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Posts Tagged ‘metacognition’

But it’s important.

But it sucks.

I write short stories, and every so often I go through a brief phase of submitting them to a few professional markets. I’ve started getting quite good at being rejected. It’s something I seem to have a real knack for, in fact, when I apply myself.

Anyone with even a modicum of professional writing experience in any comparable field will tell you that rejection is an important part of the process, even a positive part. And of course they’re right. If you’re getting rejected, it means you’re putting yourself out there, and if it keeps happening, it means you’re demonstrating the kind of persistence which sometimes gets rewarded with success. Ploughing on through the “no”s is a crucial part of making it to your first “yes”.

Harry Potter was turned down by I can’t be bothered to look up how many publishers before Rowling sold her first novel, Edison proudly discovered ten thousand ways not to plagiarise the lightbulb, you get the idea. Failing means you’re on the right track. It’s kinda obvious, but can be difficult to take on board.

It’s a philosophy I’ve repeated many times, and embraced in theory, but I’ve not really examined how well I do at it in practice. How much do my instinctive thoughts and reactions, in the moment, actually match up with the ideal?

The particular example of writing rejections doesn’t cause me too much neurotic stress. But some kinds of perceived failure have a much greater tendency to rankle. Sometimes getting it wrong really doesn’t feel like useful progress.

One of my problems seems to be with an unhelpful aversion to wasting my time. For instance: I’ve been trying to untangle and organise the plotting for a mostly second-drafted novel lately. (The one about a zombie and a vampire who run a detective agency, of which I bashed out a first draft a couple of NaNoWriMos ago, if you’re interested.) One thing I’ve done this week, in an effort to organise all the chapters, is to print out a series of short scene descriptions onto small bits of paper, and to blu-tack them to a whiteboard, so as to arrange them into some sort of coherent narrative.

This may all have been a colossal waste of time.

I’m still getting confused over what makes narrative sense to happen when. It hasn’t instantly resolved any of my structural or pacing issues. I’m not sure it’s going to be of any more help keeping track of future changes than the notes I’d already made on the computer. It looks pretty, I suppose, and it’s all neatly colour-coded, but I’ve a suspicion that may all be a load of toss.

This isn’t one of those times when I’m using pointless distractions to avoid actually writing, and really I just need to just sit down and get the fuck on with it. I do need to do something to figure out the sodding structure of the thing, and just staring at walls of text doesn’t seem to be helping. Sticking notes to a board is as valid a way of having a go as any other. But it still really bugs me that it might not have been a useful way to go.

I’m finding it especially hard to put the whole “failure as a learning experience” idea into practice in this particular scenario. It just feels like I put in some effort and made zero progress anywhere, and this is deeply infuriating and off-putting.

What’s really ridiculous, though, is the way I keep falling back on the worst coping strategy ever.

It’s taken me a while to even get as far as the whiteboard, because rather than struggle with something that seems likely to end in failure – rather than even contemplate it seriously, sometimes – I’ll just do something else that isn’t even meant to be productive. Those same minutes I’m worrying about wasting on some pointless wall-chart writing aid, turn into half an hour on Kongregate, or watching TV, or something else equally passive.

This way, I don’t just risk getting nothing useful achieved with my time, I guarantee it. But I won’t get that feeling of having strived for something and then failed to achieve an immediately measurable result. So it feels like less of a loss.

You can see exactly what my brain’s doing. It’s trying to avoid that feeling of having wasted time doing something that failed. It wants to protect itself so much from that unpleasant sensation, that distractions which fail to achieve any of my goals become acceptable. Which is colossally unhelpful of it. I mean, this is not-opening-bank-statements level thinking. It’s lamentable.

And it’s going to take some serious practice before I get over it.

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An observation in the wake of happenings in Boston:

I mentioned in passing yesterday that some people immediately started completely making shit up about atheists being responsible for the explosions in Boston. Literally within minutes of the news, a cabal of tragic individuals started ranting and screeching about how all unbelievers are murderers and it’s all Richard Dawkins’ fault and on and on.

It all deserves nothing more than to be ignored. There is no sensible path available to us which disregards that advice. But in the times when I’ve failed to follow it, I’ve invariably found the delusions of these people more offensive, more personally galling, more viscerally disgusting, than the notional terrorist bombings themselves.

Slightly more offensive again, is the way my iPhone’s Twitter app kept crashing while I was trying to keep up with all the news.

Obviously this is insane. I mention it only as an example of the way my hind-brain’s priorities – the ones that arise automatically and emotionally, and which I feel before I’ve had a chance to determine what I think – are unbelievably screwed up. It’s concerning to think where they might take me if I lacked the wherewithal to realise how misleading they are.

It’s all about good ol’ metacognition again, y’see. Important stuff.

Oh, and a secondary observation: give blood. Not just now, in the immediate aftermath of a highly noticeable catastrophe. Whenever you can. There is always someone very close by who needs some of your blood and will die if they don’t get it. Current medical science is such that this is, sadly, literally true – but it is also such that you can save a life just by giving up a half-hour or so of your time and claiming some free biscuits. I started doing it, in part, because they set up a donation centre every few weeks in a hall I walk past every day on my way home from work. I saw one of the ambulances parked outside one day, found out what was going on, and booked myself in for a future visit (with some prompting from a friendly local nurse). Please, find out if there’s anything like that near where you live.

So there’s your pep talk for the day, folks. Save someone’s life, and continue to not feed the trolls.

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If you asked me to sum up one of the most important and influential developments in my outlook on life and way of thinking in recent years, the thing which has most changed my view on the world and on myself, and which I’d most love to see more broadly spread among everyone and its importance appreciated, in a single word…

…I’d probably ask who you are and why I should bother paying attention to your long, wordy, and arbitrarily restrained questions, before making some more tea and procrastinating some more of my novel.

But if you caught me in a sharing and succinct mood, my answer would be:

Metacognition.

Which refers, in very brief terms as I best understand it, to “thinking about thinking”; being aware of what goes on inside your own head, of the physical and emotional processes that lead you to certain beliefs and states of mind.

The ability to see one’s thoughts as the product of a cluster of organic matter, moulded into shape by billions of years of competitive evolution, working through its own programming in an often chaotic and messy way – and not as simply the way things are because that’s how you see and feel them and so that’s the way the world is – is massively underrated.

Eventually I’ll explain more what I mean, why I think this, and what it’s meant to me (though in the meantime, as is often the case, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s got it pretty well covered if you want to read some more). But one thing in particular set me on this train of thought recently.

Journalist and nice man Jon Ronson tweeted recently about a new edition of his radio show that’s going to air soon. In his words:

The first episode is about how whenever I look at my clock the time is 11.11.

Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but the ensuing surge of retweets and other Twitter discussion showed that it’s not just some personal oddity, noticing a certain time of day coming up disproportionately often in the course of your clock-watching; many other people reported a similar phenomenon, often with exactly the same time. (I’d actually heard of this before, but with 9:11.)

Why does it happen? Well, various things spring to mind. Once you start noticing when it happens to be 11:11, for instance, it’s probably hard to stop, particularly once it’s in your mind as a cultural event which dozens of people have been tweeting about. I’ve completely lost track of how many times I’ve glanced at some sort of clock today, because none of them has been memorable for more than a few moments; if one particular time had special reason to stick in my mind, then I might start to remember it as if those were the “only” times I looked at a clock.

The lines of 11:11 have an obviously pleasing flat, straight, simple symmetry to them, which make them more interesting to notice than, say, all those occasions when I’ve checked the time and it was 14:53. (That could quite plausibly have happened to me hundreds of times in my life, for all I know, and I don’t remember a single one of them.) And maybe, on a subconscious level, it’s not always accidental; if you notice the time when it’s 11:07, perhaps you’ll be flicking back there every so often over the next few minutes, to see if you can catch 11:11 in the act.

And people regularly exaggerate, misremember, and misinterpret, of course, especially when they’re trying to make sure they have a story to tell that’s at least as good as everyone else’s.

I’d gone some way down this line of reasoning, after reading Jon’s first tweet, when I thought: Wait, why am I starting to get defensive about this? I’m doing some motivated thinking here, as if I needed to defend the idea that coincidences happen without there being some sort of supernatural, paranormal force behind it all.

…When did anyone bring supernatural paranormal forces into this?

Because literally nobody had. The only thing that had happened was someone mentioning a pattern they seemed to have observed. There wasn’t even a hint of an implication that pixies or goblins must be responsible for it (and Jon has a track record for being more grounded than that). But I started reacting as if there were, in the conversation my brain started carrying on with itself.

It’s not hard to understand why I’d do that; those sorts of stories, where an ostensibly improbable occurrence is used to justify belief in something wacky, do go on all the time, and do regularly annoy me. This wasn’t one of those times, but the cached thoughts welled up in my mind anyway, and if I hadn’t been attentive to it, I could’ve started arguing vehemently and digging my heels in to defend a position that wasn’t remotely under attack.

I suppose it’s worth briefly exploring what the trivially obvious arguments against such supernatural bollocks would be – primarily, that any spiritual or divine agent devoting its efforts to influencing when Jon Ronson happens to check the time, but which is continuing to let tens of thousands of children across the world die from starvation, AIDS, and malaria, is irrelevant at best and downright malevolent at worst.

But that’s not my main point here. More interesting right now, is how quickly I began building up mental defences in response to a completely imagined attack on a belief system which I shouldn’t even really be that defensive over anyway.

This has gone on long enough for now. I’ll try to hone in on some interesting parts to this in more detail soon.

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