Mind Without Borders

“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Perseverance and Zoomability

Ben Tilly's blogpost last week on What is intelligence? got me thinking about two other personal traits that impact the course of one's life. One is perseverance and the other doesn't have a name that I know of, so I'll make one up: zoomability.

The word “perseverance” has a positive connotation, whereas the word “inertia” has a negative connotation. But in reality, it may not always be clear how to distinguish the two. The advantages of perseverance are readily apparent: the path to any substantial accomplishment is rarely easy and usually strewn with obstacles, which it will take perseverance to surmount. Correspondingly, a person who tends not to persevere may have little to show for their time.

Yet any virtue can become a vice, when taken to an extreme. In particular, perseverance is a prerequisite for perfectionism, and a perfectionist may “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Doing “just enough” is desirable in many areas of life besides working for a startup.

Furthermore, the person who tends to persevere may be slow to recognize when it's time to backtrack and take a different path. It's worth referring again to Robert Pirsig's train metaphor. Perseverance will keep the train going as long as there is a track ahead, regardless of whether it leads to the optimal destination. The person who tends not to persevere is more likely to be the first to spot the next new thing, the one that changes everything. Furthermore, this person will accumulate a wide range of skills and experiences, the combination of which may later turn out to be uniquely useful.

In machine learning, there's a classic tradeoff between exploration and exploitation. An agent who's always exploring for new solutions may never get a chance to derive the benefit from any of them, whereas an agent who milks a single solution for all it's worth may miss out on a better one. One approach to handling this tradeoff is simulated annealing: spend a lot of time exploring in the early stages, and try to settle down and persevere in one course during the later stages. Indeed, simulated annealing has even been recommended as A Mathematically Proven Way To Achieve Happiness. So it may be fortunate that the ability to persevere tends to increase during the life of an individual, or perhaps even an organization. But even once you're in the later “exploitation” stage, the landscape, your local circumstances, or even you yourself may change—perhaps without your even noticing it. So it's worthwhile every now and then to enter a playful, exploratory mode for a while before going back into a tenacious working mode.

Speaking of organizations, it might seem that the tradeoff could be solved by a division of labor: have one group of people persevering in getting things done, and another group of people on the lookout for the next new thing. But when the time comes to decide the future course, these two groups will always be in tension. So in order to move forward, flexibility in one's degree of perseverance will still always be necessary at the individual level as well.


To define zoomability, first I need to define the more basic concept of zoom. Some people are very meticulous and detail-oriented—they dot every i and cross every t. Others are very imaginative and like to look at the big picture—they are the dreamers of dreams. Think of the lens of your camera. Some people like to keep their lens zoomed in, and others like to keep their lens zoomed out. Each of them has a preferred level of zoom that they're most comfortable with. Think about your acquaintances: chances are you'll be able to categorize many of them as one or the other.

Both are needed, but people at one end of the spectrum may tend to distrust or dismiss those at the other. The detail-oriented people may think of the big-picture people as unmoored from reality; they may think that when the rubber hits the road, they're the ones who do the real work. On the other hand, the big-picture people may think of the detail-oriented people as plodders preoccupied with the trivial and mundane; they may pride themselves on experiencing life at a higher level.

Of course, the ideal position is “to have one's head in the clouds and one's feet on the ground.” In order to achieve this, a person needs zoomability: the ability to zoom in and out, from focusing on the details to surveying the big picture. Many people seem to go through life with their zoom lens stuck in one position, but it seems that zoomability would be strictly more desirable.

But is it? Suppose you're Michelangelo and you're hiring assistants to help you paint the Sistine Chapel. (What I'm about to say isn't meant to be historically accurate, it's just an illustration.) You want every part of it to be perfect, so you want all of your assistants to be very detail-oriented. You hire a small army of skilled and meticulous painters to fill in your cartoons. But suppose one of them has high zoomability. He realizes that relatively few people will ever see this tiny patch of sky along the underside of a small arch that he's filling in. He'd much rather fill in the folds of God's robe—countless people over the course of centuries will look at that! That would be much more satisfying. Well, you could accomodate this one person by switching him to working on God's robe. But what if all of your assistants were like that? Someone has to paint the undersides of the arches!

You might think that we don't need individuals within an organization to be zoomable, as long as we have a proper division of labor. Choose detail-oriented people as the rank-and-file workers and put the big-picture thinkers in management positions. The engineers and the architects can work in tandem.

But this poses two problems. To completely specify every detail of a task may take nearly as long as to do the task itself. The rank-and-file workers may need some discretion to judge what the details should be, and for that they need to be able to see the big picture. Conversely, it may be that not all the details matter when painting the big picture. But there may be a critical few which change the nature and perhaps even the feasibility of the whole project. A manager without a firm grasp of the details may lead a whole team astray. So every individual needs at least some degree of zoomability.

So just as we concluded that it's worthwhile to spend some of our time in a playful, exploratory mode and some of it in a tenacious, working mode, it's also worthwhile to switch from our preferred level of zoom—to zoom out and zoom in from time to time.

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