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“Trust me, I’ve done this lots of times” – Thats why I’m worried.

Habits make for specialists. Imagine you wanted to improve your reading skills. If, in an attempt to do so, you would make a habit of reading for an hour everyday starting at 3 pm, would you improve your reading skills or just your reading at 3 pm for an hour skills?

Probably mostly the former, as this is a skill with a high rate of transfer appropriateness.

How about improving your reading skills by reading the same book every day? Reading the book twenty times will not improve your reading skills nearly as much as your “reading this book specifically”-skills.

Videogames provide another good example. I am an above average videogame player in general, a pretty good player of shooters and real-time-strategy games more specifically and, even more specifically, one of the best World in Conflict players in the world.

There is a certain transfer appropriateness between almost all video games, but that between two shooters is much higher than that between a shooter and a racing game.

You want to be a writer? Write. But that alone is not enough. If all you ever write is deconstructions of advertisements, you’ll become very good at writing deconstructions of advertisements, pretty good at writing deconstructions, and not much better at all at writing novels.

Problematically, habit is self-reinforcing; habits have a habit of perpetuating themselves.

“A path once traversed by a nerve-current might be expected to follow the law of most of the paths we know, and to be scooped out and made more permeable than before; and this ought to be repeated with each new passage of the current. Whatever obstructions mays have kept it at first from being a path should then, little by little, and more and more, be swept ouf ot the way, until at last it might become a natural drainage-channel.”

– William James, Habit

“All habits make our hand wittier and our wit unhandier.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft

When you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So in short, if all you ever do is write deconstructions, your mind will start seeing things to deconstruct everywhere. This is the crucial problem of academics.

Imagine you are the worlds greatest scholar of Derrida. For every problem in the world, you will have a Derridaean answer, ready to evict from your metaphorical gun-mouth-contraption at 300 m/s. But this is no good, this is precisely terrible, precisely the opposite of philosophy.

To be a philosopher, one must traverse every path and perceive from every angle, and this is what habit always seeks to suppress; it makes for easy answers.

If you want to become a writer, write everything.

Write short stories, reviews, poems, essays, letters. (If you want to become good at thinking, think everything – that is, from every angle…)

Habits are a temporary death; as such, habitualization should be reserved for matters not worthy of life’s energy. Sherlock Holmes claims to not know whether the sun spins around the earth or vice versa in an effort to not clutter his memory with trivial information.

Luckily, memory does not work that way (to the contrary, actually; as seems to be the nature of many processes, memory too is improved by using it not conservationally, but as extensively as possible).

The energy for life – whether Freudian or whatever-have-you, details do not matter at all, you can (I hope) imagine the vague concept of such an energy in general – on the other hand, seems to me to be definitely limited.*

Habitualization is to conserve “life energy”. But the one thing where energy should never be conserved is thinking and writing.** thinking is always to be an effort.

You’re a “scholar of _____”? You’re already doing something wrong.

Louis CK doing it right. Watch this video if nothing else.***

* Alternative interpretation: Energy it is not limited, but habitualization expends MORE energy, and resisting habitualization (i.e. making an effort every time) in fact creates energy. Feasible?

** Writing being the process of translating thoughts.

*** Comedians hate it when somebody, at a party, asks them to “be funny” or to tell a joke. Why? Because many of them have not learned how to be funny as much as they have learned to perform funny stand-up. There is a large overlap between the two, but it isn’t the same thing.

Categories: 2013 Winter Writing Contest.


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11 Responses

  1. Which hack wrote this? Oh…

    Something to add: this idea came to me when my brother, in some random conversation – about Placebo, I think – told me that usually a bands’ first two albums are usually the best, because the musicians don’t really know what they’re doing. Basically, they just play what they “feel” somewhere within them – it is something deeply primal. After that, everything becomes a conscious effort. You have an identifiable sound to which your audience is used, and either you appeal to that taste (growing stale), or you try hard to go into other directions. The choice of words being trying hard – i.e. again something that is conscious. The primal energy is gone.

    It would appear contradictory, then, that I want people to write “everything”. But then, see Louis CK. When he said “fuck it” and started with entirely new material, that primal energy was renewed, became larger than it was before.

    There is this book which argues that you should spend 10,000 hours to become good at something, citing The Beatles and similar such things. The number is, of course, just an signifier whose it signified is not literally “10,000”, but rather “a lot of time”. The point is to work hard. With that I agree. But that lesson has a pitfall. After 10,000 hours of practicing the guitar, are you a good musician or just a good guitarist? Both, as playing the guitar requires general music understanding, but you’re more of a guitarist than you are a musician… What if you had practiced 7000 hours of guitars, a thousand of bass, a thousand of drums, a thousand of trumpet… Your guitar playing might be a bit worse, but you would, perhaps, understand music as a whole better, and, more practically, be more in tune with the members of your post-hardcore sludge fusion post-metal band. The idea being this: you will always go back to your original passion (novels, not poetry – guitar, not bass – painting, not photography…), but you will end up with a more thorough vision of that original passion yours – things and concepts can only ever be defined through differance, through what they are NOT. So learning about everything else will also let you learn about your actual object of passion.

  2. There is a sort of Zen flipside to the story you tell. In general, generalism is a good, general idea, but there can be a kind of transcendance available in autistic specialization. The idea is that if you take one solitary thing and invest your entire self into it, you’ll be able to see everything else in it.

    In Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I loved as a teenager, the main character is an otherwise hot girl born with freakishly oversized thumbs in an abusive family. So she starts hitchhiking, but she doesn’t so much hitchhike as become hitchhiking. She hitchhikes birds and the wind and stuff. She pursues that activity in so many dimensions that she can see the whole world, and herself, in it.

    There are some similar ideas in real Zen Buddhism, where they focus on swordsmanship or calligraphy or something far less romantic, like washing dishes, to such an extent that the whole world of experience is contained in that activity. When you can orgasm or die of sorrow while washing the dishes and being focused only on that, you’re there.

    Although generalism is more convenient for internet-addicted ADHD patients, there is an alternative. Don’t just practice the freakin’ fiddle; challenge the devil and win.

  3. Good post Fabius. I think you have a good point, but I do disagree with almost everything you’re saying – but of course in a way I am building up from your post – so there has to be an inherent similarity already-at-hand.

    I think the way you put it – that we have to do everything and not merely specialise, is precisely like what Malcolm Gladwell is saying – you need 10,000 hours of work to get to success. Essentially anything stated outright becomes nothing but a signification, and conceals what eludes you in the first place. Notice how George Carlin does not provide an essential formula for Louis CK, he does not say you have to chuck aside your ideas, he does not tell you what to do, instead Carlin says it implicitly. This implicitness is fundamental, I claim. Any form of thought cannot be a stated and techniqued method of reproduction, it will inevitable dull you – thus you are absolutely right when you say if you are a Derrida scholar, you are doomed – essentially you take Derrida as a method, as a form of nail that you wish to hammer everywhere. I think here is the crucial point – once you leave a method to signification – or a stated assumption: work 10,000 hours and you will succeed, it was never the 10,000 hours that mattered in the first place, there is an implicit truth (perhaps) to it, but the explicit method turns it into a signification, and like Medusa, the rock no longer has what is implicit within.

    My issue with implicitness is this: Louis CK didn’t follow George Carlin’s “method.” That is absolutely clear – within the whole video, Louis CK states that he is working with/ alongside Carlin. This is fundamentally different, to work alongside is not to profound a methodology, but rather an understanding of what Carlin is doing, and this understanding is assimilated to Louis CK’s identity. Louis CK is not propounding a methodological shift. As a Derrida scholar, it’s possible that one uses Derrida as a method (although all the Derrida scholars I know seem not to be doing this), but to work alongside with Derrida. Again, I am not now propounding a methodology – if you take it at face value it will turn into a signification and inevitably conceals what you need to know in the first place.

    In this sense, I think Guy is right – generalism is precisely signification – “I know how to play the piano, the violin, the bass, the guitar…” but nowhere will you really learn how to think and understand the field that you want to do. The zen guy understands the horizon of his possibilities and it’s not something signification can ever do.

  4. I think I just found a more succinct version of what I want to say: You should train the guitar well enough that playing it becomes pure habit. But the songWRITING should never be habit. I.e. creation/production always should be an effort, the “performance” is allowed to become a habit. And this becomes easier when you switch it up, when you write some poetry just for the fuck of it. Of course, even that can become a “habit” or simply using it to come back to the original habit with more conviction afterwards (Like people who dont drink/smoke/masturbate for a month to prove themselves that they can live without it – but on the thirty-second day, do they go right back to wasting themselves, or do they think “you know, I still don’t really feel like drinking/smoking/masturbation”? In the latter case, congratulations, you kicked the habit. If the former is the case…) Oh dear, this original text is terribly written. CLARITY PLEES.

    The Derrida example was, of course, basically just a rehashing of a certain penultimates shrink example of the professor who has taught kant for 15 years…

    an useful dichotomy I have seen used by someone (sadly kind of a nazi, so I won’t link to him) is that of scholar/philosopher: A scholar performs a valuable contribution by concentrating and becoming an expert on one select niche-topic, and it is up to the philospher to traverse all the paths built by the scholars and to form a synthesis.

  5. @Fabius: there are two different new ideas there, one easy, the other treacherous. The second is the specialization vs. generalism one, and that it’s good to have people to synthesize specialists’ particular knowledges is fine. The first, though, is tricker. Sure, there’s a difference between technical facility and creativity. (I’ve often heard the racist criticism of Chinese pianists, especially kids, that they have tons of the former, which can be taught, but none of the latter, which supposedly cannot.) But putting your finger on what creativity is and how to preserve it is harder. Yeah, it probably has something to do with reinventing the self every so often, which entails killing a self and generating a new one, but those waters are getting very deep very fast. Sounds like meat for another post.

  6. SkepticalChemist2013-05-03 @ 16:05

    I’ve been curious about this since I could see it in the drafts section of the blog.

    I respectfully disagree with your idea although it’s good in general and god knows I’ve been practising and studying many activities and subjects, to cut it short let’s just say my avant gardé math rock band Sierpinksi Conjecture wasn’t received well by critics (this is real). I also know a resourceful polymath I used to look up to, he majored in physics being in the 99% in college exam then studying music theory with a degree of philosophy. He works in advertising now (go figure). He confirmed that the best way to achieve great understanding in anything is autistic focus. Try it with Adderall or Modafinil and I have tried them all, the right way of achieving this without trashing your brain is through boredom and your sheer ability to stand it. I’m not going to throw Gladwell’s idea of 10.000 hours, or my theory of 10.000 hours to get IMBA (gamer ho!) but the truth is, there isn’t enough time to hone all of your skills with that focus, so you need to pick one and dedicate yourself until your brain actually hurts. I can vouch with my improvished past where I had to teach myself English from scratch as a kid.

    It’s easy to get distracted or just embrace it by going in a constant loop of information. Memes, wiki pages, books etc. if you don’t pay attention while you are doing these things, if you are only relaying information, are you even really there?

    You can give shape to this by slowly and unsexily devoting yourself into something. We are subject to change not primarily with what we think, but actually by what we do. Neuroplasticity, I suggest of using it.

  7. Fair enough, all of you. I can see your points (which makes it a good thing this text came out!). What I would like to say is that I don’t intend to promote the renaissance / weimar classicist ideal of the polymath. exhibit a against that: Goethes attempt to come with a color theory. And, as Louis CK notes: “At that point I had been doing comedy for 15 years, what the fuck else was I gonna do?” (Although he is a quite talented director / editor too, as his TV show proves.)

    I should perhaps, make clear, where this text came from. It is conceived as a reaction against the writings of e.g. Richard Dawkins, or the music of e.g. AC/DC. There is nothing wrong with devoting your entire life to one thing, but within that thing, within that creative process, you have to be able to look from new angles. Once your writing/creation process becomes habitualized, and people start identifying your stuff *too easily* -(“yup, thats a AC/DC riff.” “Oh, Dawkins still hates religion.”), you’re becoming a habit yourself. And your audience will basically pay for something they already know, they’ll pay for comfort food.

    But I’ll have to think this through once more. Thanks everyone for the great input. :)

  8. you’re becoming a habit yourself.

    You think that’s “self” you’re experiencing?

    We are but shadows of physical processes – all of those processes involve repetitive action.

    Ask any water molecule.

  9. @operator: funny that you say that, because here’s the most succinct definition of the antonyms alive / not alive I can come up with: Life becomes stronger through opposition/conflict, Non-Life erodes through it; destroying your muscles makes them stronger, destroying your bones makes them brittle. Or, since we are on and therefore have to make these points through pop culture:

    Wars and physical conflicts are, of course, a childish way of going about it, a way where nothing of value is made stronger. So instead: conflict and opposition in creation. Habitualization seeks to provide comfort – I want the artist to throw himself against every wall.

    Which reminds me, I’ll have to read the scathing destruction of my text Nachlasse provided me with once again. :D

  10. Oh shoot – my terrible writing has made me compromise my point.

    As a Derrida scholar, it’s possible that one uses Derrida as a method (although all the Derrida scholars I know seem not to be doing this), but to work alongside with Derrida.

    I didn’t intend to say that I am a Derrida scholar, rather that as a Derrida scholar…

    The critique isn’t about me being a Derrida scholar, but about using the example of as Derrida scholars…

Got insight?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] a co-ed who seems to have made blowing people away his hobby, made a good case that repetition is incompatible with creativity, which he is right to value. There might be an […]