5. Stories We Tell Ourselves

In faculty development, if it’s too good to be true it probably is.  Confusion is normal and even a sign of appropriate goals.

When my children were young, they watched a television show called Mathnet[1]. A homage to the classic police procedural Dragnet, Mathnet sought both to popularize mathematics and demonstrate its applicability to the real world. My own favorite episode tasked the Mathnet detectives to unravel a scam[2].   They interviewed the victims, who purchased a worthless prediction of the future for an exorbitant sum from a scam artist, one Swami River. When asked why, the victims swore that the Swami successfully predicted the winner of athletic contests on four prior occasions. As the detectives discover, Swami River and his father (named Old Man River, of course) sent sample predictions for a team contest, half naming each team as the winner, to 64 potential victims. The 32 receiving ‘predictions’ that correctly named the winning team were sent a second round of ‘predictions’, again with half naming each team as the winner. Of those, the 16 receiving ‘predictions’ that correctly named the winning team were sent a third round, and so on until the 4 who received four consecutive correct ‘predictions’ were offered a final prediction – at great cost. Is it any surprise that the victims fell for the scam?

System 1 responds instinctively and rapidly to the information before it.

System 2 orchestrates rational but slow thought, and accommodates non-obvious information. It is often subordinate to System 1.

System 1 copes with more information than System 2 can. It does so by jumping to conclusions. These jumps have predictable rules and trajectories.

These features can be exploited to develop academic faculty.

Our minds’ System 1s fall victim to this same scam every day. System 1 constructs just so stories about the combinations of luck, skill, and judgment that lead to success or failure in the lives around us.[2.5] It conjures explanations. When life fires a shotgun at the wall, it paints targets around the pellet holes. After all, what you see is all there is. One can make good money off of this tendency, even legally. Success stories sell self-help, diet, and how to succeed in business books, for example. [But how often have the practices endorsed by these books been confirmed in randomized trials?]

Sometimes System 1 is right, if only by chance alone. A prudent brain, however, would base its plans and norm its expectations according to normal experiences, not the exceptions.  It would proceed from the basis of reality, not an illusion constructed by System 1.

The ‘secret formula’ scam

So how does this apply to faculty development?   The academic brain is no more immune to magical thinking than any other. We scam ourselves too. We see all around us colleagues with awesome achievements and attainments, evidently having followed the one true pathway and predicting the winning strategy time after time. If we only knew the secret formula, we might too. What might the secret formula be? As Uri Alon[3] puts it [with some modification],

the way science is taught and published, you’re liable to have the following schema of research. If A is the question, and B is the answer, then research is a direct path. …You publish a paper that reads A→B, which is a great way to communicate

Or, repurposing the story for faculty development

the way career development is depicted, you’re liable to have the following schema. If A is the first stage, and B is the next stage, and C is the next, then career development is a direct path from one stage to the next. …Your CV reads A→B→C…., which is a great way to communicate

What’s wrong with this? As Uri Alon puts it [with some modification], the problem is that if the next step on the direct path doesn’t work or is off pathway, it’s perceived as something utterly wrong and causes tremendous stress. Research in psychology shows that if you’re feeling fear and despair, your mind narrows down. Because we share in the collective fantasy that this is how science is done and how careers advance, not to do this is obviously a sign of failure. This failure is exacerbated when everyone around is lauded for the successes. And failure, in System 1’s eyes, undermines our confidence, our motivation, and our competence – all counterproductive for academic advancement.

As Swami River would tell us, however, the ‘one true pathway’ is an illusion our System 1 conjures and then believes.

What is real and normal? ‘The cloud’ and ‘the comfort zone’

As Uri Alon puts it [with some modification, by his kind permission]:

In the middle of my path, I was hopelessly stuck. Every direction that I tried led to a dead end. It seemed like my basic assumptions just stopped working. I felt like a pilot flying through the mist, and I lost all sense of direction. I stopped shaving. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I felt unworthy of stepping across the gates of the university, because I wasn’t like Einstein or Newton or any other scientist whose results I had learned about, because in science, we just learn about the results, not the process. And so obviously, I couldn’t be a faculty member.

But I had enough support and I made it through and accomplished something. And I took the next step, and it happened again. I got stuck and I made it through. And I started thinking, maybe there’s a pattern here. I asked my colleagues, and they said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened to us, except nobody told us about it.” We’d all been trained as if it’s a series of logical steps between attempt and accomplishment, but academic advancement is nothing like that.

So I teach my mentees a different schema. If A is the first step and B is the next, you will reach a place linked with negative emotions where it seems like your basic assumptions have stopped making sense, like somebody yanked the carpet beneath your feet. And I call this place the cloud.

Now this cloud is an inherent part of academic advancement, an inherent part of our craft, because the cloud stands guard at the boundary between the known and the unknown, because in order to progress, at least one of your basic assumptions has to change, and that means that in science and academic medicine, we do something quite heroic. Every day, we try to bring ourselves to the boundary between the known and the unknown and face the cloud.

Now just knowing that word, the cloud, has been transformational in my group, because mentees come to me and say, “Uri, I’m in the cloud,” and I say, “Great, you must be feeling miserable.” (Laughter) But I’m kind of happy, because we might be close to the boundary between the known and the unknown, and we stand a chance of discovering something truly new, since the way our mind works, it’s just knowing that the cloud is normal, it’s essential, and in fact beautiful, we can join the Cloud Appreciation Society, and it detoxifies the feeling that something is deeply wrong.

And what I might ask you to remember is that next time you face a problem you can’t solve in work or in life, there’s a word for what you’re going to see: the cloud. And you can go through the cloud not alone but together with someone who is your source of support.

I add: Abutting ‘the cloud’ is ‘the comfort zone’. As professors, we strive to become masters of our academic domains, the people to whom others turn when they have a question, problem, or challenge. Inside this domain we are secure in our knowledge. Our System 1s’ anxiety is quiescent. Problem is: so is our academic growth. For best results we need to step out of our comfort zone and into our cloud. Being in the cloud is no guarantee of success, however. The incidence of accidents may increase, and monsters may lurk. If life were simple, someone would have written an instruction manual long ago.

Potential Implications

As Mark Twain was alleged to have said about the Bible, interesting if true. Suppose it is true. What are the implications?

  • The most reliable guides to negotiating the cloud may be people who have done so successfully. They typically are called mentors, but cloudwalkers might be a better term. Plural. [Yoda is dead. More on this in a subsequent post.]
  • People vary. Some are risk-averse; some are not. Some believe: Nothing ventured; nothing gained. Others believe: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The first step in intelligent management of this diversity is to acknowledge it. Most financial adviser/client relationships begin with a conversation about the client’s tolerance for risk, which may vary (e.g., http://njaes.rutgers.edu:8080/money/riskquiz/). Perhaps academic mentor/mentee relationships should do the same.
  • If the next step in an academic plan is obvious, it could be mundane or trivial – and thus maybe a cause for concern.
  • If the next step in an academic plan is risky, it poses risks that need be managed [sic, not ‘avoided’. ]
  • Financial planners tell us that overly risky and overly conservative plans are both recipes for disaster, the latter because inflation will typically devalue all assets. A prudent investor will diversify assets. A prudent academic will have contingency plans, Plans B, C, D… , in case things ‘go south’.
  • System 1 dislikes risk. Confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration are the normal states for pathbreakers, and not signs of failure. By contrast, the comfort zone promotes complacency; System 1 may well overlook the peril of insufficiently ambitious goals. A prudent plan will include management of emotional states (rather than avoiding them entirely by remaining within the comfort zone). Uri Alon [again] writes:

…in improvisation theater, they tell you from day one what’s going to happen to you when you get onstage. You’re going to fail miserably. You’re going to get stuck. And we would practice staying creative inside that stuck place. For example, we had an exercise where we all stood in a circle, and each person had to do the world’s worst tap dance, and everybody else applauded and cheered you on, supporting you onstage.

Question for mentors: Do we adequately help our mentees fail productively?

So: Take it from Swami River, if the story, the secret pathway to promotion, the charmed academic, etc. sounds too good to be true, it probably is.   Life is pain; anyone who tells you differently is selling you something[4]. But no pain, no gain[5]. And pain can be managed. Have a pain management plan or pain management support group. Ask a pain management specialist if your plan is right for you.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathnet

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj-XMRu_q4s

[2.5]In fact, Michael Gazzaniga has discovered a specific region in the left hemisphere of the brain that he calls the interpreter, which is responsible for such stories.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_brain_interpreter

[3]https://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_truly_innovative_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown?language=en ; see also http://wws.weizmann.ac.il/mcb/UriAlon/index.php?q=materials-nurturing-scientists

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093779/quotes

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_pain,_no_gain

©Martin E. Feder 2015

Permalink: https://decannomics.com/2015/04/07/5-stories-we-tell-ourselves/

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