniest new discovery and trying to apply that to their specific obsession, ultimately paving the way for breakthroughs. We owe a lot to obsessives, and we should thank the obsessive researchers and the obsessive journalists for the breakthroughs and stories about how those breakthroughs came to be.
Alternative, Nonexistent Worlds - Judea Pearl - The Book of Why - Joe Abittan

Alternative, Nonexistent Worlds

Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why hinges on a unique ability that human animals have. Our ability to imagine alternative, nonexistent worlds is what has set us on new pathways and allowed us to dominate the planet. We can think of what would happen if we acted in a certain manner, used a tool in a new way, or if two objects collided together. We can visualize future outcomes of our actions and of the actions of other bodies and predict what can be done to create desired future outcomes.
In the book he writes, “our ability to conceive of alternative, nonexistent worlds separated us from our protohuman ancestors and indeed from any other creature on the planet. Every other creature can see what is. Our gift, which may sometimes be a curse, is that we can see what might have been.”
Pearl argues that our ability to see different possibilities, to imagine new worlds, and to be able to predict actions and behaviors that would realize that imagined world is not something we should ignore. He argues that this ability allows us to move beyond correlations, beyond statistical regressions, and into a world where our causal thinking helps drive our advancement toward the worlds we want.
It is important to note that he is not advocating for holding a belief and setting out to prove it with data and science, but rather than we use data and science combined with our ability to think causally to better understand the world. We do not have to be stuck in a state where we understand statistical techniques but deny plausible causal pathways. We can identify and define causal pathways, even if we cannot fully define causal mechanisms. Our ability to reason through alternative, nonexistent worlds is what allows us to think causally and apply this causal reasoning to statistical relationships. Doing so, Pearl argues, will save lives, help propel technological innovation, and will push science to new frontiers to improve life on our planet.

The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

Coaching is About Curiosity

One of the final paragraphs from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit  reads, “But the real secret sauce here is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity. Find your own questions, find your own voice. And above all, build your own coaching habit.”

 

The crux of Bungay Stanier’s thoughts on coaching is that being a good coach requires asking questions in a process of discovery as opposed to providing answers in the form of advice giving. Contrary to the typical American version of coaches or the sports movie version of coaches, an effective coach doesn’t just bark orders and doesn’t just automatically give everyone answers, advice, and life lessons. True coaches, in real life, help individuals find answers themselves.

 

When we think about coaches, we often imagine someone who has years of experience, who has been in every situation, and who can decipher exactly what needs to be done at any moment. This imagined coach, however, does not exist. No matter how long someone has been coaching and no matter how insightful they are, no one can truly understand the pressures, challenges, and specifics of the situations and needs of another person. By focusing on asking questions, the coach discovers what is happening and what the other person needs. The individual being coached gets more help from questions than advice because the questions drive them to think more deeply about themselves, other people, and the where they are at in life. Questions can shift their perspective, encourage deeper thought, and lead to discoveries that advice cannot produce.

 

For almost all of us, we do less listening than we do speaking. When another person is talking, we spend a lot of our free brain space trying to anticipate where the conversation is going so that we can have a perfect response. Knowing this about ourselves can help us understand why advice simply doesn’t land. The other person, while we are giving them advice, is thinking ahead of where our advice is going. Asking a question instead of giving advice gets the other person talking and thinking through what they are saying and describing. It allows them to put pieces together in a constructive form of discovery in a way that advice simply doesn’t.

 

Ultimately, by remembering that coaching is a form of discovery, we enter our coaching opportunities willing to be more flexible, and willing to be more responsive to the needs of the person we are coaching. Rather than walking into the coaching opportunity feeling pressured to have brilliant insights and to give the other person some magnificent piece of advice, we can enter the opportunity knowing that we can both co-discover a solution that is not yet apparent. This takes a lot of pressure off of both the coach and the person being coached.