Cultivating Fractal Knowledge Flows

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Does strict focus lead to highly productive deliberate practice or disconnection and myopia?

Does engagement lead to productive collaboration or distraction?

I faced a curious conundrum recently when someone pointed out that I was equally supporting two apparently contradictory positions.  A few weeks ago I wrote a long essay exploring the phenomenology of continuous learning.  That was largely a story about developing one’s own internal capabilities.  The implied hypothesis was that by focusing deliberately on certain forms of creative discipline, an individual can develop exponentially superior capabilities in the long run.

On the other hand, a common theme throughout much of my writing has been the value of collaboration, intellectual diversity, and knowledge sharing.  The basic hypothesis underlying this line of thinking is that individuals can develop superior results in the long run by actively engaging with communities of similarly enlightened confederates.  As  such, learning is conceived as a social activity.

One strategy emphasizes individual learning while the other emphasizes group learning.  One suggests isolation and focus while the other suggests engagement and openness.  Both dangle the same carrot – compounding gains in knowledge and capabilities.  Can both be correct without contradicting each other?

Let’s dig a little deeper…

Finding Flow

The argument for individual learning derives largely from two popular notions: flow and deliberate practice.  Ideallyconsistent deliberate practice improves an individual’s ability to achieve flow.  Deliberate practice trains the mind, habituating the flow state.  Regular achievement of flow then further accelerates the learning curve.  Cal Newport concisely outlines  the characteristics of deliberate practice (condensed from a list originally produced by Geoff Colvin):

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

Though #5 notes that it’s hard, the individual practiced in deliberate practice should develop a superior ability to achieve flow.  With achievement of the flow state comes all the benefits associated with accelerated learning:

Flow has a strong, documented correlation with performance enhancement. Researchers have found that achieving a flow state is positively correlated with optimal performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity, teaching, learning, and sports.

Flow also has a strong correlation with the further development of skills and personal growth. When one is in a flow state, he or she is working to master the activity at hand. To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches one’s skills. One emerges from such a flow experience with a bit of personal growth and great “feelings of competence and efficacy”.
(citations were removed from this quote for readability, see original)

If internal flow so thoroughly magnifies our capabilities, would we ever want to distract ourselves with hassles of teamwork?

Participating in Flows

This conundrum revealed itself while spending a week working with a team whose goal it is to create an ecosystem of tools that sustain and amplify scenius.  The lifeblood of scenius is knowledge flow.  The more knowledge flowing the better your chances of sparking scenius.  The obvious reason is that the knowledge brought to a community by each individual is compounded as it is shared and recombined with the knowledge contributed by all other community members.  This is what John Hagel and John Seely Brown have described as the collaboration curve:

There’s a classic story in economics primers illustrating the power of network effects. It tells how the first fax machine gave little value to its owner–after all, there was no one else with whom to send and receive faxes. As time went by, however, the value of that first machine increased as other people bought fax machines, and soon its owner could send faxes to the far corners of the earth, and receive them in return.

The point of the story is how the value of a node in a network rises exponentially as more nodes are added to it. These are called network effects.

Now let’s add a twist to the story. What would happen if, at the same time more fax machines joined the network, each machine rapidly improved its performance? The result would be an amplifying effect on the first level of exponential performance. One exponential effect occurs from growth in the number of nodes. A second amplifying effect arises from the improving performance of the machines themselves.

Fax machines, of course, don’t perform better as you add more of them to a network. But people and institutions do. And that’s where the concept of network effects gets more interesting–when we apply it to how people might perform better.

Surely not just any collaboration will do.  Certain parameters must be established to ensure clear communication and a sufficient signal-to-noise ratio.  But when the environment is just right magic can happen.  In Kevin Kelly’s words:

Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.

You act like a genius.  Are you actually genius…or are you simply buoyed temporarily by scenius?


We have two approaches offering apparently opposite prescriptions.  One prescribes more time spent quietly engaging in deliberate practice.  The collaboration curve suggests that we should spend more time sharing tacit knowledge in the pursuit of scenius.  Both promise that properly following these prescriptions will unlock compounding performance improvements.

We might simply conclude that each strategy has merit in its appropriate domain.  The disciple of deliberate practice will achieve accelerating performance gains in individual creative endeavors.  The surfer of networked flows will achieve accelerating performance in collaborative endeavors.  One becomes a genius while the other nurtures scenius.

There is however a more satisfying possibility…

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself;
I am large — I contain multitudes.
-Walt Whitman

Abstracting from our natural fixation on the individual perspective, it becomes clear that both prescriptions are in fact identical.  Both notions of flow have the same inherent meaning – optimizing communication between nodes in a network.  In the cultivation of scenius, the networked nodes are individual people.  In the cultivation of genius, the networked nodes are the multitudes within one’s own mind.  The state of flow described by Csíkszentmihályi is a state of scenius occurring within the brain of a single individual.  It occurs when an individual, through deliberate practice, cultivates his internal environment in the same way that a community pursuing scenius cultivates its interpersonal environment.

There is however, one critical flaw in the deliberate practice hypothesis.  The third principle quoted above states:

Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”

Feedback is easy to obtain if your goal is to be a violinist or a quarterback.  In each case the task is well defined and the base of prior art is prodigious.  If your task entails creative destruction then the sources offering meaningful feedback are far less obvious.  And therein lies the point of this reconciliation exercise.  Scenius plays the role of coach for learning curves that are uncoachable…learning curves that cannot be plotted in advance and lack prior art.  Scenius provides the flowing genius with an environment in which to test hypotheses and validate conclusions.

Rather than being contradictory, each strategy, while distinct from the perspective of the individual, is critically important to the other.  A genius without a scene is just a nutty professor.  Scenius without genius is merely a mutual admiration society.  If each strategy does exhibit compounding effects then the best strategy is to alternate between the two…riding out the duration of a deliberate learning curve before shifting focus to a collaboration curve.  Building then testing.  Exploring and exploiting…

photo courtesy of craft_uas

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  • Ho-Sheng Hsiao
    • GregoryJRader

      Hosh, I haven’t read the book but I understand Coyle is one of the major proponents of the deliberate practice hypothesis with some reference to the neural process of myelination.  Have you read it?  If so, does it go much beyond the references I have found around the net?

      • Ho-Sheng Hsiao

        Yes. Deliberate practice is only half of the book. The myelination theory doesn’t seem like sound science, but it is very useful a good metaphor. I think I’m at a point in my life where I take deliberate practice as a given, so it is not as interesting as the second half of Croyle’s book.

        Because deliberate practice requires a tremendous amount of physical energy every day — even for “purely” mental skills — people require some form of motivation to keep them going. He then identified that source of motivation as environmental factors. They include subconscious cues to help spur people on, as well as rival/peers and a gradient of higher skilled people within a small physical area. He calls these environments, “Talent Hubs”, and it occupies the last half of the book.

        Example of environmental cues: Brazilians of many ages and skill levels play street soccer. A kid immersed in there cannot help but see his own skill level, the high skill achieved through deliberate practice, and a clear path towards attaining that skill.

        Another example: talent hubs usually don’t sport high-end, modern, clean-looking facilities. (The Netherland soccer training system may be a notable exception). Run-down areas invokes the subconscious cue, “I want to get out of here.” (So something closer to my personal interests — if you want to get skilled in martial arts, deliberately avoid the big, fancy, good-looking dojos).

        Although Croyle only examined Talent Hubs in relation to physical skills, I had compared those factors with say, factors involved in startup hubs such as Silicon Valley. Startup hubs share many of the factors related to these physical skill-oriented talent hubs — immersion in subconscious cues, gradient of achievement, etc. Even “ramen-profitable” air mattresses in a studio apartment plays into this. It’s why Y Combinator and TechStars work so well in their class structure. It’s also why we get that Silicon Valley echo-chamber effect too…

        I believe the literati would call this a crucible.

        • GregoryJRader

          Yeah, so he is covering both sides of the coin then.  I would say that the more edgy talent hubs are the ones that are more likely to exist in grungy garages and also are likely to be the most innovative.  There is something of an innovation/practice life-cycle being described here…

          As a given domain moves from the edge to the core we might expect a series of stages:

          1. isolated nutty professors and tinkerers
          2. small talent hubs collecting in the grungiest of locales
          3. talent hubs pushing towards legitimacy
          4. institutionalization
          5. canonization

          It is at the last step that the deliberate practice hypothesis applies best.  Once a canon is established it is easy to find trained coaches and instructors to provide the structure and feedback that the purest deliberate practice demands.  The more edgy one gets, the more s/he must rely on his/her own internal critic and an ad hoc portfolio of knowledge flows.  

  • Dane

    LessWrong had a post today on something similar:

    • GregoryJRader

      Interesting debate in the comments there.  The notion of “wrong questions” is certainly relevant to this post.  I would suggest that correcting “wrong questions” and reorienting oneself towards right questions is one of the primary benefits of participating in knowledge flows.

  • Tina Louise ☮

    Astounding. You essentially explained the last four months of my life.

    This evening I read this after the Occupy London Stock Exchange (UK Occupy Wall Street) lost the appeal and are to be evicted. I have been a part of the camp between the stock exchange and St Paul’s Cathedral since October 15th and found it to have been the most intense learning experience of my life.

    In four months I have been catapulted in so many ways and when reading this, found all the reasons why. Disparate nodes came together and stayed in place long enough to allow for an incredible diversity of interactions with peple from different sectors of society – and more importantly, in a setting that was inclusive and where we all looked a big grubby and were therefore without social status as well. Add to that the determindly non-heirachial structure of the movement and you get the rarest of circumstances fuelling new connections in very new ways… wow.

    • GregoryJRader

      Happy this rang true for you…

      Your story emphasizes a key point – there is a self-organizing nature to both processes described above.  In order for that process to take place it must be largely freed from the burdens of any assumed preexisting structure (hierarchy).

  • Bruce

    You can see how the two come together in an improvisational jazz group. To improvise in a group, a musician must have what violinist of author of Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovitch, calls “technique to burn.” Then, with the basics wire, the muscian is free to soar in what you’re calling “scenius,” which will, no doubt, increase his technique. Good stuff. Love it!

  • Fransvanderreep

    One thing I have learned form anthropologists is that each ‘viable’social system is recurrent in nature, so it has an fractal structure. This type of structure allows your as a member/node not only to understand what you do but also what your contribution is for the wider context. Context drives meaning.
    This means that each organization, social companies, should allow for their employees to understand their contributions in a broader scope, spiral….. This is very beneficial for productivity and fulfills individual needs.

    • GregoryJRader

      “Context drives meaning.”  - So true and so often forgotten.  I would take that as an argument in support of individual genius as well, in that it is the individual who truly understands his/her individual contribution that is also best understands the implications of that contribution to the wider context.  

      Thanks for the link, will check it out…

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