Friday, January 25, 2013

Breadth v. Depth

Yesterday in calc, instead of finishing a review worksheet, I listened to my sophomore friend explain complex numbers and rotation and all sorts of fascinating math. This same friend made up a (likewise fascinating) problem involving reflections and parabolas and vectors for fun. By the way, my friend is male.

I've meant to write a post about some gender differences which Justine Musk first brought to my attention. Namely:

Boys tend to narrow and focus their interests while still in high school, often to math, science and technical fields. By the time they are in their mid-twenties, they might already be close to achieving those ten thousand hours [of deliberate practice needed for mastery].

Gifted young women, on the other hand, are likely to major in psychology or anthropology or sociology or political science. They might work for a few years before deciding to go to graduate school. They might take some time out to have children. They might go to work for an agency, institution or foundation, and as they develop skills and lean into strengths they discover the niche in which they want to specialize.

Gross generalization here, but in sum: boys go for depth, girls for breadth of interest.

I am guilty (might be worthwhile exploring why I used the word 'guilty') of spreading myself too thin, of having more interests than I have time. Blame the universe for being so fascinating.

Note that interests are fractal. On the macro level I (and Anna Ho, MIT blogger, and probably plenty others) face the stereotypical left-v-right brain battle: loving science/math so much that everything I've done in non-STEM fields seems irrelevant, while appreciating the lower prerequisites for being considered good at writing than at, say, engineering.

One order of magnitude down, there's a problem with which many writers can empathize: how can you choose which story idea to pursue, when you have about 8.4E48 other ideas that might turn out better? This is the problem that prompted me finally to write this post, because I've wrestled with it this week.

I've been plotting out Orsolya (of the Unwise Ones timeline, in the GW world) for about a month, and earlier this week began to write in the story proper. The first night I got down 1,600 words, which is three times my average. Then I suffered a crisis of confidence: over winter break I was plotting for another story (Matt of the Lekron) and I wondered if I should do all my story synopses first and then choose from the frameworks, or go one story at a time, synopsis-writing-revising. (Research should be somewhere in that timeline.)

Since finishing the second draft of the Utopia Project, I haven't written anything that has passed the 100-page mark. I was uncertain about starting another long project when I know that this summer I plan to take a third look at TUP. And all those suburban fantasy details I've been collecting on long walks through the neighborhood - surely I need to put those in a story. What to go for, lots of short pieces or a few long ones?

Last night, as I looked up topics in BC calculus, I reached my decision. I've been floating on the surface of things too long, and to progress I need to go deep, into the dark waters of the mind.

I realize that I'm putting off the discussion of gender that this post initially seemed to favor, and rest assured that I have thoughts on that subject. (Why do guys specialize earlier? What are the advantages and disadvantages?) But for now, it suffices to recognize that my broad/shallow interests are hindering me (at this point - I know it will come in useful someday), and that I need to sink in.


One last quote:

Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Now again, emotional commitment is not enough...Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, "creativity comes out of your subconscious." Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

-"You and Your Research", Richard Hamming

1 comment:

  1. Maths and creativity aren't mutually exclusive you know?
    I hear what you said though, i think that if you broaden your interests but don't go in too deep anywhere you are not giving those interests a chance, not a real one.
    You have some tough choices ahead of you right now, basically now is the time when you decide what you want to do with the rest of your life...don't be a girl and dive in into whatever you want as deep as you can. Be brilliant at it, start your path as soon as you can.

    ...but there is a problem with that, isn't there? when there are opposite things you are talented at, opposite things you are passionate about...what then?
    well, sorry, unfortunately i don't have an answer to that.
    i see a lot of myself in your posts sometimes, i'm a fellow math lover and fantasy lover, i was pretty good in pretty much everything in school (or it may be that the school had very low standards) but i know i didn't just love maths (even though yes, it was definitely my favourite), i loved all the other scientific classes but literature too, writing, art...i mean i wanted to do everything.
    in the end pursuing science was the right choice for me, i mean, i'm here now and i don't regret any of the choices i made so i guess they were the right ones. Still, i didn't have your talent for writing, i don't know if you are still undecided as to what your future will hold, if you are considering other options besides devoting your life to creating incredible things through your words...well if you are, i think that choosing writing would be incredibly BRAVE. But you're a magician, i'm sure you'll make it work. And if you decide you want to do something else entirely...well, you're still you so you'll make that work too. :)