Sunday, March 18, 2012


The Berkshires is no silicon valley. While there are a few software programmers and hardware jockeys, we don't have many computer scientists or biomedical engineers. We may have just one. So it's not often that I get to dig into technology with people who understand it.

Over the past fews weeks I had the opportunity to meet with real tech geeks: CIOs, entrepreneurs from MIT, etc., people who live and breath high-tech. Anticipating the meetings and conferences, I was excited to be talking about technology and innovation, to brainstorm, to explore with people who get it.

However, it didn't really go that way. Sure, everyone with whom I met was smart. They satisfied all the standard metrics, e.g., high IQ, academic success, deep knowledge, etc. Yet, the meetings felt sluggish.

In a conference on innovation in healthcare systems the proposals represented nothing more than incremental change to the status quo. Meeting with a gadget guy from MIT, it took longer to convince him that I could transform his sensor data into useful information than it would have taken to complete the software.

All in all, everything went fine. I was able to quickly recognize the disconnects and recalibrate my explanations and expectations. (BTW, that's pretty new for me.) Still, the whole experience left me wondering: why is it that really smart people think so slowly.

I've known for years that I think differently than other people. As a kid, I heard about it all the time as my thinking differently was viewed as a liability, not an asset. While I don't accept notions of "being wired differently" (I don't think any one of us is hard-wired), I do accept that people sometimes develop unique approaches to thought. To me it's a difference of method, not physiology.

So I accept that I think differently. I acknowledge it. Yet as I stand in the shower this morning I realize that I have no clue about what it means. How exactly do I think differently? What's different about my process? What works? What doesn't work?

I flash through several meetings reviewing the signals that indicated a communications-disconnect, what I did to recalibrate my explanations, what worked and what didn't work. The word "associative" pops into my brain. "Associative thinking", I say aloud as I turn off the water, my head still half covered with shaving cream.

I drip my way to the laundry room to find a towel. I'm not sure what the formal definition of associative thinking is, but that sounds right to me.

A common thread emerges. In each instance of disconnect I'd made a leap in logic, a leap that seemed perfectly clear to me but managed to lose everyone else. To reconnect I'd go back to the jump-off point and build a sequence of logical steps based on the knowledge of the person with whom I was speaking. Working incrementally, it was easy (albeit painfully slow) to communicate how I'd reached my conclusion.

So, one of the ways I think differently is making leaps when others are moving stepwise. How is it that I make the leaps? I think that's where the associative part comes in. Thinking about my experience just prior to taking leaps I realize that each leap is immediately preceded by an aha best expressed by "Oh, that's just like..."

I look at a problem and recognize it as being quite similar to another problem for which I already have a solution. In cases where the two problems reside in the same domain (e.g., software or graphics or hardware or music) people follow. However, when the association crosses domain boundaries, people get lost.

I know this is a bit vague and general, but I feel like I'm closing in on it. For example, it's easy for me to hear music and play it in realtime. I'm quite certain I do it differently than many others. Whereas some attempt to isolate each of the notes being played and then play them, I don't listen to notes. Instead, I listen to tonal color.

A dominant-seven chord has a very distinctive sound or color. So does a major-seven with a raised eleventh or a fully-diminished chord or dominant-seven with a sharp-nine. The root note may change, but the color never does. You don't need to know all the chords in all the keys, just the color of each chord type.

You don't even need to memorize all the colors. All you need to do is know different songs in which each of the chords is used.

Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage is built on suspended dominant-seven chords with a nine and thirteen. Each time I hear a suspended dominant-seven chord with a nine and thirteen I think, "Sounds like Maiden Voyage". Light of the World from the musical Godspel starts with an Eb-seven-sharp-nine. Each time I hear a seven-sharp-nine I think, "That sounds like Light of the World".

I never try to figure out all the notes. The process of association is so much easier and faster. The only time I do go through all the notes is when I need to explain why I believe the chord is this one versus that one. However, having the answer already makes it easy to backtrack.

The tricky part is when you're sitting with a bunch of guys from MIT's Media Lab and you've segued through music on your way to a computer science solution. For now I'm happy to have them suspend disbelief long enough to give me a chance just to show them.

I think I'm starting to understand it. Time to finish shaving my head.

Happy Sunday,


  1. Tef: could it be a case of analysis versus synthesis? I think we are trained to analyze a lot more than synthesize; break down into steps/pieces (something that requires local logic) more than build something new (which requires global creativity).

  2. Sree, I agree with you on the contrast between learning through analysis and learn through synthesis. I believe you never really own a concept until you can synthesize it from scratch.

    However, one can synthesize step-wise and one can synthesize taking leaps. So I'm not sure the distinction gets to the core of association.

    Nonetheless, my guess would be that there is a high correlation between synthesizers and associative thinkers. I believe that synthesis provides a more ingrained understanding thus providing the hooks that link associations.

    What do you think?

  3. sounds like 'thin-slicing' (Malcom Gladwell, I think) except it's across domains. So maybe you automatically create a meta model for problem solutions that make it easy for you to see it transposed in any domain?

  4. Faith, I wiki'd thin-slicing (I've got to start reading more). In some ways, what they describe feels a like my experience. The thing I'm not sure about is the reference to "narrow windows, of experience". For me the association occurs instantaneously (a Gladwell Blink?). However, the basis for the instantaneous association is often founded in years of intimate experience, e.g., tens of thousands of hours writing code or playing music.

    The more I think about it, there are bunches of micro-associations that go into building that base. You start putting together things that are 99% similar, then 98% similar, and so on.

    At some point the delta is large enough that it becomes unclear to anyone without the experience. At least that's how I'm thinking about it right now.

    One thing the experience reminds me of is what happens when you smell a sent from your past and everything from that event or time streams in vividly.

  5. not sure about the narrow window of experience. Maybe they mean experience in the present moment? Gladwell linked it back to his idea about 10,000 hours to create real expertise in some domain and that during that time an expert develops what looks like short cuts, so the expertise becomes encapsulated so all the steps aren't needed for the conclusion anymore. (Faith's version) so small amounts of the right data can open up big chunks of information.

  6. Tef: by synthesis, I meant creation of something new, not the 'learning by synthesis' that you mentioned, which is more like independently re-generating something shown to you. Now, one could certainly argue that nothing is ever truly new (even the most creative people acknowledge that) but then you could also say everything is new (can't put the same foot in the river twice).

    I'm reading books on graphic design & creativity these days, both rather alien areas for me, and I'm finding two common threads: (1) it can be cultivated/learned and (2) it involves sparking connections using disparate stimuli. I certainly didn't hear that during my schooling, or any other time, for that matter.


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