Don't be trapped by training

As I slowly wrap–up The creativity code by Marcus Du Sautoy, this paragraph makes me consider how our training and experience shape, and in some sense even limit, our world:

Various attempts at learning jazz have taught me that there is a puzzle element to a good improvisation. Generally a jazz standard has a set of chords that change over the course of a piece. The task of the trumpeter is to trace a line that fits the chords as they change. But your choice also has to make sense from note to note, so playing jazz is really like tracing a line through a two-dimensional maze. The chords determine the permissible moves vertically, and what you’ve just played determines the moves horizontally. As jazz gets freer, the actual chord progressions become more fluid and you have to be sensitive to your pianist’s possible next move, which will again be determined by the chords played to date. A good improviser listens and knows where the pianist is likely to head next.

Of course this is by a mathematician and mathematics is a subject of the book. And this grab comes amid an exploration of music and algorithms. But the explicit mathematical digression in the midst of this musical romp sticks out.

I think it’s because I do this all the time (I’m pretty sure we all do). Just like Du Sautoy pulls music through his mathematical lens (and vice versa), we are constantly filtering and analogising. It shapes our world.

As a journalist I have a hard time ignoring the decisions made in stories. Wondering at other angles or how the medium itself (text, audio, video etc.) inherently limits choices.

In that sense my experience has me constantly stuck in the role of participant. Viewing through a lens of construction rather than strict consumption. I consume stories as one of a number of options, as a version rather than a totality.

Perhaps we all do this when consuming news. But I’ve made these exact decisions thousands of times. It’s hard not to envision the dirty carpet of the newsroom, the white walls above my desk, the mild panic as deadline approaches. To wonder how the availability of talent, the domain knowledge of the reporter, any number of other factors; pushed and pulled on what’s before me.

Similarly with economics. After university I have comparative advantage and opportunity cost tattooed on my brain. I’m constantly searching for impacts at the margins. I reason under a cloud of ceteris paribus.

Your training, what you do every day, equips you with easy heuristics. But it can slowly carve grooves in your thinking. You mustn’t let it control where you end up.

The trick is to be aware of it, and, hopefully, leverage it as Du Sautoy has. For greater understanding. Not to be sucked into thinking this is all there is.

As always my emphasis