The Deliberate Practice of Disruption

by Venkat on June 11, 2014

Recently, I concluded that our understanding of expertise, especially in the sense of the 10,000 hour meme, is seriously flawed. Even though there is something real there. And I don’t just mean the understanding conveyed by Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the idea. I include the primary researchers such as K. Anders Ericsson on whose work the popular accounts are based.  

The problem isn’t what you might think. It’s not the basic model of 10,000 hours of practice coupled with metacognition that’s the problem. The observation that you can get to useful levels of skill short of mastery in less time doesn’t fundamentally challenge the model. Nor is there a serious problem with the ideas that practice is necessary or that practice without metacognition is insufficient. That’s all true enough. Nor is the idea vacuous and tautological as some suggest.

The real problem is that research on expertise focuses on fields where “expertise” is a well-posed and objectively codified notion. This means mature fields that are closed and  bounded, and can be easily observed, modeled and studied under laboratory conditions. So it is not surprising that the work of researchers like Ericsson is based on fields like “medicine, music, chess and sports” (Wikipedia) or “music, science, golf and darts” (Ericsson’s own website).

Notice something? They’re all sharply circumscribed and regulated domains.

Open vs Closed Worlds

Sharply circumscribed and regulated domains are what I called closed worlds in TempoThe opposite kind with fuzzy, permeable boundaries and low regulation are open worlds.

Of course, in reality there are no closed worlds, except in our heads. It takes a certain amount of violence (such as physical violence or regulatory policing) to keep the external world closed and in correspondence with our mental models.

We define closed worlds by consensus on top of fundamentally open ones, by abstracting out a finite game from an infinite one and appointing guardians to police in the real world the boundaries that are mainly in our heads. One effect of this process of closing a world is that it necessarily drives a shift from trader (commerce) values to saint (guardian) values.

So it is not surprising that three of those four items in each list are in fact not significant economic trades at all, and the ones that are (medicine and science) are practiced under such highly regulated conditions (the healthcare sector and academia respectively) that they might as well be artificially closed domains.

These competitively compromised economic sectors, incidentally, suffer from a phenomenon known as Baumol’s disease: low rates of productivity increase through innovation, accompanied by cost increases that create increasingly unsustainable microeconomic conditions. I won’t talk about that in this post, except to note that it is a direct result of the specific model of deliberate practice that prevails (thanks to protection via closure) within those domains.

Science might seem like an outlier in this set, but it isn’t really. The academic study  of “science” by psychologists like Ericsson must rely on bureaucratic productivity measures like publications and citations, and the consensus of “leading experts” of a given scientific fields about what “expertise” means (since psychologists can’t be expected to themselves be experts in other scientific disciplines). So you necessarily end up studying Science! the bureaucratically proceduralized game rather than the scientific sensibility that drives significant breakthroughs. I’ll claim without arguing in detail, that the real scientific sensibility is a trader sensibility rather than a guardian sensibility.

The common feature of all these domains is that they create artificially leveled playing fields, within which people compete on the basis of prowess rather than in an open, Darwinian sense of variation and natural selection.

This makes all the difference.

Sustaining Metacognition: Finding Creative Flow

The characteristic feature of closed-world competitions is that there is a clear and unambiguous external error feedback signal from an authoritative source that also supplies extrinsic rewards such as money and status. Learning to incorporate that signal in your ongoing deliberate practice is the purpose of the metacognition.

In domains like sport and music, errors can only count as negative. Which means metacognition serves a particular purpose: getting to a notion of perfection by eliminating one performance error after another, preferably with a Tiger Mom hovering over you.

In that constrained context, the metacognition in deliberate practice can only be used in a sort of customer-driven QA way: you learn to measure up to, and “delight” the refined tastes of judge-like figures (typically retired-with-honors former expert performers). You achieve perfection by eliminating errors in meeting a standard of “perfection” that is somewhat arbitrarily determined by the most conservative customers.

This understanding of expert performance should also lead naturally to a communitarian understanding of expert creativity: one based on external rules and received standards and aesthetics. And this is precisely what you find in the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, one of the pioneers of positive psychology. A deeply flawed thinker I took way too seriously about 15 years back.

Csikszentmihalyi is known for two big ideas. The first is the idea of flow: the Zen-like state of peak performance that you get to when you’re operating at the edge of your abilities, with cognition and metacognition blurring together. The second is his model of creativity: which he constructs not as an individual trait, but as an product of a triad: individual, field and domain (as you might expect, for his creativity studies, he used exactly the same sorts of domains Ericsson uses in his expertise studies).

  1. Individual is a person embedded in a performance domain.
  2. Field in his sense is a community of experts who determine the worth of your work through peer review, or some analogous process.
  3. Domain is a particular area of creative performance mediated by symbols. 

By his model, you develop expertise by gaining fluency in the symbolic domain, internalizing the standards of your field, and constantly striving to push the envelope just a little beyond your maximum ability, but not too far beyond. The sweet spot of performance is the position that induces flow.

If you’re in flow, you can get flawless performance and lose yourself in it. This is in fact the definition of prowess. That sense of being at your peak of performance, with a subconscious sense of your own virtue, valor and skill combining in a graceful inner symphony. A feeling of being in a psychologically sacred state. If you’re in flow and being “creative” in this sense you’ll know what the judges will say before you even submit your work to them for judgement.

Survive long enough and you can retire with honors and become a steward and guardian in your own right, with younger people looking to you for judgment. Or you might end up dying trying to prove your prowess in fields where that’s possible, and be martyred, which in some sense is an even better outcome for aspiring guardians.

This model is an accurate one in descriptive terms, but a terrible one in normative terms. So let me propose a highly prejudiced contrarian reading of what Csikszentmihalyi is describing.

What we have here is a closed boundary defined by a symbolic domain (rather than raw, unmediated reality), within which there are awestruck beginners and awe-inspiring experts. Expert performance is primarily a beautiful feeling that is derived not from the effects of the performance itself, but from the integration of metacognition and cognition into an internal superego. An inner [Tiger-] parental spectator that supervises performance according to an external standard of error-free perfection, and rewards you psychologically to the extent that you meet that standard. The performance is necessarily an incremental push beyond the edge, where received standards of performance and aesthetics can be reliably extrapolated. You cannot apply standards of violin performance if you suddenly decide to use your violin as a bat in an improvised game of softball (a profane use of a violin that is nevertheless physically possible).

In short, this is sustaining innovation driven by groupthink, divorced from reality by an internal language of symbols, and limited to what doesn’t violate sacred standards of quality or prevailing aesthetic sensibilities. As determined by honored retirees whose expertise is beyond doubt.

The reward for such metacognition is in fact the subjective state of flow: a regime of behavioral sacredness that is valued for its own sake rather than for its effects, and which is rewarded in social ways.

Disruptive Metacognition: Finding Ugly Awkwardness

It’s easy to get to the broader notion of deliberate practice. The base layer is still the same. You’re still practicing the skill for 10,000 hours.

It’s the metacognition that is different. Instead of finding creative flow, you seek out ugly awkwardness that nevertheless intrigues and tempts you.  You figure out what feels uncomfortable and “wrong” in some sense, but also alluring, and figure out why. There are no judges to tell you if you’re right. There are no aesthetic standards to internalize. There are no performance standards other than what you’ve yourself done before or the behaviors of people you choose to imitate because you can’t think of anything yourself.

And most importantly, there is no clear understanding of whether variation from your own past behavior or others’ behaviors should be considered error or innovation.

Under such conditions, repetition for 10,000 hours becomes important not as a way to achieve perfection, but as a way to get the law of large numbers to work in your favor. Because with some low, but not vanishingly low probability, some of those “errors” can turn into mutations/innovations that can be developed further. Doorways that lead down very generative forks that have never been explored before.

Being open to these “errors” requires that your experience of what you are doing not be completely mediated by symbols. When playing the violin, it is fine to let the symbolic understanding of music performance guide your understanding of the music, but it should not blind you to, for instance, errors that suggest improvised use of violins as weapons or baseball bats.

So disruptive metacognition is irreverent and transgressive. It does not respect received sacred/profane distinctions. It does not justify extended practice on the basis of “pay your dues” but as a means of exploration. It does not seek flow as an end in itself, divorced from the effects of performance. While sustaining metacognition can be whimsical in an approved way, it cannot be offensively playful in the sense of irreverently crossing the boundary separating sacred and profane. Only disruptive metacognition can do that.

If the reward for effective sustaining metacognition is a sense of your own inner sacredness, experienced as flow, the reward for effective disruptive metacognition is a sense of snowballing absurdity and paradox that miraculously does not unravel. Effective awkwardness that inspires irreverent laughter rather than reverent awe. Instead of approval from honored figures, you get the slightly vicious pleasures of desecration.

While it is possible to do this all this in closed worlds of performance, it takes a kind of sociopathy to ignore expert tastes (or refined customer/audience tastes) and willingness to suffer being punished for being genuinely innovative (customers of cultural products punish straying performers much more than other kinds of customers). This is why early rockers shocked classical musical purists by burning or smashing guitars. Of course, you can also shock aging rockers’ sense of the sacred by not being outrageous (“kids today, they have no rebellion in them!”).

In default-open trader domains, where there isn’t a strong a sense of standards and aesthetics to tug you towards an arbitrary direction you can seek out a personal true north. The possibilities of generative, open-ended innovation are significantly higher because it takes less courage to stray.

That’s the open-world version of the dynamic behind 10,000 hours: mimicking evolution by providing a behavioral substrate for random positive mutations to act upon. This leads to good news and bad news.

Disruption as Violent Transgression

The good news is this. Viewed this way, talent becomes much less important than the mere fact of mindful repetition over a long period of time with a sensitive eye alert to the positive mutations to build upon.

The talent which feeds error elimination in closed domains only needs to be good enough to ensure survival in an open domain. Because all you need from the finite game is sustenance to keep the repetition going. You’re not seeking flow, perfection or victory in the finite game. In fact, perfection is the enemy (this is what ‘great is the enemy of good enough’ means). Seeking flow blinds you to the positive mutations you might stumble across.

The bad news is that success still depends on repeating some skilled behavior in roughly the 10,000 hour range, at “good enough” levels, before you’ll start stumbling across mutations that are both good and haven’t been spotted and explored before. This is why “good ideas” that beginners come up with, even if actually good, aren’t worth much. They lack the behavioral base to actually go down the bunny trail opened up by the idea. The have the idea, but not the idea maze. The genetic mutation without the protein synthesis machinery.

But if you do have the disruptive deliberate practice under your belt you can, well, be disruptive.

If you know the basics of disruption theory, you know it involves attacking a market from a marginal niche. I won’t rehash that. But I will state what might be a new point. What’s disruptive about disruption is that it violates a prevailing sense of the sacred with irreverent profanity. 

A disruptor attacks a saintly mindset rather than a market. A mindset that holds certain performance standards and aesthetic considerations to be sacred, and is blind to the potential of what it considers profane. The disruptor wins by being mediocre where it is a sacred duty to be exceptional, and embracing profanity where saints are blinded by their own taboos.

Ravi June 12, 2014 at 7:07 am

I think your contrarian reading of “flow” is accurate under conditions of ossification of the field-superego – like in the types of highly circumscribed fields studied by creativity researcher. (Let’s call these “classical” fields.) But still found myself bothered by the outsize role of randomness in the non-classical case, though you acknowledge a notion of development. I think part of what’s missing (for me, at least) is the mechanism behind what you refer to here: “…some of those “errors” can turn into mutations/innovations that can be developed further. Doorways that lead down very generative forks that have never been explored before.” I’ll call this the “forming capacity”. (The associated mental image I have for this phrase is of a young child running up and down a beach creating and editing a variety of small lego structures in various stages of realization/completion, none of which look like “buildings” – rather, various geometric forms and modules set in varying proportions.)

My simplified reading of your reading is: in non-classical fields, rather than attempt to achieve non-existent (field-defined/dependent) perfection, build forming capacity and allow for mutations through deliberate repetition. I think the main difference between this and “classical” model is the locus of development of the forming capacity is: in less “classical” fields, forming capacity has to be consciously DEVELOPED rather than internalized from the best practices and aesthetics of the field(wrt the domain).

In “classical” fields, drills are isolated and codified from domain practice and are prescribed by authorities. A complete set of drills allows for the establishment(in the practitioner) of a basis for the space of actions in the domain. It isn’t the basis itself, as an actual move in the domain is not a collage of drill moves. Well-conceived drill most likely stimulates the development of broader capacities. Also, “drill” doesn’t need to be completely mechanical – I include practices such as “repertoire”(in the case of music)/”case study”/observation/imitation/etc. Even if based on a neurotic relationship with the field-superego, this process does lead to creativity/innovation/mutation/whatever else you’d want to look for- whether one views the production from the inside or outside. (Not implying that creativity, innovation, mutation are all the same thing, just that whichever one you’d want to look for, you would be able to find.) But the forming capacity can be seen as being contained in the unconscious of the field.

In “non-classical” fields, what is the process by which one advances from a state of not being able to act on an idea/elaborate a forming to being able to act on an idea/work out the implications of a forming? As random non-guided activity with no model of the activity and no selection apparatus can never proceed beyond random non-guided activity. In the non-classical case, even without prescribed drills, one still requires SOME a priori idea of what it is to do the activity at all, even if it is not a prescribed drill. The classical drill is replaced by a complex that includes the production of the mental models and enaction of the behaviors that allow “exploration” of those qualitative differences between mutations/formings. One forms, interrogates the forming, intuits a set of laws or processes that might allow for further exploration, however irreducible to symbolic expression or codification, and then ACTS on those reflections and intuitions. Through repetition of that process, forming capacity develops – not the same thing as “classical” prowess.

Note that in the classical case the intuition, codification, and prescription of practices has been completed by the (collective) field. . Perhaps to extend the “calculus of grit” metaphor, rather than drill handed down externally, development of forming happens “locally”. Classical drills are discrete movements along a one-dimensional line(in well-defined ambient space), while the “non-classical” case involves prospecting a linear approximation to a path, attempting to take it, being obstructed by features of the space – all taking place in a coordinate patch of the inscrutable manifold of life.

I’m not familiar with all of the Csikzentmihalyi-type research, but I believe they do look at not-purely-classical fields such as research science, right? With a rough view the “classical” model might seem to apply, but that would only seem to be the case because of a lack of conceptual clarity about what “practice” actually is.

In the nonclassical/mutation/forming capacity case, what is role of feedback signal, if any? (Analogous to the “classical” field-induced transference neurosis or natural selection in evolution.) Perhaps outside of actual discussions of aesthetics, at some point one must appeal to an essentialist notion of “true north” or internal coherence of a domain(like, say, “objective mathematical beauty”)?

I’m not sure I understand the connection to the saintliness at the end, to be honest – is this the same sense as in “saint position” in the Uberreaction post? Could you elaborate on that?

Venkat June 12, 2014 at 8:21 am

Good points, and I don’t have complete answers, but for the first part of your comment, my old post on grit may be good fodder for what you’re pondering. Yes, you have to develop internalized equivalents of field support structures like codified drills that are NOT just judging superegos.

I do mean the same notion of an aesthetic. When a field gets to some sort of classical perfection, the aesthetic tends to become unnmoored from justification. The priests go from justifying judgments as “because x y z” to “because we said so.” Happens even in science and math, especially when the judgment is about importance rather than originality or correctness, which they may acknowledge while still dismissing the work as unimportant and/or ugly. The essentialized true north is not even objective at that point, but a subjective consensus.

Josh Haas June 12, 2014 at 7:17 am

Just read Vanity Fair’s take on the dispute over whether The Goldfinch is “real” literature (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism) and immediately thought of this post… it precisely explains the confusion among the literary elite about why the book is successful although to them it’s not “good”.

I hadn’t thought of applying “disruption” in cultural terms, but actually this is a pretty paradigmatic example: by compromising on dimensions that the established players consider sacred, like sentence construction and “realness” or “seriousness”, she’s able to outperform them on other dimensions like “story” which it turns out the market values.

That said, I’m not sure I buy the 10,000 hours of looking for disruption vs acquiring process theory. It still takes a lot of prowess to execute on a disruptive idea… it’s just prowess along a different set of values. Disruptors, I think, do have a notion of sacredness, it’s just not a mainstream one. (For instance, take the PC: Steve Wozniak was obsessed with reducing the number of parts to achieve the same result, which is very much a sacred prowess quest, just a different one than the ones that mainframe manufacturers were following).

I’m someone skeptical in general about the saint-trader distinction you’ve been working with lately. It feels a bit like a category error to me. I think most? all? people have the guardian complex, and differences in perceived open-ness have to do with what that guardian complex is defending. Litmus test: can you get excited watching a “team of buddies do something heroic” movie? YMMV on which movies work for you, but I bet most people could find one that would get them excited (personally I have to admit Battlestar Galactica gets my blood going).

I think the infinite vs finite game distinction is a better, more real distinction than the guardian vs commerce distinction… some people are trying to guard infinite games, while others are trying to guard finite games, but I think everyone is guarding something.

Venkat June 12, 2014 at 8:32 am

It’s not so much the fact that everybody is guarding something (of course that’s true) that I am poking at, as how they’re guarding it: are they justifying their actions internally and forcing others to accept that judgment through rhetorical or physical violence (persuasive guardianship) or are they letting people have their own views and simply influencing behavior through incentives. Trying to convert someone to belief in god versus simply arranging incentives so they end up going to church for their own reasons.

As for prowess to execute: my point is that for disruption, “good enough” is good enough much of the time. It turns into a prowess game only if others start working by the new terms and minimal standards you define. The first iPhone was a game changer, but it triggered a prowess game only when Samsung and others joined the party. Until then, the only standards that mattered were Steve Jobs’ private ones.

Traders care about behavioral outcomes rather than cognitive ones.

Josh June 12, 2014 at 9:10 am

Okay, behavioral vs cognitive outcomes is a helpful way of framing it, I think I see what you’re getting at better now.

But what that framing suggests to me is that it’s not a question of people choosing to be guardian-types or creator-types. It’s a question of where someone is drawing their “we” circle relative to the party they are interacting with.

Trader-mentality is a tight “we” circle where the party being influenced is outside of it. Only outcomes matter because you don’t regard the other party as someone to exchange reasons with, but rather as a natural force to be reckoned with. Whereas guardian mentality is within the “we” circle, where values matter because what you’re trying to do is include the person in your own cognitive process.

A tight-knit team working on the new iDisrupt might act like traders towards the rest of the world: they only care if they are incentivized to purchase the iDisrupt, not why. But within the team, if they are successful they probably have strong guardian standards about the level of Disrupty-ness the iDisrupt needs to have. (Hence Jobs maniacal imposition of his private standards on the rest of Apple).

Here’s my guess as to why you’re seeing “traders” vs “guardians” in the world, and why you seem to be identifying with traders. Some people haven’t figured out how BIG the world has become. They conceptualize everyone as part of their tribe. So, they seek to engage people whose lives are different from them beyond their capacity to imagine as if they were just another member of the clan, and thus assume they should share the same values. I would describe the social conservative agenda as being like this.

Because this is based on a limited imagination of how diverse the world is, this perspective doesn’t work, and ends up becoming violent / coercive as the people trying to engage as “we” lash out at others for not behaving in the way that “we” should.

To me, though, the ideal isn’t going to the other extreme and treating everyone else as not part of “we”. Rather, it’s being flexible about when it makes moral / tactical sense to include someone else as “we” and when it makes moral / tactical sense to just worry about what their incentives are. In other words, I think identifying with either end of the trader / guardian incentive is a mistake… the right answer is to accurately assess to what degree “we” is possible and treat people accordingly.

Venkat June 12, 2014 at 10:07 am

Well, I’d be a hedge fund manager rather than a blogger if I really drew as tight a “we” circle as you suggest :)

Your second characterization is closer to the mark. It’s not how tightly/loosely you draw the we circle, but how strongly you police entry and exits. Traders have an opt-in/opt-out attitude towards their “we” circles, with little or no policing. They offer reasons and justifications, and an opt-in/opt-out interface, but don’t rely on that to achieve their ends. In a way, they separate the problems of reaching consensus and acting in cooperative ways. Guardians otoh, police their boundaries strongly, whether they are tightly exclusive or broadly inclusive. Entry policing gives you guardian religions like Judaism and Hinduism. Exit policing where apostasy can be punishable with death, like Islam are the other extreme. Some, like the mafia police both entry and exit very strongly.

Josh June 12, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Haha ironically, I worked at a hedge fund for a few years, and it was actually a fascinating case study in the other direction: the founder adopted the philosophy of managing cognitions vs managing outcomes (everyone was supposed to operate according to http://www.bwater.com/Uploads/FileManager/Principles/Bridgewater-Associates-Ray-Dalio-Principles.pdf). My take-away was that it worked very well when the company was a small hunting party, but caused a lot of grief as it scaled to a 1000+ person company (although the jury is still out on whether the organization will thrive long-term).

Anyway yes, policing boundaries vs not-policing boundaries seems like a very useful / on-point distinction that makes sense of the “guardian” vs “trader” thing for me. Basically, the trader lets others define their own affiliation, whereas the guardian wants to define it for them in order to stake out an identity-territory. To go back to the post, a panel of expert judges in classical music wants to define what “classical music” counts as, whereas someone with a more relaxed personal identity might do stuff that starts as classical music but evolves along some diagonal axis until it becomes unrecognizable to the judges.

Sublate June 14, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Hi Venkat,

I’ve liked a lot of your writing and your saint/trader dichotomy is my favorite yet. You can see echoes of it in Lacan’s writing about the anal and phallic stages of development – note that I’m not citing this as an appeal to authority, but as two individuals observing a similar phenomenon, though I think that your name is better.

Guardians see value in performing an act, whereas traders are concerned with the effects that their actions have. Academia is the most entrenched form of guardianship that I’m aware of, where kids are led to want to write theses even though they know nobody will read it. Pure guardianship.

I’m also struck by how obscene guardians find trader mentalities, and your embrace of obscenity as a tool is something that I’ve been mulling over for a while, thanks to Zizek, who’s advocated the sensation of obscenity as a clear indication of progress (obscenity being different from ugliness).

To create an obscene mash-up of concepts and tools and have it come out beautiful and elegant is my real goal with any undertaking, but one that can only be proved through practice, not theory. A lot of lifestyle design is a great example to me of a broader embrace of the effectiveness of the obscene in general. It’s oddly addictive. It demands quite a deal of independence, though, as few people know what to do with someone whose concepts of what’s sacred don’t follow a predictable path – again reminding me of how the problem with the lifestyle design crowd is their lack of relationships (as you pointed out in an earlier post).

Venkat June 14, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Hah! Perfect. I haven’t ready any Zizek, but have reached the same conclusion. As I tweeted yesterday, “My addendum to Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced society is indistinguishable from a state of absolute perversion.”

Thanks for the pointer. And yes, lifestyle design is precisely at the state of development you point out. Once their relationship capital starts to accummulate, they will create their own new notions of the sacred.

Kay June 14, 2014 at 11:59 pm

I had to think of Zizek as well and his criticism of Buddhism which resembles that of the flow state in Venkats article.

However, speaking from a techie angle ( and isn’t this still the year of computing? ), where the “flow” is popular, it makes more sense simply because disruption and awkwardness are the norm, not the steady flow of action. What happens then is a highly situated junk learning, something one learns only to immediately forget it when one switches a system, language, or tool and never looks back. The economy of learning and junk learning determines ones own preferences just as much as the promise of comfort and progress. Junk learning and performance is hardly ever a matter of prowess though but good design is. If one is on the junk learning track, one might show adaptive qualities to no end and one eternally changes but there is no becoming. Is that still life or just a contagious and anti-fragile zombi apocalypse?

Sublate June 16, 2014 at 9:27 am

I think your conclusion is a little morbid – I think it more puts you in the state that the most successful business people (like Munger) end up in, where your primary skill to develop is the act of learning and understanding itself.

Instead of learning a skill and applying it, your skill is the act of learning skills, applying them, and then moving on. Your value then isn’t so much your level of skill, but the first derivative of your skill-building activities. You’re stuck in a state of becoming – which, honestly, isn’t so bad if you subscribe to the Heraclitan view that all life is becoming anyways and the joke is that we ever thought it wasn’t. The adapting, evaluating and discarding of values as a value in and of itself. Apply it to itself, and you’re somewhere crazy and recursive – which is the takeaway I get from Hegel via Zizek and Godel Escher Bach.

Kay June 16, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Your ideal manager is a champion of self-improvement, which might be the ultimate prowess game: the one which doesn’t end with the death of the champ in an act of competition – but with a lone life style designer instead?

But why a manager/entrepreneur? In GEB there are figures of indirect self-reference. One might imagine from there that a couple of subjects cyclically creating each other ( writing each other ) could be a stable design not only a social reality but something which the self improving self is unable to achieve, something which goes beyond the aristocrat. But this doesn’t seem to happen. We accept this almost tautologically and then Venkat uses phrases like the “true auteur north” and he returns to the genius of the lone decider, the sociopath at the top, the Schumpeterian entrepreneur, to existential modernity and so on. Fine but we had this for a century and more now and didn’t we get stuck with it?

Metatone June 14, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Worth noting in passing that Baumol’s Disease has things largely backwards. It confuses absolute and relative scarcity/abundance and so rings alarm bells about the wrong things…

Ankur July 17, 2014 at 5:52 am

Could you elucidate? This is interesting.

Sam Penrose June 15, 2014 at 9:40 am

I reread the 2007 piece. I believe there are some mistakes in the summary which I can elaborate on if you care. I’d be curious to see you write more about Christensen’s “jobs hired for” theory of products, which is fertile, subtle, and feels compatible with your thinking.

Venkat June 15, 2014 at 7:46 pm

I haven’t kept up with Christensen’s later work. Since the statute of limitations (aka comments closing) on that post is past, you’re welcome to do a guest post up-to-date disruption overview :). I can then start referencing that instead of mine, which needs disruptin’ anyway, in the market of backlinks.

Rahul June 16, 2014 at 5:31 am

Hello Venkat,

I would like to see if my understanding of the following para is correct.

‘The talent which feeds error elimination in closed domains only needs to be good enough to ensure survival in an open domain. Because all you need from the finite game is sustenance to keep the repetition going. You’re not seeking flow, perfection or victory in the finite game. In fact, perfection is the enemy (this is what ‘great is the enemy of good enough’ means). Seeking flow blinds you to the positive mutations you might stumble across.’

Especially the line, ‘You’re not seeking flow, perfection or victory in the finite game’.

Till this line I was under the impression that the finite game corresponds to closed-worlds and perfection or flow is what you try to avoid in infinite game/open-world scenarios.

Venkat June 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Your understanding is correct. My sentence is somewhat ambiguous.

Bailey June 16, 2014 at 7:58 am

Hi, Venkat.

Thought you’d appreciate Jill Lepore’s take on disruption and the ‘gospel of innovation in this week’s New Yorker:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/06/23/140623fa_fact_lepore

Taylor Pearson June 19, 2014 at 8:14 am

Not atypically, you’ve conceptualized something I’ve been stirring around in my head for the last year and haven’t been able to express.

My mild obsession with concept of The Resistance as Pressfield explains it is that it’s the most effective compass for ugly awkwardness or disruptive meta cognition that I’ve found.

Venkat June 19, 2014 at 10:17 am

Hah, interesting connection to Pressfield there. I haven’t read anything by him, but he has popped up on my radar a few times.

Josh June 20, 2014 at 2:26 pm

The place to start would be The War of Art. It’s a very quick, light read. I selfishly hope you check it out because I found it very powerful and would be very interested to see how you process it!

Taylor June 20, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Agreed, very quick read and definitely gets me jacked up. Required reading for any writer IMHO.

Alexander Boland June 24, 2014 at 10:36 am

Still in the middle, so I apologize if I say something you address but I would hate to lose the thought:

Artificially closed domains seem to be useful as *tools* for what Greg Rader called “involution.” They might be arbitrary, in the same way that a tradition with instrumental value could have very well been another one, but they seem to create enough form that one then has more solid building blocks with which to create new things. One could think of this as an instance of Jensen’s Inequality: before natural selection must come sufficient crystallization.

Another way I’ve always looked at this is through Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem: start from any set of axioms and you’ll eventually come to conclusions that are not fully consistent with the axioms; the end result being a vacuum that must somehow be filled. That, at least, was my interpretation of Kuhn and drove my belief that his view is completely compatible with Feyerabend’s.

Sudhir Desai June 24, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Hello Venkat,

Always enjoy your writing and novel/maverick perspectives on things. The logic of excellence and expertise as something that is validated within a closed system makes perfect sense.

Not just individuals but collective entities such as enterprises suffer from similar challenges in the pursuit of excellence as you point out and are trapped cognitively in frames that develop over time and are institutionalized in their contexts too. You are wedded to the systems that have fed and sustained you and therefore cannot see or will strive to maintain the established order.

I take difference though with your conclusion – while a disruptor does attack an established mindset of frame, that alone is not sufficient for you to become a disruptor. Disruption is essentially a systemic challenge, sometime made wicked by the size of the system. There could be many alternatives to the conventional mindset, but not all of those alternatives can disrupt.

The alternative mindset is just one of the things you need in order to disrupt. It does begin with the willingness to be disrespectful and maverick, however, the idea of changing a system is subtler and involves and understanding of other dynamics, which might imply a certain degree of covertness in how you approach disrespect.

Cheers

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