8 ideas — week of Jan 13
Eight ideas I came across this week & found worth noting (plus my favorite line I read this week):
1. Great questions have narrow mental search queries
As a product manager, I think a lot about what makes a great question.
How do you avoid influencing someone’s answers with your wording? How do you ask someone about how they feel without forcing them to analyze themselves? How do you ask someone what they want — what they really want, not what they think they want? (The difference is what’s behind Henry Ford’s quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”)
At first pass, a question like, “What’s your favorite book?” seems like a great getting-to-know-you question — probing and telling of someone’s personality.
But it’s actually too broad.
It’s too “CPU-intensive” and the search query is too wide, as Tim Ferriss puts it. The responder would probably have a different answer if he or she had thirty minutes to think versus five minutes. Instead, primacy and recency bias kick in.
A better question is one that focuses the scope and takes less time to think through. For example, Ferriss replaces the favorite book question with, “What books have you gifted the most to other people?”
Side note: This is part of why I’ve always hated job interviews, with questions like “Tell me about a time you faced a challenge” or “Tell me about a time you were in a conflict.”
2. To create meaning in writing, use the ladder of abstraction
From Hayakawa in Medium
Hayakawa, a linguist and U.S. senator, came up with the idea of the ladder of abstraction: that all language exists on a ladder, with general or abstract ideas at the top and concrete, specific words at the bottom. Here’s a visual:
Communicating well means using the right level of abstraction for your audience and purpose. In storytelling, you create meaning at the top of the ladder and
The idea of “show, don’t tell” fits snugly into this framework. Writing at the top of the ladder (for example, a summary) is telling. Writing at bottom (lots of detail) is showing. If you can incorporate detail into a narrative, it leads a reader up the ladder — in their own mind — to derive meaning. That’s why you can write a story about love but not have the word “love” in there once.
3. Create a “when to quit” list of conditions
Before you embark on anything (maybe a new job, hobby, relationship, or place to live), define upfront the set of circumstances under which you would quit.
Writing them out before you dive in means you can be more objective, before you can be affected by loss aversion, sunk costs, or Stockholm syndrome.
4. “Concept creep” reflects society’s increasing sensitivity
Concept creep is the idea that over time the meanings of certain terms (think trauma, mental disorder, or prejudice) have expanded. These newer, expanded meanings have led to, for example, how society perceives the concept, the amount of people who believe they experience them, and even changes in laws dealing with those concepts.
One example is abuse:
Classically, psychological investigations recognized two forms of child abuse, physical and sexual, Haslam writes. In more recent decades, however, the concept of abuse has witnessed “horizontal creep” as new forms of abuse were recognized or studied. For example, “emotional abuse” was added as a new subtype of abuse. Neglect, traditionally a separate category, came to be seen as a type of abuse, too.
Meanwhile, the concept of abuse underwent “vertical creep.” That is, the behavior seen as qualifying for a given kind of abuse became steadily less extreme. Some now regard any spanking as physical abuse.
5. 2 theories of self: matter-based & pattern-based
Learned from Nautilus
In philosophy, there are broadly two theories of what the “self” is:
- Matter-based: You’re the material that you’re made out of: atoms and molecules and cells. Also known as “materialism” or “brain-based materialism.”
- Pattern-based: The specific set of particles that make up your body and brain are constantly being replaced, so that in weeks, you’ll be a completely different set of atoms and molecules. Instead, what makes “you” up is your pattern of atoms and molecules. It’s like a river: the molecules of water passing through a certain point of the river change every second, but the pattern stays consistent. Also called the “psychological continuity theory.”
Of course, there’s always the third option, where you don’t believe that the concept of the “self” exists — that it’s actually an illusion and, as the author of the Nautilus article puts it, “‘I’ is a grammatical fiction.”
6. The non-phonetic pieces of speech are “prosody”
The word “prosody” refers to things like intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm (which, fun fact, are technically called suprasegmentals) — the elements of speech that aren’t phonetic.
Specifically, “prosody” can mean the study of rhythm in poetry.
7. Look for new ideas around mistaken assumptions
From Paul Graham
Novel ideas are hard to come by. One way to go about it is to focus your energy on areas other people are ignoring.
Beliefs that other people hold without question, maybe because they’re inherited or because it’d be too jarring if they weren’t true, are usually surrounded by related ideas that are also untouched.
As PG writes:
Every cherished mistaken assumption has a dead zone of unexplored ideas around it. And the more preposterous the assumption, the bigger the dead zone it creates.
This is very much related to Peter Thiel’s favorite interview question:
“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
8. Brunch, motel, and smog are all portmanteaus
In The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll coined the concept of a portmanteau word: a made-up word that combines the sounds and meanings of two existing words. Examples are breakfast + lunch = brunch and iPod + broadcast = podcast.
(The original meaning of portmanteau is a suitcase, usually made of stiff leather, that opens into two halves.)
Favorite line of the week
“…freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.”
from On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong