on noticing and the fallacy of obviousness

Let’s get the spoiler alert out of the way.

You know that visual attention experiment? The one where you’re told to count the number of times the people in the white shirts pass a basketball back and forth?

You almost certainly do, if you’re a typical Maven Game reader, but just in case, don’t read any further and go take it now.

Did you take it?

Are we all the on same page here?

You know, about the twist?

OK, I think I’ve created enough of a buffer zone. I want to talk about the gorilla.

The gorilla effect is real. A little while back, Stephen Shapiro—author, magic fan, and all-around good dude—gave me a ticket to Derren Brown’s new show, Secret. At the top of the evening, Derren warned us that a man in a gorilla suit would wander on-stage at some point and that we, the audience, wouldn’t notice it.

This was a small theater, by the way. 199 seats. And yet, the gorilla got past us. Twice.

Sure, Derren was up to all kinds of distracting show business at each point, but still, this was fifteen feet in front of my face and I had no clue.

So the gorilla effect is real and it’s powerful. But maybe we’re taking the wrong lesson—that people are “blind to the obvious”—from it.

At Aeon, Teppo Felin, a professor at the University of Oxford’s business school, writes:

Imagine you were asked to watch the clip again, but this time without receiving any instructions. After watching the clip, imagine you were then asked to report what you observed. You might report that you saw two teams passing a basketball. You are very likely to have observed the gorilla. But having noticed these things, you are unlikely to have simultaneously recorded any number of other things. The clip features a large number of other obvious things that one could potentially pay attention to and report: the total number of basketball passes, the overall gender or racial composition of the individuals passing the ball, the number of steps taken by the participants…

In short, the list of obvious things in the gorilla clip is extremely long. And that’s the problem: we might call it the fallacy of obviousness. There’s a fallacy of obviousness because all kinds of things are readily evident in the clip. But missing any one of these things isn’t a basis for saying that humans are blind. The experiment is set up in such a way that people miss the gorilla because they are distracted by counting basketball passes. Preoccupied with the task of counting, missing the gorilla is hardly surprising. In retrospect, the gorilla is prominent and obvious.

This gets at so many interesting things for me that I could devote multiple weeks of the Maven Game to the power of noticing and the “fallacy of obviousness.”

For one, it brings to mind Richard Wiseman’s experiment demonstrating that people who think of themselves as lucky are much more likely to notice opportunities than the rest of us.

For another, it points toward why goals are so powerful even though they almost never feel like they’re working at the time.

When we set effective goals, we give our brains new marching orders. As a result, they get busy noticing different types of things, things relevant to our goals. This transforms our behavior and our results—but all below the level of our conscious awareness.

Felin continues:

Obviousness depends on what is deemed to be relevant for a particular question or task at hand. Rather than passively accounting for or recording everything directly in front of us, humans—and other organisms for that matter—instead actively look for things. The implication…is that mind-to-world processes drive perception rather than world-to-mind processes. The gorilla experiment itself can be reinterpreted to support this view of perception, showing that what we see depends on our expectations and questions—what we are looking for, what question we are trying to answer.

The fallacy is the idea that we all see the world “as it is,” noticing the “obvious” stuff most easily and noticing the “subtle” stuff less. Not true.

In reality, our mindset determines what we notice. Since I’ve been writing the Maven Game, my brain has increasingly tuned into things—ideas, articles, books—that fall under the rubric of the newsletter. If I were writing a newsletter about gorillas, I would start noticing all the gorilla stuff that goes on around me. It’s there. In fact, it’s obvious—to the writer of a gorilla newsletter.

This goes back to my belief that, one way or the other, you can’t really rush a book. Once you decide you’re going to write on a subject, your brain enters a different mode. You see the world differently—you see a different world—because you’re tuned in to what’s relevant to your book. Writing a book literally changes the world you experience.

What could be more valuable? And why would you rush through it?


A short coda: I think I’ve talked about the idea in this essay before, in one form or another. I often get that sense when I hit send on a Maven Game, though I usually don’t skim the archives to confirm that sense of déjà vu.

Even though each Maven Game essay is written as its own thing, I can’t help but circle around the same few ideas over and over, filtering for the same stuff in the world because the same stuff interests me in the context of this newsletter.

Since the Maven Game is built up in chronologically ordered installments, this means that the ideas don’t accrete in any higher-order way, as they might were I using another set of constraints: A pop-up book. A magazine. A screenplay.

It goes back to what I wrote last week, about how we fall into the default settings, like reverse-chronological order for blogs, even if they aren’t ideal for the work at hand. Maven Game reader Jim Dillon nailed it for me in his response to my essay:

I still have a blog, but it’s been occurring to me that since my field of expertise (woodworking) is relatively static in terms of its raw materials, technology, and output, I cycle through a relatively small number of topics . . . but in an evolving way. Trips around a mountain in a slowly ascending corkscrew, yielding repeats of the same view with a slightly different perspective each time.

So reverse chronological is a huge impediment to sharing my stuff with my audience the way I experience it, and the way I’d like them to see it (whether through my eyes or theirs). And that’s just the most obvious way the template-driven world wide web frustrates me.

So the Maven Game, too, is a “slowly ascending corkscrew.” I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it’s accurate. Should it take another form? I’m not sure, but for now I’ll continue with the default settings.

against the default mode of expression

Hello, friends. You’re still here. I’m still here. That’s something. Let’s celebrate the little victories.

Alec Baldwin: You never wanted to do a play?

Jerry Seinfeld: Nah. I did a play. Why should I wait for someone else to talk?

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Blogs broke the Web. It’s true. The Web used to be a place where anyone could participate and the only limit was your imagination. All you had to do was learn a little “hypertext markup language.” As Amy Hoy explains:

We built every new page by hand. When we had more than one web page, we built the navigation by hand. We managed our Table of Contents by hand. We broke out our calculators to code boundaries for our image maps. We talked unironically about “hyperlinks.”

Sure, publishing anything was a pain, but there were no rules and you enjoyed complete control. The only obstacle between you and your creative vision was know-how and elbow grease. If you wanted to present your words and images in a certain way, you knew it was possible—somehow.

Eventually, the “web diary” format appeared. Posts in reverse-chronological order. This, too, involved manual labor—until Movable Type arrived on the scene:

All [Movable Type] did was exploit the power of Perl scripts to do the same exact work we all used to do by hand: spit out static HTML files.

Culturally, though, it was devastating. Suddenly people weren’t creating homepages or even web pages. They were writing web content in form fields and text areas inside a web page. Suddenly, instead of building their own system, they were working inside one. A system someone else built…It was a trap.

I resisted Hoy’s argument at first—mostly because I’ve got serious Movable Type nostalgia—but she makes an excellent point:

When you produce your whole site by hand, from HEAD to /BODY, you begin in a world of infinite possibility. You can tailor your content exactly how you like it, and organize it in any way you please. Every design decision you make represents roughly equal work because, heck, you’ve gotta do it by hand either way. Whether it’s reverse chronological entries or a tidy table of contents. You might as well do what you want. But once you are given a tool that operates effortlessly—but only in a certain way—every choice that deviates from the standard represents a major cost [emphasis mine].

Beware those default settings.

There’s something here that applies to everything we create. Making stuff is hard. Tools that make it easier to make and share our work are hard to resist, but we can’t afford to be blind to the way they narrow the possibilities.

Take podcasting. In the early days, circa 2004, the format demanded a similar degree of manual labor and technical expertise. You had to build stuff by hand. (Listening to podcasts wasn’t all that easy, either.) The hurdles slowed mass adoption, sure, but the lack of “One System to Rule Them All” unleashed a tremendous amount of experimentation and innovation. No one knew what a podcast was yet. Things were still up for grabs.

Then, in 2005, Apple incorporated podcasts into the iTunes Store. Making, sharing, and listening to podcasts got a lot easier overnight. To facilitate discovery, Apple used lists. Top lists, most lists, etc. And those lists filled up with NPR. These weren’t podcasts. These were re-purposed radio episodes created by radio professionals according to the standards of the format and usually broadcast on the radio first.

Later on, I sat in a meeting with a publishing executive who wanted our company to jump on the podcasting bandwagon. At the time, I was already doing a podcast for our imprint: 20-minute interviews with authors. She insisted that we expand the show to a full hour, with ads between each segment.

“Do we actually want to place ads in our podcast?” I asked. “For what—our books?” It didn’t matter, she told me. That’s just what they do on the radio.

I stopped podcasting not long after. The air had gone out of the room. At the time, I couldn’t believe how quickly many in the first wave of indie podcasts hit the skids and went offline, too. Systems scale, but they can be incredibly stifling.

Can you imagine a world where posts in reverse-chronological order never became the dominant model for online publishing? Are there other, better approaches to sharing your work that you haven’t considered simply because the dominant tools prefer not to function that way?

How would you share your work if you were willing to invest a little effort in deviating from the standard? This week, let’s think about all those “defaults” we’re taking for granted. Heck, even typing words into a computer limits your expression relative to pen on paper. Where would a little elbow grease and know-how open a world of creative possibility for you?

Read Hoy’s full essay at Stacking the Bricks.

Also, did you know I have a book coming out? (h/t Josh,who actually does have a book coming out)

writing to please yourself, writing to please others, and writing to raise Yog-Sothoth from the Nameless Mists…

Remember chain letters?

Who knows? Maybe you still get one now and then. Personally, I haven’t seen one in the wild for years. When I realized this yesterday, it struck me as odd. I got a little wave of nostalgia, like, “Hey, remember when Bill Gates was going to pay you $245 just for forwarding an email to all your friends saying that he would pay each of them $245 for forwarding that very same email to all of their friends?”

(At the time, I found the idea that Microsoft could track a forwarded email ludicrous. Turns out that part was right on the money.)

Noodling on this, it hit me: the reason I don’t get chain letters anymore is that the whole damn Internet is one big chain letter. We’re all out here trying to manipulate other people into spreading our message indiscriminately. Some of us have a valuable message well worth sharing; others are pulling a scam. Regardless, the techniques in play are harder and harder to distinguish.

Don’t believe me? Do a blind taste test between a chain letter circa 1995 and an e-mail campaign for a course getting dripped down a funnel (funneled down a drip?) in 2018. Which is which? One of them might threaten you with a curse for non-compliance, but otherwise…note to self: A/B test black magic in my next email marketing campaign.

(“I’m not a Cthulhu worshipper calling for the return of the Great Old Ones to drown humanity in eternal darkness myself, but if associating myself with them happens to boost my conversion rates, well, there are some very fine people on both sides.”—Jordan Peterson, tomorrow)

It’s easy to justify any tactic, of course. Good, magnetic marketing copy “works.” I’m just cranky. As I get older, I find myself drifting toward what I can only call a spiritual approach to my work. Here, I define spirituality as: the attitude that I do not have to accept something I don’t like, even if it appears to be logically true or practical. I can, but I don’t have to. Conversely, I can hold to beliefs and practices I like, even if I don’t have a completely logical justification for them yet. Or ever.

By this definition, I am a spiritual person. Who knew? I don’t even wear mala beads or one of those big scarves. (Yet.)

I can’t make a great case for spirituality across all disciplines, but when it comes to writing, I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground. Ultimately, “I” am not the one doing the writing—that’s for sure. Tell me to lift my left arm or walk across the room, “I” can do that just fine. Tell me to write a chapter when the Muse has left the building and it’s a different story. No story.

We don’t really know what’s going on up there, do we? Anyone who tells you they’ve got their own creativity all sorted out and under control hasn’t been truly blocked yet and I hope they never have to learn that lesson the hard way. Take it from me: It’s a thing.

When it comes to creativity, you can kill the golden goose if you’re not careful, or at least put it out of commission for a while. It takes a spiritual approach to keep going. The way you handle your writing practice has to feel good to you, first and foremost. If that means forgoing the latest and greatest tactics for success, so be it.

Muse before metrics.

I’d have written a better one this week if I’d had the right desk

D’ya like writing? Great. D’ya like desks, too? Yeah, I figured. Behold: Abraham Roentgen’s Writing Desk. Prepare yourself for two hypnotic minutes of a curator methodically revealing all the mechanical surprises tucked into one elegant piece of wooden furniture: unfolding inkwell, pop-up reading easel, banks of hidden drawers…

Abraham Roentgen, 18th-century furniture maker to the stars. Nobody did secret compartments like old Abe. I discovered him a few years back when I stumbled on an exhibit of dozens of his intricate, yet functional contraptions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kid, meet candy store. (The exhibit is long gone, but they still have a couple of pieces on display in the permanent collection.)

Somehow, I just know I’d be a better writer if I could trade my MacBook in for a priceless antique writing desk with secret compartments. Or at least a typewriter. Has anyone seen that typewriter documentary yet? I hadn’t realized you could already rent it. That’s happening tonight. What else would I watch, The Bachelorette‽ (I’m all caught up, anyway.)

The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It’s not exactly to Thoreau’s point, but to me this speaks to the most onerous part of the scrivener’s job: the vague unpredictable bigness of it. Before a writing session, you’re like a gladiator behind that portcullis, about to enter the arena. Ultimately, you have no idea what you’re about to face or how long it’ll actually take to bring it down. That’s where the dread comes from. For me, anyway. Even when you do complete a draft of a section or a chapter, it’s only that, a draft. Next comes revision after revision. When do we ever actually finish anything, really? Even published books get second editions. The fiddling never stops.

The beauty of writing the Maven Game is that, one way or the other, the family starts getting restless and I have to hit Send. I can only fiddle so much.

It’s easy for Writing Coaches to tell you to divide your project up into manageable pieces that you can tackle in a reasonable amount of time. Manageable? Ha! Reasonable? Double ha! The act of writing doesn’t divide into neat little buckets. Getting an idea down takes as long as it takes. So does fixing what’s broken. Sometimes, it’s a snap. Usually, it’s a bear; an hour or more can pass wrestling with a paragraph or two. And you still have that chapter due tonight!

(Side note: No, I’m not a writing coach. I’m not interested in helping anyone feel like writing. If I don’t feel like writing, why should they? I called my company “bookitect” for a reason. If you want to build a house, I’ll help you do it. If you’re not in the mood, get an Airbnb and stop worrying so much. After all, writing a book will not change your life.)

Here’s the truth about me: when it comes to writing, I can do one thing a day. That’s it. If I try for two, I’ll manage to do none. So I aim for one and I (usually) do one. The one thing might be a skeleton outline or a chapter or just a title. I go in, cue hammering and sawing sounds, I come out hours later, and somehow it’s done. Typically, I’ve got a stunned look on my face, I’m in a daze. The rest of the day is email and phone calls, if I’m lucky. Sometimes I’m just done.

Am I lazy? I’ve had plenty of full-time jobs where I’d run around doing stuff all day long—I usually went home buzzing with energy. Not so with writing. Writing burns the candle down to a nub. You use that nub to force yourself to floss. That’s pretty much all you’ve got left. At least that’s my experience.

Again, there’s no guarantee on any particular day that I’ll get my one thing done. Here’s what I do to raise the odds:

  1. Plan the one thing the night before and write it down.
  2. Enforce “time discipline”—nothing stands between the end of my morning routine and the start of my one thing for the day. (I used to have a terrible habit of running software updates before getting to work, among many other distractions. Those would always be the ones that broke the entire system. Never update your software before sitting down to write!)
  3. Set a timer for 30 minutes or so, fewer if I’m really struggling.

That’s it. Again, if I create an agenda the night before calling for two or more things to get done, chances are I’ll find myself with an overpowering urge to nap when I’m supposed to be writing. Dave can only be pushed so far. So I stick to one thing and my brain shows up for work, more often than not.

So how do you decide on one thing? The same way you motivate yourself to keep jogging a little bit longer. You pick a marker you can see from where you are. “I’m going to keep going until I reach that lamp post. No, not that one, that one.” So, “I’ll write until the next subhead.” Keep the marker close.

You never know. You might enter that mystical Csikszentmihalyian flow state people talk about. Personally, I think it’s a myth, like a round Earth or the Moon landing, but there’s no harm in believing in flow if it comforts you. If you do magically go down the flow-hole, you might go on to crank out a whole chapter, or even Jerry Maguire an entire sports agent manifesto in one sitting. You might even do two things today. Just don’t aim for that at the start. When it comes to writing, your expectations can never be low enough.

As expected, the family’s getting restless. Time to hit Send and stumble off with my candle nub…