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 BLOG >> Psychology

Mindful Startups [Psychology
Posted on April 21, 2020 @ 05:09:00 AM by Paul Meagher

As I spend my days pruning grape vines I have time to think about the skill of vine pruning and what expertise might look like in this particular domain of skills.

There a few different frameworks you can use to analyze what skill acquistion consists of. John Anderson's paper Acquisition of Cognitive Skill (1983; PDF) was and is still a landmark paper in the Cognitive Science tradition. The problem with these approaches is that it provides more of an observer's perspective of what skill acquisition consists of, rather than informing us on what the performer experiences while mastering the skill. If you want more of an experiential account you can opt for a skills framework by Hubert Dreyfus that is called the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquistion. The Dreyfus model is inspired by a tradition in philosophy and psychology called Phenomenology which offers a vast literature to consult if you wish to go deeper.

For my purposes I was interested in what it might feel like as pruners advanced in levels of pruning expertise. Dreyfus offers the following language to describe 5 different levels of expertise:

  • Novice
  • Advanced Beginner
  • Competent
  • Proficient
  • Expert

I would say that I am somewhere in the Competent to Proficient range in pruning, but there are times when I drop to the Advanced Beginner. We had some hurricane damage to the vineyard last year that, I believe, blew in some salty moisture from the nearby ocean (4 kms) which helped desiccate alot of the leaves in addition to the high winds. One thing I was seeing were canes with branches at the end that were viable but the intermediate branches were often damaged or sickly looking. When pruning you like to keep the branches closest to the trunk (shortest distance networks) not the branches at the end of the canes. This was a repeating new situation for me, so I had to develop new routines to deal with it. Eventually those routines will become more automatic in the fullness of time.

What does the highest level of expertise consist of in the Dreyfus model. In this paper (PDF) Dreyfus describes the expert in these terms:

The proficient performer, immersed in the world of his skillful activity, sees what needs to be done, but must decide how to do it. The expert not only sees what needs to be achieved; thanks to a vast repertoire of situational discriminations he sees immediately what to do. Thus, the ability to make more subtle and refined discriminations is what distinguishes the expert from the proficient performer. Among many situations, all seen as similar with respect to a plan or perspective, the expert has learned to distinguish those situations requiring one action from those demanding another. That is, with enough experience in a variety of situations, all seen from the same perspective but requiring different tactical decisions, the brain of the expert performer gradually decomposes this class of situations into subclasses, each of which shares the same action. This allows the immediate intuitive situational response that is characteristic of expertise.

This seems like a good description of what might be going on in expert level pruning and is not really all that different from John Anderson's declarative to procedural theory.

I think it is helpful to visualize what expert level still looks like as exhibited in this match between a world chess grand master champion, Magnus Carlson, and Bill Gates. Magnus appears to be operating quickly and intuitively (Expert) while Bill needs to think more about each move (Competent? Proficient?).

A limitation of these skills frameworks is that they are mostly focused on the cognitive aspect of skill acquisition and don't talk much about how emotion, motivation and community might correlate with different levels of skill acquisition. These other contexts may explain why the skill is pursued to a high level or at all.

The question that I am mostly interested in now is how emotion might vary with different levels of skill. Specifically, can an activity that is unenjoyable become enjoyable as you acquire more expertise? It is hard to compare how you might have felt at one level of expertise compared to a different level of expertise without being mindful through the process or having a good recollection. What I do remember is that the early days of pruning produced alot of decision fatigue in me. It was tiring to follow rules that you weren't sure applied and you were always encountering new situations to figure out. I still do experience some decision fatigue when I have to prune, for example, heavy criss-crossed vigorous growth. But even then I can listen to music and enjoy myself if it is a pleasant day and I am able to think about other things. My attention can wander more now as I do the complex activities involved in preparing a vine for this years, and next years, growth.

I don't think enjoyment is a necessary or frequent correlate of increased skill. Alot of the time it is just grit that gets you through a day of pruning. You set a goal and hell or high water you try to achieve that goal for the day. I'm not sure where Grit comes from (but Angela Duckworth is the guru on this). Part of it comes from all the mind games we play to convince ourselves that we need to keep moving forward - similar to what it takes to complete a marathon if you haven't trained as well as you should have. In the case of a physical skill like pruning it also depends on remaining injury free. My upper back muscles are getting a workout similar to running a long distance and swinging your arms alot. So far, there is some soreness but it hasn't slowed me down. It is something that I need to be mindful off in the morning when muscles are stiff and you could activate an injury reaching for something the wrong way.

The company of others would probably have made this pruning job more enjoyable as well so the role of community potentially comes into play in explaining how skills are acquired and experienced.

To be mindful about the acquisition of a skill it is helpful to have a framework for thinking about how skills are acquired. You can be skillful in your thinking about skill acquisition by taking into consideration not only the cognitive aspects, but also relating it to the physical, emotional, motivational, and community aspects as well.

For any business to succeed the employees need to be skilled at doing what needs to be done. A mindful startup would be a startup that is more aware of the types and levels of skills required and have a more wholistic appreciation of the context for skills development that includes the role of grit, emotions, and community in fostering increased skills development or new skills development. There is not much literature on what a mindful startup is and whether is more likely to succeed than a startup following a different path to success. Perhaps in these changed times the hegemony of the lean startup will be challenged by the ideas around mindful startups whatever they may turn out to be. There is no shortage of mindful literature out there to cross pollinate with the lean startup literature. The lean startup literature gives us one framework we can use to be mindful about how to create a successful startup. The lean startup concept has been accused of being more focused on explaining success in high tech unicorn-type businesses. There are other ways to achieve business success in a less exponential manner that we should be aware of so that we are not dogmatic in thinking about what it takes to succeed. Startups need to be mindful of their own context and situation. The level of awareness they achieve may be the main advantage they have other startups.

I'll end this blog with a popular video showing what it is like inside a tractor while planting.

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Magical and Functional Thinking [Psychology
Posted on May 17, 2018 @ 07:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher

There are many types of thinking but for the purposes of this blog I propose to divide the universe of thinking into two types: Magical and Functional.

Magical thinking occurs when we don't understand the functional nature of something. Functional thinking occurs when we are attempting to understand how something functions or have figured out how something functions and can apply that knowledge to solving problems.

The world is very complex and our understanding of many aspects of it are at a magical level. How does your car work? How does the forest work? How does your home plumbing work? How does your home electrical system work? How does your computer work? You may think you know the answers to these questions but as soon as you are confronted with the problem of fixing or evolving these systems, some magical thinking is often revealed.

On my walk today I wondered how much of our thinking about starting a business is magical version functional. Some entrepreneurs believe that passion, hard work, and faith are key. This seems pretty magical to me but I don't know that I can criticize it too much in terms of results. Many of our ancestors had this ethos.

There is a bit of magical thinking involved in starting most businesses. The most critical piece of magical thinking are the leap of faith assumptions that define what the startup believes to be true, but without much actual supporting evidence in the early stages of the business. A major goal in lean startup theory is to test these leap of faith assumptions so they become a functional theory of the firm. Some magical thinking is at the core of starting a new business but it generally gets converted to functional thinking as the leaps of faith are tested and refined in the marketplace.

The term magical thinking is often used as as a put down in debates. A recent example is The Magical Thinking of Ecomodernism. The solution to alot of the problems of modernity may not be solved simply through a clear functional understanding of how things work, it may also require some magical thinking involving passion, hard work, and faith that local solutions can be found.

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