The End of Average

The New York Times: “We march through life measuring ourselves on one scale after another, from developmental markers through standardized tests and employment evaluations, cardiac risk and bone density scores. Not to mention the ready-made clothes that never fit anyone quite right. Does it have to be that way? … Absolutely not, says Todd Rose in The Age of Average, a subversive and readable introduction to what has been called the new science of the individual.”

“For educators, it’s all those brilliant underachievers (not to mention all those idiots with Harvard diplomas). For doctors, it’s all the outliers who survive dire disease predictors — or even dire diseases — decades beyond expectation … For human resource personnel, it’s the new hires who satisfy every single one of a dozen standard criteria and yet utterly fail to perform.”

The author cites “the not-unfamiliar notion that all human characteristics are multidimensional, not only in specifics but also in time and context. Reducing this mass of data to a single simple variable (as in a ‘slow’ toddler, an ‘aggressive’ teenager, a ‘prediabetic,’ a Harvard graduate) may well result in a set of flawed conclusions.”

“In other words, big data may have landed us in the Age of Average, but really enormous data, with many observations of a single person’s biology and behavior taken over time and in different contexts, may yield a far better understanding of that individual than do group norms.”

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Quote of the Day: Benjamin Friedman

“On the whole, the problem with new books is that there’s a list price set by the publisher and a discount price that’s also set by the publisher. So, as a new bookseller, you have no control over what the book sells for or what you pay for it. With used books, if you’re smart, you find ways to get them cheap, and you decide what you price them at.”

“As a general rule, on any book, a used bookseller is probably making twice as much profit as a new bookseller. And that’s the difference between making it and not making it, because the profit margins on new books are razor-thin. At a used bookstore, no one is getting rich, but you can make enough to stay alive.” – Benjamin Friedman, co-founder, Topos Bookstore Café, as quoted by The Awl.

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Wired to Create: The Chaos of the Inventive Mind

The New York Times: “Creativity is a process that reflects our fundamentally chaotic and multifaceted nature,” write Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, authors of Wired to Create. “It is both deliberate and uncontrollable, mindful and mindless, work and play.”

“While creative people run the gamut of personalities, Dr. Kaufman’s research has shown that openness to experience is more highly correlated to creative output than I.Q., divergent thinking or any other personality trait. This openness often yields a drive for exploration … These are people energized and motivated by the possibility of discovering new information.”

“It’s the thrill of the knowledge chase that most excites them,” the authors write, while also noting that turning that knowledge into ideas can be an uncomfortable process: “Those murky, ambiguous places, as highly imaginative people well know, are quite often where the creative magic happens,” they advise.

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Madison Avenue & Modern Medicine

From a New York Times review of Remaking The American Patient by Nancy Tomes: “Patients actually morphed into consumers long before health insurance and the Internet were invented, even before the turn of the 20th century … It was back in the 1920s that doctors’ offices first loaded up with machinery in order to impress patients with ‘new and improved’ medical care.”

“The first timesaving questionnaire for patients to complete in the waiting room was introduced in 1949 … Drugs have been enthusiastically hawked from the dawn of advertising. In fact, the drug industry pioneered the use of many of the most aggressive tools, like national ad campaigns, direct-mail ads, product placements and infomercials … Doctors were already complaining in the 1920s that patients just wanted drugs, not good advice. In the 1950s, the American Medical Association warned that doctors should learn to negotiate with a pickier generation of consumers.”

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Deep Work: Finding Focus in a Distracted World

The Wall Street Journal: A new book attacks the trend toward open offices and embraces the virtues of focused thought. In “Deep Work,” Cal Newport “acknowledges the good intentions behind open offices: They are meant to encourage serendipity and teamwork. But he argues that burdening workers with perpetual distractions constitutes ‘an absurd attack on concentration’ that creates ‘an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously.'”

The antidote is to expand “your capacity for ‘deep work,’ ruthlessly weeding out distractions and regularly carving out stretches of time to sharpen abilities … Most corporate workers, Mr. Newport argues, don’t have clear feedback about how to spend their time. As a result, employees use ‘busyness as a proxy for productivity.'”

“This presents an opening for people who are willing to tame these distractions … Such individuals cut down anything that could be outsourced ‘to a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training,’ and create rituals of delving into ‘the wildly important goal’ of their trade … No job is excused as too mundane for his approach, even in industries that value, say, rapid customer-service responses.”

“You don’t need a rarified job,” Mr. Newport writes. “You instead need a rarified approach to your work.”

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Is Creative Genius Geographical?

From a review of The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner in The Wall Street Journal: “Why is it that genius isn’t equally distributed over time and place but rather flares up briefly in certain places and then disappears again? … The Athenians abhorred professionalism. Soldiers were poets, and poets were politicians. This led to an extraordinary cross-fertilization of ideas and talents quite alien to our era of hyperspecialization. In Hangzhou … Chinese genius, unlike the Greek or Austrian kind, was free of metaphysical anguish. The Chinese reveled in painting, writing, invention and adventure as the Europeans staggered out of the Middle Ages, and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves.”

“Athens honored wisdom and got Socrates. Rome honored power and got an empire. The 19th-century Viennese honored high culture and the life of the mind and got Beethoven and Freud. Today wealthy patrons in fleece vests pay tens of thousands of dollars to watch alleged geniuses give 17-minute accounts of their work at TED conferences. They support medical research and plans to improve education. They are seeking ways to prolong and enrich human life for more people. This might not yield us the Sistine Chapel, but it may be as worthwhile.”

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