Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Thinking Fast and Slow

The second system effect

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Note: This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 14, 2015.

Why are second novels or movies so consistently underwhelming? Even if you account for such variables as heightened pressure, compressed turnaround time, and unrealistic expectations, the track record for works of art from The Postman to the second season of True Detective suggests that the sophomore slump, whatever it reflects, is real. For the economist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s a case of regression to the mean: any artistic breakthrough is by definition an outlier, since only exceptional efforts survive to come to light at all, and later attempts revert back to the artist’s natural level of ability. There’s also a sense in which a massive success removes many of the constraints that allowed for good work to happen in the first place. By now, it’s a cliché to note that the late installments in a popular series, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, feel like they haven’t been edited. It’s certainly true that authors who have sold a million copies have greater leverage when it comes to disregarding editorial notes, if they even receive them at all. Editors are as human as anyone else, and since commercial outcomes are such a crapshoot, you can’t blame them for not wanting to get in the way of a good thing. It didn’t hurt Rowling or Martin, but in the case of, say, the later novels of Thomas Harris, you could make a case that a little more editorial control might have been nice. And I’ve noted elsewhere that this may have more to do with the need to schedule blockbuster novels for a release date long in advance, whether they’re ready or not.

Yet there’s also a third, even more plausible explanation, which I first encountered in The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., a seminal work on software engineering. Writing about what he calls “the second system effect,” Brooks notes:

An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

The second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular are not generalizable.

Francis Ford Coppola

Brooks concludes: “The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one.” And it’s startling how well this statement describes so many sophomore efforts in film and literature. It’s the difference between Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Sex Lies and Videotape and Kafka, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, in which a spare, disciplined freshman work is succeeded by a movie that contains everything up to and including the kitchen sink. When you first try your hand at any kind of storytelling, you discover that the natural arc of the project tends toward removal and subtraction: you cut, pare back, and streamline, either because of your natural caution or because you don’t have the resources you need. Every edit is necessary, but it also carries a charge of regret. If your constraints are removed for your second project, this only adds fuel to an artist’s natural tendency to overindulge. And while the result may be a likable mess—a lot of us prefer Mallrats to Clerks—it rarely exhibits the qualities that first drew us to an artist’s work. (Even in movies made by committee, there’s an assumption that viewers want a bigger, louder, and busier version of what worked the first time around, which leads to so much of the narrative inflation that we see in blockbuster sequels.)

So what’s an artist to do? Brooks has some advice that everyone trying to follow up his or her first effort should keep in mind:

How does the architect avoid the second-system effect? Well, obviously he can’t skip his second system. But he can be conscious of the peculiar hazards of that system, and exert extra self-discipline to avoid functional ornamentation and to avoid extrapolation of functions that are obviated by changes in assumptions and purposes.

Translated into artistic terms, this means nothing more or less than treating a second attempt as exactly as hazardous as it really is. If anything, the track record of sophomore efforts should make writers even more aware of those risks, and even more relentless about asking the hard questions after a big success has made it possible to stop. When Francis Ford Coppola followed The Godfather with The Conversation, it was both a regathering and an act of discipline—in a movie largely about craft and constraints—that enabled the grand gestures to come. Coppola certainly wasn’t beyond insane acts of overreaching, but in this case, his instincts were sound. And I have a feeling that a lot of writers and filmmakers, in hindsight, wish that they could have skipped their second system and gone straight to their third.

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

The oilman’s divorce, or the problem of luck

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Harold Hamm

Money may not be everything, but it’s certainly a clarifying force, especially when seventeen billion dollars are on the line. Right now, the news is filled with coverage of what may end up being the most expensive divorce in the history of the world, a courtroom battle currently being waged between Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm and his wife Sue Ann. This kind of story possesses a certain guilty fascination of its own—if Ms. Hamm gets even a quarter of her husband’s fortune, she’ll be richer than Oprah—but it also raises some unexpected philosophical questions. At the moment, Hamm is claiming that his stake in Continental Resources, the company he founded almost five decades ago, was built entirely on luck, since the discovery of oil deposits depends on so many factors that are fundamentally beyond human control. Ms. Hamm, by contrast, says that it was all thanks to her husband’s skill and hard work. Which leaves us with the odd prospect of one of the world’s wealthiest men disclaiming all responsibility for his own success, while his soon-to-be ex-wife insists that he isn’t giving himself enough credit.

Of course, it isn’t hard to see why they’d stake out their particular positions. Under laws governing equitable division, assets that were actively earned over the course of the marriage are split between the two parties, while passive assets, or those in which chance played a role, remain undivided. The underlying presumption is that a marriage is a partnership in which both parties collectively participate, and the work of one can’t be separated from the presence of the other—an argument that breaks down when luck is involved. If Sue Ann can successfully argue that Harold’s fortune was derived from his own efforts, she’s entitled to up to half of everything; if Harold makes the case that it’s due to luck, he clings to the lion’s share. In the end, it’s likely that the decision will fall somewhere in the middle, and I’m very curious to hear Judge Howard Haralson’s final ruling on the subject. Because while Harold Hamm is clearly pressing his case beyond what he really believes about his own abilities—”He must be squirming inside,” as a psychologist notes in the NBC News story—he isn’t entirely wrong. And it took only a multibillion-dollar divorce suit for him to admit it.

Daniel Kahneman

We all tend to underrate the role that luck plays in human endeavor, whether successful or otherwise, especially when we’ve done well for ourselves. The truth is probably closer to what Daniel Kahneman sets forth in Thinking, Fast and Slow, using what he says is his favorite equation:

Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

That’s particularly true of something like oil and gas, which remains a punishingly uncertain industry even with modern geological and technological expertise. There’s a reason why more than a few wildcatters used divining rods to locate petroleum deposits: even with considerable skill and experience, a lot of it comes down to luck, persistence, and time. David Mamet likes to say that everybody gets a break in Hollywood after twenty-five years, except that some get it at the beginning and others at the end, and the important thing is to be the one who stays after everyone else has gone home. And wildcatting, along with so much else, works much the same way.

So while it’s easy to dismiss Hamm’s argument as disingenuous—his success in building one of the largest energy companies in the country can’t be entirely divorced from his own actions and decisions—I’d prefer to think of it as a moment of rare candor, however little he might believe in it himself. As John Bogle likes to point out, choosing an investment fund manager based on past performance is a little like staking money on the winner of a coin-flipping contest: given enough participants, someone is bound to get ten heads in a row, but that doesn’t mean you should bet on the streak in the future. That’s as true of running a company as managing a mutual fund. What seems like a smart decision may really have been a lucky break, and it’s only in retrospect, as we construct a narrative to make sense of what happened, that we emerge with the myth of the business visionary. If Kahneman’s formula holds true, as it does in most things in life, Harold Hamm might well be entitled to keep most of what he earned. Admitting this would involve giving up many of our most cherished notions about success. But with seventeen billion dollars at stake, even one of the richest men in the world might have to concede that it’s better to be lucky than good.

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2014 at 8:58 am

A few holiday thoughts on happiness

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Daniel Kahneman

The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control. Few individuals can will themselves to have a sunnier disposition, but some may be able to arrange their lives to spend less of their day commuting, and more time doing things they enjoy with people they like…

Not surprisingly, a headache will make a person miserable, and the second best predictor of the feelings of a day is whether a person did or did not have contacts with friends or relatives. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Written by nevalalee

December 25, 2012 at 9:50 am

What I learned from my first novel

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Five months ago, my novel The Icon Thief was published by Penguin, and if it seemed at the time like the end of a journey, I see clearly now that it was just the beginning of another. In many ways, the most challenging part of the past year has been adjusting my survival skills as a writer, which had been built up by years of mostly solitary work, to the realities of living with a book in actual stores. And the transition hasn’t always been easy. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, likes to talk about optimistic bias—the delusion that we ourselves are more likely to succeed where countless others have failed—and it’s especially endemic among aspiring writers, who are required by definition to be irrationally optimistic. Every unpublished novel is a potential bestseller, just as every unwritten page is a potential masterpiece, and learning to live with a real physical book, which won’t always live up to your expectations, is something every writer needs to learn. Here, then, are some lessons that the past few months have taught me:

1. Promotion is great, but placement is better. When The Icon Thief came out, I did everything I could to transform myself from an obsessive introvert, which is basically what every writer has to become in order to finish a book in the first place, to a tireless promoter who could sell his book in person, in print, and in all other media. What I’ve since learned is that while such activities can be gratifying for their own sake, and will sell books here and there, they generally don’t have a lasting effect on a novel’s success. What sells most books, aside from word of mouth, is placement: do readers see the book when they go into stores? Every instance of placement in the big national chains—whether a book is on the front table, in the new releases section, or in a display where browsers are likely to notice it—is a chance to reach that precious audience of readers who are actively looking for something to buy. It’s by far the largest factor in a debut novel’s early sales—more than advertising, more than promotion. And it’s something that is ultimately out of the writer’s hands.

2. Don’t sweat the numbers. During the first week of my novel’s release, like any writer with a pulse, I was checking my Amazon sales ranking every hour. After a while, I was down to every day, then every week, and now I look only rarely, if ever. The same goes with BookScan figures and other measures of the book’s sales: I used to dutifully look over the charts every Friday and wonder why sales were spiking in Houston but flat in Boise, Idaho. In time, though, I found that I was falling into the same trap of those who have plenty of data but not enough real information: I was reading too much into tiny fluctuations and seeing patterns that weren’t there. In the end, such noise only serves as a distraction from the real business of writing, which involves a lot of diligent labor without reference to how your book is doing in Baton Rouge. In the old days, writers would receive sales figures from their publishers on a quarterly or semiannual basis, and I’d argue that they were better off. Turn off the numbers—you’ll be happier in the end.

3. Play the long game. Last month, I learned that my longtime editor at Penguin, who had acquired The Icon Thief and its sequel almost two years ago, was leaving to take another job. At first, I was rocked by the news, but my agent wisely pointed out that the timing here—with one book already out in stores, the second locked and ready to go, and a third a few months from completion—was about as good as it could get, and that changing editors is something that happens to every writer at one point or another. And he was right. Unless you’re the kind of author who has exactly one book to write, you’re going spend the rest of your career in the writing game, which is just like anything else in life: the same ups and downs happen to everyone, but not necessarily in the same order. When you take the long view, you find that the rules of engagement haven’t really changed from when you were first starting out: you’re still writing for yourself and a few ideal readers. And the more you keep that in mind, the better chance you have of coming out the other end alive.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2012 at 10:18 am

Is it better to be lucky than good?

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Over the past few days, I’ve been devouring the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, which I’d mentioned here before but only recently got around to reading. It is, as promised, rife with fascinating insights and stories—my wife says that I seem to have underlined every sentence—and I’m still only halfway through. In particular, Chapter 17, “Regression to the Mean,” is one that everyone should read, even if it’s just standing up at Barnes & Noble. The chapter is only ten pages long, but it’s packed with more useful insights than a shelf of ordinary books, and I can all but guarantee that it will subtly change the way you think about a lot of things. The key passage, at least to my eyes, is one that begins with Kahneman sharing what he calls his favorite equation:

Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

This is something that most of us know intuitively, but Kahneman takes it one step further. Basically, if we accept the premise that a single instance of exceptionally good performance is due largely to luck—or, more precisely, to positive factors outside the performer’s control—then our best guess about the next performance is that it won’t be quite as good, as the performer’s luck regresses to the mean. We can’t predict anything about luck except for the fact that, in general, it will be more or less average. As a result, someone who has excellent luck on one occasion, like an athlete who makes a great ski jump, will probably only have average luck the next time out—and the better the original performance, the more extreme the regression will be. And while we might be tempted to ascribe all kinds of causal factors to the change, it’s really nothing but simple mathematics.

This is obviously true of sports, given the important role that luck plays in most sporting events, but it’s also fascinating to think about its implications for the arts. In particular, regression to the mean is the most likely explanation for what I call “the New Yorker feature curse” in my recent article in Salon. When we interview movie stars or directors based on a recent great success, it’s likely that we’ve caught them just before they regress to the mean, which is why their next project—the one we’ve spent the entire article extolling—often seems like a relative disappointment. And this has nothing to do with the talent of the subjects involved. The movies are such a volatile business that even successful filmmakers can only be expected to succeed perhaps half the time, so it shouldn’t be surprising when a big success is followed by a movie that seems like a failure in comparison, and vice versa. For a particularly stark example, one need look no further than the recent career of Woody Allen, who, in Match Point, had a character say:

The man who said “I’d rather be lucky than good” saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.

And this applies to literature as well. If athletes have the Sports Illustrated cover jinx and directors have the New Yorker curse, novelists have second-novel syndrome: the big debut novel followed by a sophomore slump. We like to ascribe all kinds of causal explanations to this—pressure, time constraints, authorial self-indulgence—but most often, it’s just another case of regression to the mean. Luck, as I’ve learned firsthand, plays an enormous role in a book’s publication and reception, and it’s mathematically unsound to expect lightning to strike twice. This is true, most obviously, of a book’s commercial prospects, but also, oddly, of its artistic merits. Luck plays a larger role in a novel’s quality than many of us would like to admit: like ski jumpers and golf players, we benefit from moments of serendipity and inspiration that may never return. Until, of course, we try again.

A writer’s intuition, right or wrong

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Intuition is getting a bad rap these days. As both the book and movie of Moneyball have made clear, the intuition of baseball scouts is about as useful as random chance, and the same might be said of stock pickers, political pundits, and all other supposed sources of insight whose usefulness is rarely put to a rigorous test. Intuition, it seems, is really just another word for blind guessing, at least as far as accuracy is concerned. The recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, goes even further, providing countless illustrations of how misleading our intuition can be, and how easily it can be distracted by irrelevant factors. (For example, something as simple as rolling a certain number on a rigged roulette wheel can influence our estimates of, say, how many African countries are in the United Nations. Don’t ask me how or why, but Kahneman’s data speaks for itself.)

And yet it’s hard to give up on intuition entirely. For one thing, it’s faster. I believe it was Julian Jaynes who pointed out that intuition is really just another word for the acceleration of experience: after we’ve been forced to make decisions under similar circumstances a certain number of times, the intermediate logic falls away, and we’re left with what feels like an intuitive response. Play it in slow motion, and all the steps are still there, in infinitesimal form. This kind of intuition strikes me as essentially different from the sort debunked above, and it’s especially useful in the arts, when no amount of statistical analysis can take the place of the small, mysterious judgment calls that every artist makes on a daily basis. In writing, as in everything else, the fundamentals of craft are acquired with difficulty, then gradually internalized, freeing the writer’s conscious mind to deal with unique problems while intuition takes care of the rest. And without such intuitive shortcuts, a long, complex project like a novel would take forever to complete.

Every artist develops this sort of intuition sooner or later, making it possible to skip such intermediate steps. As I’ve noted before, Robert Graves has described it as proleptic or “slantwise” thinking, a form of logic that goes from A to C without pausing for B. All great creative artists have this faculty, and the greater the artist, the more pronounced it becomes. One of the most compelling descriptions of poetic intuition I’ve ever seen comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in a brief aside about Shakespeare. Gardner points to the fact that in Hamlet, the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation, a detail that strikes some readers as inconsistent. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” Fair enough. But then Gardner continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

That intuition, “sudden as lightning,” is what every writer hopes to develop. And while none of us have it to the extent that Shakespeare did, it’s always satisfying to see it flash forth, even in a modest way. Earlier this week, while reading through the final version of City of Exiles, I noticed a place where the momentum of the story seemed to flag. I made a note of this, then moved on. Later that day, I was working on something else entirely when I suddenly realized how to fix the problem, which was just a matter of eliminating or tightening a couple of paragraphs. After making these changes, I read the chapter over again, but this was almost a formality: I knew the revisions would work. There’s no way of objectively measuring this, of course, and there were probably other approaches that would have worked as well or better. But intuition provided one possible solution when I needed it. And without many such moments, right or wrong, I’d never finish a novel at all.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

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