Research and Popular Advice

Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind is a curious book. It is highly influenced by academic research (the author is an academic) but I wouldn’t say it was an academic book. It doesn’t read like the standard academic book: “here — in an easy to digest form — is my research over the years”. Levitin refers to his work but it really doesn’t impinge too much on the overall narrative. It isn’t a grand public intellectual book (a la Steven Pinker) it feels too small for that. It doesn’t have an especially grand theme behind it. Instead this feels a bit more of a self help book with a higher quality of research behind it. To be fair much of it seemed like good advice. E.g., take into account base rates when judging likelihoods. Key advice was, be prepared to satisfice. This is finding something that is good enough rather than striving for perfection on tasks that don’t matter. I.e. don’t invest more in getting the best outcome than will be gained by getting this rather than a decent but not quite as good outcome.

Occasionally I felt that the research could be better explained. I wasn’t 100% convinced by some of the assertions. It wasn’t that the research was obviously flawed, I’m assuming that Levitin has a good eye for credible research and a lot of what he cited made a lot of sense to me: e.g., the work of Amos Tversky, Herb Simon etc… He was, however, just a bit more certain of his conclusions than I am used to from academics. I just wanted a few more details before I would accept it.

A great part of the book was the description of why juniors in organizations think they are less talented than their bosses. Supervisors are in a situations where they are almost bound to look good. They can choose when to show their perfected work to their subordinates (looking great) but the subordinates have to show all their mistakes to a boss.

In academia PhD students are too humble as they see the finished product of their advisors, never knowing how much rubbish was produced before the finished product. The students see all their own poor attempts and know how they have many failures. “All the graduate student ever sees is the finished product [of the advisor] and the gap between it and her own work” (Levitin, 2014).

This leads students to dither and think they can never finish their PhD. They often are/become perfectionists. I mostly laughed because I’m not sure my advisor, Mark Bergen, would think of me as too obsessed with perfection. To me good enough is always good enough. I’m pleased to be following the tradition of Herb Simon and Satisficing (and not just being lazy). I think Levitin would approve.

Read: Daniel Levitin (2014) The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age Of Information Overload, Penguin