Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Physical Abstraction Layer

Yesterday morning I was stuck on a research problem, so I went out for a run. Athletes often remark about how participating in sport taught them important lessons about time management and perseverance in other aspects of their lives. After pushing myself through a temptation to reduce the run to a walk, I ditched thinking about the research problem and turned to the question of athletic perseverance: why is it easier to push myself to keep running than to keep pushing myself through a research problem?

I believe it comes down to a simple abstraction. Running offers three basic levels of movement: walking, shuffling/light jogging, and running. Once I'm walking, I've stopped doing what I'm really trying to do. Once I'm shuffling, I've stopped respecting the time I allocated to getting some exercise. In short, there's an obvious metric for whether or not I'm (a) running and (b) doing a decent job at it.

Research, in contrast, offers more of a continuum of effort. There are some very concrete states (e.g. writing a paper, preparing a talk), but the creative portions of research are much more open ended. I can look like I'm working without really having my attention on my work. There's also a catch-22 to monitoring my attention to research: once I'm checking that I'm focused on a problem, I'm no longer focused solely on the problem! It's fairly easy to fake research effort and convince myself that I am really working when I'm not really there. Running doesn't let me get away with that.

So what does running teach me about perseverance in research? It doesn't teach me _how_ to persevere, or even how to recognize that I'm off-track. It does remind me that one can push through temptations to stop. It's attitude-conditioning. This isn't always a good thing though: I've been guilty of spending many a truly unproductive hour sitting at my desk trying to force work that my mind simply wasn't up to at that point. Research has taught me that giving up and walking away is often extremely valuable, especially since my mind keeps working subconsciously (which is why running helps with research in the first place).

Which brings me back to my original question: what does sport teach us about perseverance in creative fields? I concluded that it actually doesn't teach me much. Running works for me because my creative brain works better when "distracted" by a simple run. I'm glad that running has such clean states, because I want a simple metric for "good enough" when I'm trying to restore rhythm to my day. It doesn't scale to the sorts of perseverance needed in the continuum of creative work. There, it's far too easy to fool yourself.

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