We (really) don’t know why it happened

Fulfilment at work comes from mastery, and the perks that go with it, rather than pre-existing passion. That’s my main takeaway from So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

There isn’t much earth shattering in it. But it’s a great example of a simple inversion of a “common sense” idea. And the power of, and need for, different framing.

But a side note in the book is what has really captured my thinking the past few days:

There was debate in the chess world at the time surrounding the best strategies for improving. One camp thought tournament play was crucial, as it provides practice with tight time limits and working through distractions. The other camp, however, emphasized serious study—pouring over books and using teachers to help identify and then eliminate weaknesses. When surveyed, the participants in Charness’s study thought tournament play was probably the right answer. The participants, as it turns out, were wrong. Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors.

That we don’t fully understand or appreciate the reasons for successes (or failures) is something I’ve often returned to since reading The Hidden Half.

That book largely focused on noise and unknowability. Newport concentrates on poor framing and mental capture.

I started reading The Serendipity Mindset this morning and came across yet another spin. This is a book largely focused on luck (“serendipity”), and our perceptions of it.

The point is that when we construct our story of past events, we do what forecasters do: we create a model and ignore the details and the random events. Forecasters have a good excuse for doing this with the future: they cannot model every detail and, by definition, cannot foresee unpredictable events. But what is our excuse for doing this with the past?..
...We downplay or exclude the unpredictable events from our version of the past because random events that happened are no longer unpredictable. In fact, in hindsight they can start to look like they were inevitable. We then use information that wasn’t available to us at the time, and construct narratives that conveniently explain everything, including how each piece of the story logically connects with the rest of the story.

The overarching thread is the stories we tell ourselves are wrong. Whether due to an inability to perceive, ingrained misdirection, motivated reasoning, an uncomfortableness with randomness, post hoc rationalisation, or something else.

Eyewitness accounts seem to receive less and less credence as evidence of flaws mount. But perhaps all stories should be treated thus.

The context of colour

We’re surrounded by colour. On TV, advertising and clothes. I can whip open an app and conjure countless hues. We have wonderful algorithms that can interpolate from grainy, black and white footage.

But, reading Color by Victoria Finlay, gives you an appreciation of how unusual this is. How colour was rooted in place, politics, science, superstition, tradition, myth, adventure, disaster, exploitation, geology, biology and time.

And that isn’t an exhaustive list. As our use of colour has exploded, we’ve lost so much of this context.

With the exception of a few Russian icons which may have been painted with blue from Siberia, all the real ultramarine in both Western and Eastern art came from the last of these places—from one set of mines in a valley in north-east Afghanistan, collectively called Sar-e-sang, the Place of the Stone. It was where the Buddha’s topknots came from; it was where the monk painters of illuminated manuscripts found their skies; it was where the robe of Michelangelo’s Mother of God would have come from if he had waited long enough. And it was where I was determined to go.

Wars were fought over shades. Masterpieces left incomplete when artists couldn’t afford particular hues. Espionage was rampant as countries competed for monopolies.

This is a fascinating book, part travelogue part history. Finlay physically journeys to find ochre in Northern Australia, cochineal insect farms in South America, and the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan.

But I was probably taken most with what’s lost. Many of the works lining our national galleries have changed since they were completed. Natural pigment often isn’t permanent. And nor are the techniques to make them.

I carry around a little box of watercolours nowadays. In case I can get in a quick sketch. But now I realise they’re more than burnt umbers or cerulean blue. It’s a box of stories.

How many stories are we missing?

I recently stumbled across the sketch column of Gabriel Campanario in the Seattle Times. The archive goes back a decade and is full of lovely art. But he's also using the medium to tell stories, and capture emotion and feeling, in ways others can't.

The stillness in this recent column on Microsoft's campus during the pandemic, for instance:

Tucked away between buildings 31 and 32 in the northeast corner of the tech company’s sprawling campus, the lofty wooden huts served as meeting spaces and inspiration zones in precoronavirus times. For now, the treehouses stand empty, waiting for the eventual return of the employees who have been working from home for months.

I've never been to Seattle. I've seen it on tv and in movies, but these sketches and explorations ground it as more than a backdrop. Some of it is the focus on the mundane, like markets, bookstores and small parks.

Sketching and watercolour capture moments in time. But unlike photography they force the creator to be present for an extended period. To measure, estimate and contrast. To notice little details and features most of us walk past every day.

And, consequently, they force the viewer to do these things too.

Campanario has used this to document change, explore class and highlight microhistories throughout Seattle. The buildings, the infrastructure, are themselves the characters. Just as they are in our lives.

Pen and brush can explore lines, space, value and visual juxtaposition. They can exaggerate and simplify. In ways others just don't have to. In ways others can't. That is the strength of this column. But Campanario's work is also an example of what we've lost as media companies have shrunk, as stories have become faster, more national and international.

How many others are there with the license to slowly explore and document our built world? Our local world? How many stories are we missing?

Psyching out

“I can’t draw at all - I cant even draw stick men!” This is something I hear a lot. It’s always adults who say it - never children. Children haven’t yet learned to prejudge their drawing skills and so allow themselves to just give it a try.

This is from Sketching People. But it could easily have been in any of the drawing books I’ve read recently.

Our own minds are such a barrier to learning that every book is compelled to justify their very existence. To insist that drawing skills, like almost anything, aren’t an inherent trait. That they can be mastered with time, practice and study.

Of course some people are gifted. They pick up things quicker and achieve heights the rest of us seem incapable. But just because I may never eclipse Ray Allen’s free throw percentage (89%) doesn’t mean I can’t become insanely good. And even he had to earn the first 80, (85?) percent the same as the rest of us.

When do people learn to make perfection a barrier to even trying? And how do we unlearn that?

My emphasis