Mutable laws

One hears the term “Laws of Physics” as if punishment awaits anyone or anything that dares to break them. And, yet, we know these so-called laws may be only approximations of reality – limited by the accuracy of our measurement tools and experimental capacity to validate their predictions. Every scientist must be prepared to cast aside or revise a pet theory if measurement and observation contradict it.

Another from Vint Cerf’s written testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. This has echoes of George Box’s assertion that all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Failure is the handmaiden of wisdom

Failure is the handmaiden of wisdom in the scientific world. When we make predictions or build systems based on our theoretical models, we must be prepared for and learn from our failures. Understanding the reason for failure is sometimes even more important than positive results since it may pave the way for far deeper understanding and more precise models of reality. In the scientific enterprise, the freedom to take risk and accept the potential of failure makes the difference between merely incremental refinement and breakthroughs that open new vistas of understanding.

from Vint Cerf’s written testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which was reviewing the federal government’s role in research and development.

Technology precedes understanding

Engineering was the key. The Wright brothers functioned as engineers, not as scientists. Science, the drive to understand the ultimate principles at work in the universe, had little to do with the invention of the airplane. A scientist would have asked the most basic questions. How does the wing of a bird generate lift? What are the physical laws that explain the phenomena of flight?

The answers to those questions were not available to Wilbur and Orville Wright, or to anyone else at the turn of the century. Airplanes would be flying for a full quarter century before physicists and mathematicians could explain why wings worked.

How is it possible to build a flying machine without first understanding the principles involved? In the late twentieth century, we regard the flow of technological marvels from basic scientific research as the natural order of things. But this relationship between what one scholar, Edwin Layton, has described as the “mirror image twins” of science and technology is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, technological advance has more often preceded and even inspired scientific understanding.

pp. 174-175, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom D. Crouch

This is something I’ve often wondered about: whether it was possible for a technology to be based on an inaccurate model. When I’ve asked friends about this, often over a pint in the pub, they’ve looked at me as if I was crazy.

If Tom D. Crouch is to be believed, the scientific models that the Wright Brothers based their plane on were not inaccurate, they simply didn’t exist.

This is not to disparage science. A better understanding of why wings work has lead to better, faster and safer airplanes.

What interests me here is the a similarity between this and Don Norman’s claim that technologies precede our need for them. There Wright Brothers, Wilbur in particular, certainly lend credence to Norman’s statement that “technologists invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them.”

Discontinuous improvement

Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it. It’s not continuous. One cannot become a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader. You never overcome a leader by imitating them and improving slightly. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you. And that comes about through creativity.

If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk…

Extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation

The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will take the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.

Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehaviors that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts. Executives game their quarterly earnings so they can game their performance bonus. Secondary school counselors doctor student transcripts so their seniors can get into college. Athletes inject themselves with steroids to post better numbers and trigger lucrative performance bonuses.

Contrast that approach with the behavior triggered by intrinsic motivation. When the reward is the activity itself—deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best—there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road. In some sense, it’s impossible to act unethically because the person who’s disadvantaged isn’t a competitor but yourself.

I’ve written about Daniel Pink’s work on motivation on this blog before. I read Drive a few months ago, but have found myself thinking about it ever since.

What strikes me most about it now, is the similarity between Dan Pink’s description of intrinsic motivation and W. Timothy Gallwey’s description of the value in winning. In both cases, the external reward—whether it be money or winning a tennis match—recedes into the background. The important thing becomes a much longer term goal: continually improving at something you care about. The effort expended is hard but hardly feels like effort.

Working for an external reward only gets you so far; working to improve—and believing that you can improve—will take you as far as you’re willing to go.

Related posts

The value in winning

Winning is overcoming obstacles, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal achieved.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Inner Game of Tennis after having it recommended to me by a number of people whose opinions I respect.

There’s a lot I like about the book, and a lot I think I can apply to both my running, my work and my life. The ninth chapter, The Meaning of Competition, was the highlight for me. As someone who—in my teens and early twenties—was convinced that competition was a bad thing, the chapter really resonated with me. I loved that Gallway argues that by focusing on the effort to win rather than on winning, competition becomes cooperation.

More than anything, though, I loved how he illustrates this by using surfing as an example.

The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents. Why? Because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort. It is only against the big waves that he is required to use all his skill, all his courage and concentration to overcome; only then can he realize the true limits of his capacities.