Sunday, August 15, 2010

Momentous Momentum

99.9% of what you do today will be defined by what you did last week. On your average weekday, it'll be yesterday. On your average weekend, it'll be the previous weekend. On your average holiday, it'll be the holiday a year ago. We tend towards habit, repetition and stasis. Our lives are primarily defined by momentum. We do what we do today primarily because we did it yesterday.

99.9% of what you'll recall when asked to talk about your best times or the things you most remember will probably come from the 0.1% of your life that wasn't driven by momentum. The exceptions, the times when you traveled a different road, the times when life took you by surprise. Our lives' momentous events are the ones not driven by momentum.

Isn't that curious? Now, for the persnickety out there, it might not be 99.9% exactly. However, whatever the factor, it's much more than a lot (33%) or most (51%) or really alot (76.46652%).

Except when... There are inflection points in the graphs of our lives in which we significant changes in vector (direction and speed): when we go to college, when we get married, when we have children, when we get divorced, when we retire, when we decide to travel, and so on. There are typical points in life where everything changes. We tend to remember the moments of change, but then momentum kicks in and the rest blurs into routine.

Rating Systems
Per statistics recorded at the Teflon Institute of Extranormal Studies, 49.9999% of all professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) are below average at whatever it is they do. 90% of professionals aren't particularly good at what they do. 10% are good and 10% of them are exceptionally good. However, the exceptionally good are often not regarded as such by their "peers" (which include the 90% who just aren't that good); some may be counted among the terrible.

Outside areas where performance is measured quantitatively (e.g., running, swimming, playing chess), it's often quite difficult to tell the difference between the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad. In many cases the rules of performance are esoteric (accessible only to the initiated) and to some degree artificial (you can't discern them by understanding the basic systems, you have to memorize them.) It's kind of like the difference between tort law (built up over years like a patchwork house) and constitutional law (architected and engineered as an elegant, extensible system where even unanticipated scenarios are managed easily through organic extension).

A Name by Any Other Flower
I believe that Picasso picked up on this distinction in his later years, making a bit of a joke or game of it. He produced great work and he produced crap, all of it Picasso, just to see if people could tell the difference.

Ultimately, activities where performance is not measured quantitatively come down to aesthetic or taste, even those activities (such as figure skating) that are measured pseudo-quantitatively by attaching a score to a non-quantitative factor. This is the clearly the case for artists, musicians, dancers. But it's also often the case for psychologists, doctor, lawyers and engineers. If someone resonates with our personal sense of aesthetics (it could be their manner or their pedigree or their associations), then we ascribe a high performance rating to them. We say that they're good, when we really mean we like them.

In those cases where it's not about aesthetic, we become label readers. We look at labels like Harvard and Oxford and assume goodness. We might even ascribe the distinction to our sense of aesthetic or allude to it being somehow informed and quantitative, but in the end, we're just label readers. Jonathan told me about an experimental wine tasting where Charles Shaw wine (Two-Buck-Chuck) was secretly substituted for expensive wine and presented to people with ostensibly expert palates. Guess what? Most people had no idea.

Some attribute this phenomenon to the fact that a large percentage of the population simply don't have the number of taste receptors on their tongues required to discern the differences. There is a small percentage of the population composed of so-called super tasters, people with an extraordinarily large number of taste receptors and there is a larger population of sub tasters, people with a lower than average number of taste receptors. It would appear that many wine experts are actually in the later group.

I think there is an analog to the super taster phenomenon in almost any area where we rate performance aesthetically. There are people who declare themselves experts, who learn all the rules of what makes something great, good, average, poor or terrible, and who routinely offer their opinion, but who in the end, without the rule book, couldn't tell the difference between mundane and the sublime.

Unfortunately, due to the esoteric nature of the evaluation systems, many of us come to rely on these so-called experts. We look to them to tell us what's good, what's bad, what's best and what's worse. Then the snowball starts rolling as we tell others.

Rating Your Life
As humans, we tend to evaluate fairly continuously. Although the values tend to be of the good/bad type, they're not necessarily judgments, or a least not in the way we often talk about judgments. Sometime, the good/bad assignment is emotionally charged (judgment) and sometimes it's not (assessment). In the end, based on our momentum oriented experience, the evaluation is moot. A day from now, a week from now, a month from now, you won't even remember the event, let alone the rating.

I believe that evaluative rating systems can be wonderfully useful often providing the guide posts along the path to growth, change and learning. The best ones are aligned with your goals; you can easily explain why it's there because of how it contributes to getting where you want to go. These types of systems are often at odds with the existing formal systems. They may be actively dismissed by the holders of formal credentials, 90% of whom aren't very good at what they do and many of who can't taste.

How much of your life is based on momentum? How much of your life is in a mode of change and growth? What are the moments of your life, the ones that you remember vividly? Why do you remember them?

If you were going to evaluate your life, (i.e, how well you're living it), what metrics would you use? Would you create your own or look to an existing set? Would you develop a list or a system?

How good are you at living?

Happy Sunday,

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