This week I finished an administrative placement with a university-based sport, exercise science, and active living research institute. The institute’s director asked me what I got most out of the placement. The experience deepened my understanding of K. Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice.
In 1993, Ericsson developed an influential framework to understand how expert performers acquire their skills (PDF). Deliberate practice involved focused and mindful self-work; regular coaching and feedback; error-correction and experimentation; and understanding of a specific domain. Ericsson’s original study had two further aspects: (1) a literature review of previous studies; and (2) a case study involving 10 musicians. Improved performance involved flow states; plateau experiences; and the self-overcoming of resource, effort and motivational constraints.
Then Malcolm Gladwell discovered Ericsson’s work.
Gladwell cited Ericsson’s research in his book Outliers (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2008). Ericsson had noted several earlier studies that mentioned 10,000 hours to develop world-class expertise in music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. The 10-year rule came from a 1973 American Scientist article by Herbert Simon and William Chase about chess prodigies. Gladwell turned this insight into a sound-bite: the 10,000 hours rule. For instance, The Beatles became incredible performers by playing in Hamburg, Germany, before their career took off.
Several other popular authors also cited Ericsson’s work: Geoff Colvin (Talent Is Overrated) and Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code). They focused on different aspects – Colvin highlighted the complex interaction of genes and the environment, for example. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule became a popular heuristic and a media-savvy meme. It now overshadowed Ericsson’s original research. Ericsson would later tell author David Epstein that Gladwell had “misconstrued his work.”
We had broken up for about a year when I saw Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950). I had restarted a ‘lapsed’ undergraduate degree at La Trobe University, majoring in cinema studies and politics. I thought of you during Dr. Geoff Mayer’s class on Pre-Code cinema when he examined the origins of Hollywood’s ‘fallen angel’ image, and its influence on contemporary femme fatales. It was in Mayer’s film noir class that I saw In A Lonely Place. Afterwards, I saw our relationship in a new light.
In A Lonely Place explores the rise-and-fall arc of a brief, romantic relationship between screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Steele is suspected of murdering nightclub girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) and his relationship with Gray unravels. Ray deals with popular themes in film noir: early Cold War paranoia; Hollywood cynicism; the dark heart of some personal relationships; and the suspicion of major characters as unreliable narrators. Today, In A Lonely Place is regarded as a film noir classic.
Ray’s film evokes a larger truth about the Romantic ideal of living with a writer versus its day-to-day realities. Significant others might initially approach this as the opportunity to live with a cultural creative or to be their muse. Gray and Steele’s initial whirlwind courtship reinvigorates their creative work and they become a dyadic couple. But the Atkinson murder investigation makes Gray suspicious about Steele. Writer’s block also shatters their domestic harmony: both Gray and Steele suffer from decision regret. Steele never develops a habitual routine to write. A writer stuck in their material can become irritable, moody, and withdrawn to live with: absent. D.T. Max’s recent biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story (New York: Viking, 2012) evokes these feelings about the late author and critic David Foster Wallace, who struggled with depression, and self-loathing about his giftedness and family.
All writers can suffer from the cognitive bias known as ‘positive illusions’. It’s us versus our emotions, thoughts, and a blank page: being in a (potentially) lonely place. As Gray discovered about Steele, we can carry our in-progress writing around as a projective identification onto others. We enter a liminal, subjective state that can be superimposed on others and the objective world. If not inspirational muses then we may look for initiatory allies and significant others to share in the unfolding creative process, to read our work, and to keep us tethered to the everyday world. At its extremes, a writer can venture deep into their material and may not come out of it. David Foster Wallace spent a decade writing drafts and redrafts of his novel The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
You were disinterested to read what I wrote. Fine, I thought, you don’t know or care who guerrilla ontologist Robert Anton Wilson was, when I interviewed him for REVelation. You were not going to read or do the exercises in Prometheus Rising. But we had common, shared experiences and polarities. At that period of my life, I wanted to share the exploratory promise of self-change with you and others. When the self-change occurred it wasn’t what I wanted or had hoped for: I learned that you can help to create the conditions for change but that personal growth is different for each individual. Eventually, you found a new fiancé: an ‘indie’ musician who was more emotionally direct and expressive with you than my writing was.
In A Lonely Place taught me that creative work and its choices will usually have personal costs. Gray and Steele’s relationship did not survive the rumours and suspicions about Atkinson’s murder. Director Nicholas Ray and actress Gloria Grahame’s marriage fell apart during filming. I have mixed feelings about the creative work from this period: you felt I became absent and did not pay you enough attention. 21C’s print edition had cultural cachet: to be published in my early twenties alongside cultural critics like Greil Marcus and Mark Dery was an honour. It’s one reason why Richard Metzger (now running the popular blog Dangerous Minds) asked me to write for the alternative news site Disinformation in 1998 and how I became its site editor in November 1999 (1998-2003 site archive). But you didn’t stay for this journey. You decided beforehand that pursuing these dreams was not feasible when the publisher cheque never comes, your credit card defaults, the telemarketing stop-gap job becomes too unstable, and the realtor sells out your rental house from underneath you. After some difficult experiences I agreed with Richard Metzger to “Find the Others” (quoting Timothy Leary) in new, emerging internet subcultures.
REVelation, 21C, and Disinformation gave me the opportunity to do deep background research on the countercultural topics of interest in my early-to-mid twenties. I got to work with leading writers, editors, designers, marketers, and publishers. Disinformation made me part of the dotcom era’s internet history and I had to create a public persona to deal with fans’ expectations. The reality was that I sat in rooms for eight years with computers as the site changed and the company evolved. I made new friends and gave lectures at This Is Not Art (TINA) between 1999 and 2004: the youth arts festival we had heard about one afternoon on Triple J radio (as TINA’s precursor, the LOUD Festival). I took our break-up and turned it into my first peer reviewed academic article on the Nine Inch Nails album The Fragile (1999).
Most importantly, I served an ‘apprenticeship’ period — 10,000 hours of deep/deliberate play/practice — to develop expertise. Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson articulated this approach to talent development whilst Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin‘s Talent Is Overrated, and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code popularised it. REVelation, 21C and Disinformation gave me the opportunity to discover who I was as an emerging writer. TINA enabled me to share these insights with others. I learned about meso-cosmoi; how cultural transmission works; the creative synergies of high performance teams; and the significance that writing can have on your audience. I helped attract an audience for Disinformation’s other book and DVD projects, and promoted the Disinfo.Con 2000 ‘happening’.
Recently, I calculated the content and value I created during this ‘apprenticeship’ period versus the actual income earned. It was a sobering valuation exercise. (Read Valuation, Sources of Value, or Value Maps for more details.) My freelance journalism period occurred mainly from late 1994 to early 1998: 1500 hours on magazine articles ($A750 to $A1750 per article), interviews, and two book proposals. I did two editorial stints for Disinformation (November 1999-August 2002 and April 2003-February 2008) at $US100 per week salary, or $US42,000 in total. Over 8 years, I spent between 6,000 and 8,000 hours on editing the site; writing articles, news items, and a daily newsletter; responding to emails; handling site redesigns; representing the company in interviews; and from 2005, participating in weekly teleconferences. Add several thousand hours for two Masters degrees, and you get Ericcson, Gladwell, and Coyle’s 10,000 hour target to develop expertise. The per-hour salary of $A6.67 for freelance journalism or $US5.25-$US7 for Disinformation was on par with an entry-level administrative or sales job. However, the body of work produced continues to be of interest and value to others.
The downside was a lesson in offshore economics and cost reduction strategies that many white collar jobs will face in the hyper-competitive future. I left money on the table: I could have negotiated better deals; not signed away rights and potential royalty streams; used process redesign to manage time and task; and not have overestimated the length of my publishing career. Some other mistakes: The ‘standard’ magazine contracts controlled reprints, ancillary markets, and new technologies. For Disinformation, my editorial salary was fixed no matter how much content I produced whereas freelance contributors received $US50 per article or dossier. The salary also remained constant over 8 years. As an offshore contractor, I lost money on currency exchange rate fluctuations and inflation; and did not get end-of-year bonuses, salary benefits or superannuation. Disinformation’s successful expansion into book publishing and DVD distribution meant I had a continued salary but I never had an equity share in the company (so I didn’t share in its growth). I failed to translate my internet work into regular contributions to book anthologies, successful book proposals or projects with other publishers. When I became a university researcher on internet futures my bosses became anxious about Disinformation instead of leveraging this relevant industry experience.
For some of Disinformation’s core audience there was always a tension between its countercultural ideals, its marketing image, and its existence as a profit-oriented entertainment company. I got and responded to email flak about this. Today, I have taken the lessons from this period into providing research management advice; a PhD project (2011 proposal); and using event arbitrage, behavioural finance and market microstructure analysis to trade a small Australian equities portfolio. Some disgruntled Disinfonauts view this as a sell-out but it’s more an evolution from this earlier period. I changed who I collaborated with; I set writing limits; I found exemplars in academia (Alastair Iain Johnston, Jack Snyder, Marc Trachtenberg, and Robert Jervis); and investigative journalism (William D. Cohan, Steve Coll, and Lawrence Wright) to carefully study and model. You might have seen the baseball film Moneyball which is really about competitive advantage, negotiation, and valuation. Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) turned a career arc from being a hopeful ‘star’ and then a ‘failed’ baseball player into a second act: mistakes became an invaluable learning resource.
• Evgeny Morozov on The Naked and the TED (The New Republic). The Khannas’ use of Technik comes from Oswald Spengler’s Man & Technics (1931) which I read as an undergraduate. Morozov is scathing about populist futures consulting and writing in a way that resonates with strategic foresight colleagues and that recalls Mark Dery’s writings for 21C and other publications. I read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) in the office of Newcastle’s This Is Not Art festival.
• Situational Awareness (Ritholtz). Money manager Barry Ritholtz makes some excellent points about how to prioritise daily work and to cut through the noise and unimportant/non-urgent tasks.
• Anatomy of a Campus Coup (New York Times). Andrew Rice’s profile of the University of Virginia crisis involving president Teresa Sullivan is a glimpse of the Machiavellian politics and patronage systems that university administrators work in, daily. The role of trader Paul Tudor Jones and disruptive innovation proponent Clayton Christensen are a harbinger of what is to come in higher education. The “high-finance mentality” of private equity and hedge funds is reshaping university boards and driving cost reduction initiatives.
• How Michael Jackson Made Bad (The Atlantic Monthly). Joseph Vogel analyses the media backlash and record industry politics that led Jackson to experiment with technological innovation. “Study the greats, and become greater.”
• Who Wants To Be A Billionaire? (Vanity Fair). The inside track to the startup incubator Y-Combinator and its opportunity evaluation and venture capital screening processes.
• Obama’s Way (Vanity Fair). Michael Lewis’s profile combines his interviewing and narrative gifts with some shrewd insights worthy of Richard Neustadt about the decision-making challenges and processes of the executive branch.
• Your Brain on Pseudo-Science (New Statesman). Coauthor Ben Eltham alerted me to Steven Poole critique of “junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry” including popularisers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer. Poole’s targets include popular writers and publishing marketing. Poole is on the mark about how to write a genre bestseller. There’s actually a deeper history here about what happens when pseudo-scientific methods diffuse from their original context into sales, marketing, and self-improvement arenas. For instance, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) was originally developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder as a methodology to model human excellence: “embedded commands” came from their study of Milton H. Erickson’s clinical hypnotherapy. Go back to the original research and run your own experiments.
For most of us, slack—the gap between what is possible, under conditions of absolute effort, and actual performance—is unavoidable. We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we can’t. . . . This notion of slack is part of what we take as normal and natural about the world. . . . Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. By custom, we disparage the idleness of the idle rich. We should encourage it. It is our best chance of taking their place. . . . We pretend that meritocracies—our favored word for modern competitions—are contests of equals. They aren’t. Some people can stay close only by making painful choices, and, as the standards of competition rise, those choices grow more painful still.
Slack arbitrage is a function of a ‘winner takes all’ tournament system in workplaces and status-driven socio-economic competitiveness. Elites control capital assets, have higher income streams, are rent-seeking, and can extract greater value. This creates competitive selection pressures on those in the middle who aspire to become a new elite.
This upward dynamic has existed in academia for at least the past decade. Gladwell’s “painful choices” can involve extra role responsibilities; which peer-reviewed journals to target; time spent on competitive grant proposals; and attending events to gain commercial and government partner investigators. Absolute effort is given — and actual performance is institutionally evaluated — in pursuit of the possible. Academia thus begins to more closely resemble the ‘up or out’ competitiveness of making partner in management consulting firms.
In the past, slack arbitrage in academia occurred at certain career points: the mid-career academic who has worked out how to ‘game’ the workload points system; or the professor who flies under the radar and keeps to their PhD students. Now slack arbitrage is under attack from a performance-based management culture: everyone must work hard; and upward mobility is restricted to academics who have a ‘success for the successful‘ dynamic.
I first encountered the TED Effect whilst on a university research team in 2004-05. A research consortium had tasked the team to consider what the internet of 2010 might resemble. We struggled to develop a methodological framework. The team eventually settled on covering trends that could already be read in Businessweek, Fast Company or The Economist. Interviewees were often taken at face value rather than probed or contrasted with contestable viewpoints. Presentation sound-bites replaced theoretical frameworks. The team’s rising academic star subsequently left to pursue a more lucrative career as a Web 2.0 consultant.
Richard Saul Wurman‘s Technology, Entertainment, Design conference is now the benchmark for academic presentations. TED has turned academic researchers and public intellectuals into internet superstars and social media phenomenons. It rivals Austin’s SXSW conference and John Brockman’s Edge salon in promoting the Faustian creative dynamism of culture, science, and technology. Ridley Scott tapped TED 2023 to promote his science fiction film Prometheus. Yet the influential conference also has critics. Hip-hop and cultural media theorist Roy Christopher observed, “A once visionary site of Big-Idea exchange has become the Starbucksification of public intellectualism.”
TED originally aimed to strengthen viewers’ “understanding of the world” beyond their personal experiences. It echoed the utopian CNN effect which media theorists postulated after the 1990-91 Gulf War: Ted Turner’s television network could positively influence political decision-makers about international humanitarian events. A decade later University of Manchester’s Piers Robinson carefully evaluated the CNN effect’s record during humanitarian crises in Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. Robinson’s book The CNN Effect (London: Routledge, 2002) concluded that, “the media coverage manufactured consent for official policy” (p. 121). The original media theory sound-bite hid a darker institutional truth.
Christopher suggests that TED now suffers from a “gate-keeping function” failure and an obsession with “Big Names”. “One person spends years developing idea X and then one of The Chosen mentions X in a TED Talk™, and then it’s their idea. That is a problem,” he writes. This was in part one of the problems that the research team I was on failed to confront in 2004-05. ‘Hot topics’ and ‘hype cycle’ events were an easier sell during TED-style public talks than rigorous research designs. The debate made for lively internal meetings. Christopher points to the reality that the ‘winner-takes-all’ pressure for aspiring, emerging academics to become a Big Name can create its own perverse incentives and moral hazards.
There’s a place for cross-pollinators and boundary-spanners in academia. The Conversation blog now fills the gap for Australian academics who want to promote their expertise in the research sector. Many more people will learn about 10,000 hours in Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers (New York: Penguin, 2008) than who will read K. Anders Ericsson‘s original research on expertise and deliberative practice. Popularisers like James Gleick, Steven Johnson, Kevin Kelly and Douglas Rushkoff can bring engagement, fresh insight, and a narrative arc to academic research that is dry and boring in its original form. But many like Seth Godin or Timothy Ferriss are also closer to effective self-marketers than academic researchers.
TED’s success blurs this distinction between effective self-marketers and academic researchers. This is the TED Effect in a more negative form. Academics now need to treat each published journal article as a major release event like a film or a music album. They need to create buzz around their research to attract external competitive grants and partner organisations. They should have a social media presence – at least on Academia.edu and Google Scholar. But this doesn’t replace the craft and journeyman facets of academic research. Citation, communities of practice, constructive yet critical peer review, and other scholarly practices remain important.
Christopher cites Alex Reid and Ian Bogost that many academics write in order to get tenure and to satisfy promotions committees. Perhaps these academics now write to get on the TED talks circuit. I have pointed out elsewhere that this establishes the wrong institutional conditions to become a self-motivated, productive, intrinsic writer. Over time this subtly destroys ‘the edge’ that an academic may have cultivated and impacts negatively on their original, authorial voice.
Universities provide selection pressures which provide varied solutions to different academics who don’t get to give profile-raising TED talks. Some have a productive period during and initially after their PhD and then settle into a mid-career plateau of administrative and overseas teaching work. Some discover the pedagogical joy of teaching-based research. A small core gain institutional incentives and resources to get promoted to Associate Professor or Professor. They may then get promoted into university senior management. However, this also means that Christopher’s problems about academic publishing are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, in the absence of a coordinated institutional response. The conservativeness of promotions and tenure committees will likely trump individual boycotts of academic journal publishers.
I reached a similar conclusion to Christopher about post-TED academic life which we jointly discussed during lunch a month ago at SXSW. It involves a self-funded research program, conference travel and resources modelled on self-managed artists. I have the freedom to choose who to collaborate with; what institution to publish with; and where to publicly archive research outputs. Although there are financial limitations it also means I can side-step the institutional mechanisms that take up a lot of potential research time for others. Robert Fripp‘s experience with Discipline Global Mobile was one important influence on my decisions. Trent Reznor‘s experience with The Null Corporation was another.
I don’t expect to hear from TED anytime soon: I’m not a Big Name yet.
For me, six observations emerge from these authors. First, they have a writing style that appeals to a broad audience. Second , they provide an introduction to quantitative elements of decision-making and judgments. Third, their publishers have created a niche market in airport reading and popular science paperbacks. Fourth, they differ in their approach to theory building: Anderson, Gladwell and Surowiecki take an insight, interview people, and promote it; Taleb, Harford and Lewis draw on their domain experience; and Levitt and Dunbar illustrate how a subject matter expert can collaborate with a journalist to reach a broader audience. Fifth, their books have seeded a range of Web 2.0 strategies, which vary in rigour, validity, generalisability and applicability to real-world analysis.
Finally, their publishers have used their marketing appeal to build an audience during turnarounds and post-acquisition integrations: Gladwell and Surowiecki helped revive The New Yorker, Levitt and Dunbar’s blog gained The New York Times an Internet readership, and Anderson revamped Wired after Conde Nast‘s acquisition.
Bryan Burrough is legendary in M&A circles for co-writing Barbarians at the Gate (Harper & Row, New York, 1990) with John Helyar, the cautionary tale of RJR Nabisco’s leveraged buyout and the winner’s curse faced by deal-maker Henry Kravis.
Burrough’s latest investigation for Vanity Fair contends that short sellers used CNBC and other media outlets to spread rumours that destabilised Bear Stearns and sparked a liquidity run on the investment bank’s capital. Burrough’s thesis has sparked debate that overshadows his investigation’s strengths: a strong narrative and character portraits, new details of the negotiations with JPMorgan Chase and the Federal Reserve, and a cause-effect arc that shifts from CNBC’s internal editorial debate to the effects its coverage has on the marketplace and the subjective perceptions of individual investors and senior decision-makers.
In the absence of a ‘secret team’ or a ‘smoking gun’ how could Burrough’s thesis be tested?
Theoretically, Burrough’s hypothesis fits with: (1) a broad pattern over two decades of how media outlets respond to media vectors, systemic crises and geostrategic surprises; (2) the causal loop dynamics and leverage points in systems modelling; (3) the impact that effective agitative propaganda can have in psychological operations; and (4) the complex dynamics and ‘strange loops’ in rumour markets (behavioural finance) and rumour panics (sociology), notably ‘information cascade’ effects on ‘rational herds’.
This is likely a ‘correlation-not-cause’ error although it does suggest a dark possibility for strategic intervention in financial markets: could this illustrative/theoretical knowledge be codified to create an institutional capability, deployed operantly, and which uses investor fears of bubbles, crashes, manias and various risk types as a pretext for misdirection? Behavioural finance views on groups and panics, and George Soros‘ currency speculation against the Bank of England’s pound on Black Wednesday suggest the potential and trigger conditions may lie in the global currency/forex markets (using stochastic models like Markov Chain Monte Carlo for dynamic leverage in hedge funds) and money markets (using tactical asset allocation). If possible, this capability could also create second- and third-order effects for regulators, the global financial system and macroeconomic structures, and volatility in interconnected markets, which may actually be more dynamic and resilient than this initial sketch indicates.
To meet quantitative standards and validate Burrough’s hypothesis a significant forensic and data analytics capability with error estimates would also be required. ‘Strong’ proof may not be possible: Burrough’s hypothesis is probably an unsolvable ‘mystery’ rather than a solvable ‘puzzle’ (a distinction by intelligence expert Gregory Treverton that The New Yorker‘s Malcolm Gladwell later popularised).
Ironically, several CNBC analysts have already decided: they used parts of Burrough’s hypothesis to explain the subsequent short-selling driven volatility of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac‘s stock prices in mid-July 2008.