Impressive Versus Effective

A profile of James Patterson, the hyperprolific novelist, says this:

“I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.”

A few days ago, just before this profile appeared, I gave a talk about self-experimentation at EG (= Entertainment Gathering), a TED-like conference in Monterey. One reason my self-experimentation was effective, I said, was that I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. Whereas professional scientists doing professional science care a lot about impressing other people. I planned to say it like this but didn’t have enough time:

Years ago, I went to a dance concert put on by students at Berkeley High School. I really enjoyed it. I thought to myself: I like dance concerts. So I went to a dance concert by UC Berkeley students – college students. I enjoyed it, but not as much as the high school concert. Then I went to a dance concert by a famous dance company that all of you have heard of. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Why were the professionals much less enjoyable than the high school students? Because the professionals cared a whole lot about being impressive. That got in the way of being enjoyable. Scientists want to be impressive. They want to impress lots of people – granting agencies, journal editors,  reviewers, their colleagues, and prospective graduate students. All this desire to be impressive gets in the way of finding things out.

In particular, it makes self-experimentation impossible:

They can’t do self-experimentation because it isn’t impressive. Self-experimentation is free. Anyone can do it. It’s easy; it doesn’t require any rare or difficult skills. If you want to impress someone with your fancy car, self-experimentation is like riding a bike.

Because my self-experimentation was private, I was free to do whatever worked.

My broader point was that my self-experimentation was effective partly because I was an insider/outsider. I had the subject-matter knowledge of an insider, but the freedom of an outsider.

9 Replies to “Impressive Versus Effective”

  1. Seth:

    I read the article about Patterson and it’s fascinating. But I don’t think he’s a good example for your discussion. He’s much more like the professional dancers you can’t stand, than like the high school dancers you love. He has a factory and churns out 9 books a year, doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of self-experimentation in your sense, rather is working entirely within conventional forms. And he definitely isn’t doing it for himself, he’s trying to impress someone–the mass audience, in this case.

    I don’t completely disagree with your main point (although I suspect that expectations are involved too; one reason the high school students are fun to watch is that you’re expecting less from them in terms of raw talent), but I don’t think that a mass-media figure such as Patterson who writes by formula, really works as an example for you here.

  2. Some similarities to the point made in this piece by Mark Twight at Gym Jones.
    Dressing to impress, training for a certain look, doing the right workout routine, etc. does nothing for making actual gains in performance..that is why there is a distinct difference between gyms. There is always an underground feel to the gyms that will train you for performance and embrace experimenting. Otherwise, you have to do it yourself in your garage, old barn, on the playground, or wherever…

  3. Andrew, that’s very interesting because you are correct that I cannot stand Patterson’s writing. In that sense, just as you say, he is more like the professional dancers I didn’t enjoy than the high school dancers I enjoyed. This puzzles me (why does his formula work with others but not me?) but there it is.

    Adam, that’s a good point — that there are probably lots of other examples besides novelists, dancers, and scientists.

  4. Seth –
    I loved your talk at E.G 10! You were impressive! hmmm…

    Is there some kind of app on the web or iphone or whatever for assisting and informing self experimentation?

    Should we make one?

  5. Thanks, Michael. Someone told me about an iphone app for collecting data but he hasn’t yet given me an example of actual usage.

    At a Quantified Self meeting I heard a presentation by a woman who was developing a website to help people self-monitor. I signed up for the website — but never heard anything. I guess she’s still working on it.

    And I could tell you several other stories of potential applications for self-experimentation that went nowhere. I think the crucial thing is that the developer must have a problem that they themselves want to solve. So if you have a problem you’d like to solve via self-experimentation, I’d be happy to help you develop an appropriate iphone app or website.

  6. Probably most folks in the dance audiences disagreed with you – they enjoyed the more professional dances more, because they wanted more to be impressed. Face it Seth, you and I are *weird*. 🙂

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