Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On Productivity

A paper has been making the rounds which quotes a lot of mathematicians saying that it is effort and perseverance that yields dividends, not some gene-given intelligence. I've held this view for a while, and it can be startling how much of society simply believes that people "have it" or "don't have it." The problem with this view is that no amount of mental quickness can cover for a lack of familiarity with the fundamentals.

The process of creativity comes from having a level of exposure with the fundamentals that is very deep. It is the state in which one is so sickeningly over-exposed to the orthogonal ideas and design philosophies that allows one to work at a higher level and to find unexpected answers to solutions.

In the search space of problem solving, it is the person who can best estimate the fruitfulness of trains of thought that will generate the best answer. This instinct cannot come from bravado and genetics, this instinct must come from complete submersion in the problem domain. This instinct must come from hours of deliberate practice.

I thought that my college application letter expressed this idea oddly well. After digging it out of storage, I've provided it below.


The cold, unforgiving frost began to freeze the drops of water that had collected across my bright red jacket. The chill cut down to the bone. I zipped my jacket just a little higher, and reassessed my priorities. I had walked three miles, and four remained of the journey to my friend's house. That morning, the last few components of the desktop computer that he and I had spent a few weeks designing and ordering had arrived. If I couldn't make it, he would start on his own, most likely frying the motherboard with static electricity. I had no transportation because my grandfather was at work so I decided to walk. The problem was that Maine was in the middle of a blizzard, but this was an opportunity to turn weeks of dreaming into something tangible. It was an opportunity to turn hardware and software into a work of art, into my work of art. And so, I walked.

I have always admired men like Albert Einstein and Michael Faraday because of the achievements their fervent passions made. They all met with opposition and doubt, but they all succeeded. Beat poets like Kerouac, Bukowski, and Alan Ginsberg all fought to exult the beauty they saw in what others wanted to ignore. Their sacrifice and resolve in the face of constant opposition yielded works of elegance. Sacrifice might not be the right word; these artists loved every second of the fight. Have you ever become so entranced with a book that you read it from cover to cover, nonstop? Do you remember that feeling that filled you after finishing the last page, that mixture of excitement and resolution? That feeling is my strongest motivation in my life. To me, this feeling is addictive. But it is too easy to put down the book, resume life, and forget the epiphanies contained in the volume. The act of taking that feeling and using it to better your life is the hardest thing to do. It is also the most necessary.

Did I regret choosing to walk that distance in the middle of winter? No, because you can call those who dedicate their lives to their passions crazy, but you cannot ignore how these men have changed the world. I hope to also leave an indelible mark on the world. As long as what I have to offer the world continues to become better with each passing day, I will consider my life a success.

I have a secret. I don't consider myself exceptionally smart. I am not more intelligent than most people. What makes me different isn't a strong IQ, it is my interests. While most would relax by watching sports, I am reading Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. This comes at a cost. I could probably tell you as much about celebrity relationships as the average person could tell you about lambda calculus. Small talk with friends about pop culture goes over my head sometimes. I know nobody who could talk with me about what I find interesting. But that's okay, because give me a challenge, and I'll be content in a way that I feel like few others would. For better or worse, this is who I am. I want to be a student at your college, if not for the teachers, if not for the experiences, then for the opportunity to better myself through deepening my understanding of the world.

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