Talent, Genius, and the Fog of Intention
|Venkatesh Rao||Apr 7, 2017|
The digital age in general has an action bias: what critics label doerism. Ready-fire-aim over ready-aim-fire. The next level is ready-fire-steer (a Paul Saffo phrase), which means you're all agile and maneuverable, OODAing the shit out of things and breaking smart at ninja levels. This makes uncertainty and ambiguity a big theme in all conversations about digital doings. We've talked a lot about both in this newsletter before.
This action bias though, does not mean intentions don't matter. They just become part of the uncertainty and ambiguity. In this issue I want to talk about an aspect of internal uncertainty and ambiguity I call the_fog of intention._ An ability to clear the fog of intention is what separates mere talent (hitting targets others can't hit) from genius (hitting targets others can't see). The good news is that even if you aren't an actual genius, you can still learn the trick of clearing intention fogs and hitting targets others can't see.
Intention fogs: uncertainty and ambiguity inside your head rather than in the environment.
1/ When you act before you have enough certainty to have confidence in the outcomes, you enter the fog of action (generalized from the idea of "fog of war")
2/ This fog is not fun. As Sonya Mann cleverly put it in her recent ribbonfarm post, "I’d rather be uncertain than wrong, but I’d rather be right than uncertain."
3/ Navigating fogs of action is about being right or wrong about things in the external world. It's about going ready-fire-aim and still hitting the target more often than others expect.
4/ The fog of intention has to do with being right or wrong about things in the internal world of reasons, justifications, motivations, desires and intentions.
5/ Uncertainty and ambiguity around questions like Why am I doing this? and What am I doing? These actually cause analysis-paralysis more often than the fog of action.
6/ It is easy to see why, even if you can't answer questions like What is the future of AI? and _Should I go to college? _you should dive into trial-and-error anyway.
7/ It is harder to see why you should dive into action when you aren't sure why you are doing something, or even what exactly you're doing. When the meaning of your actions is foggy.
8/ Are you writing blog posts to feed your vanity, or to market your services, or are you offering services in order to support your writing intentions? Or just practicing your typing?
9/ What do your actions mean? Are you analyzing the tech industry for investment insight, virtue-signaling to your tribe, or soothing internal insecurities about your tech credibility?
10/ Are you getting into 3d printing because you're good at it and see a market, or because people you think are cool are doing it and it's an excuse to hang out with them?
11/ Conundrums like this constitute the fog of intention. Most of the fog does dissipate as you keep acting, through trial and error, and actually hitting targets, intended or unintended.
12/ You discover your own agency -- your ability to influence the world and predict the pattern of that influence -- through trial-and-error. This is a pre-condition for harboring meaningful intentions.
13/ Repetition, habit-formation, and the raw fact of things turning out to be sustainable are fog-of-intention killers. Ready-fire-aim actually hitting the mark wonderfully clarifies the mind.
14/ After the 100th blog post or 3D print design, you've generally figured out what you're doing and why. If it works that is, sustainably and repeatedly hitting targets.
15/ Of course, this is only true if it creates rewards, both expected and unexpected, for you and others. A target is acknowledged value, expected or not.
16/ They say talent hits targets others can't hit, but genius hits targets others can't see. Trial-and-error clearing of the fog-of-intention can make you look like a genius in that sense.
17/ Talent gaps relate to the external world. I can see an archery target 100 feet away and admire somebody who hits it because I know what it is I cannot do before I see it being done.
18/ But effective-genius is about clearing the fog of intention: hitting targets that make people see things as worth doing. Putting the 'objective' in 'objective function.'
20/ In decision-making we often use the metaphors of chess (perfect information) and poker (imperfect information) to compare decision-makers.
21/ The fog of intention breaks that metaphor because the game board /rules are inside people's heads. Even if you see exactly what they see, you won't see the game they see.
22/ Another way of thinking about this is that they're making meaning out of what they see differently from you. The world is more legible to them; they can read/write more into it.
23/ To me, a pattern of dots in the environment is just noise. To Amy Lin, it's apparently an inspirational message in a secret language that unlocks a portal into a universe of creative possibilities I don't see.
24/ Finding your genius through the process of clearing an intention fog can take years. I don't think everybody can do it, but I don't think you need to be a certifiable genius either.
25/ A big part of it seems to be a key early challenge: learning the difference between doing the right thing for the wrong reason vs doing the wrong thing for the right reason.
26/ The external world rewards being right (and doing right), whatever your reasons. In the most extreme "external" rewards market, the stock market, reasons don't matter, only returns.
27/ Free-market ideologues often generalize and fetishize this idea. Milton Friedman for instance, argued that we should "make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing."
28/ Here "wrong people" is shorthand for "people motivated by the wrong reasons" according to some ideology. Or better still, "people motivated by any reason, selfish or selfless."
29/ This kind of behaviorist incentive design is all about talent in the sense of hitting-things-others-can't-hit. The invisible hand deals better with visible targets than revealed ones.
30/ You can support incentives for others in this sense only when you can see what it is that you cannot yourself do, and have a "right vs wrong" opinion about whether it should be done.
31/ This "right things for the wrong reasons" world is one of known targets and pre-estimated "expected value" thinking. Where consequences are predictable, reasons don't matter.
32/ There is no way to apply this kind of logic to kinds of value where the "right thing" is part of a game calculus buried in the intention fog of particular individuals.
33/ There is a deeper problem as well: reasons last a LOT longer than actions. Your reasons for doing things are likely to persist far longer than individual actions motivated by them.
34/ If you want to make money, you'll try many things over many years to try and make money. If you want to solve AIDS you'll try many strategies for that over many years.
35/ So if I see your talent and support you hitting a target I want hit for the "wrong reasons" I am still reinforcing your ability to hit other things I don't want hit for those reasons.
36/ By contrast, the only way I can support your genius is if you repeatedly surprise me by hitting targets I couldn't see before, and I decide I want more such surprises.
37/ Put another way, investing in developing "hits what others can't see" genius is a better way to foster serendipity in the world than investing in "hits what others can't hit" talent.
38/ To snowclone Friedman's line for this regime of action, the idea is to "make it politically profitable for the inscrutable people to do the unexpected thing"
39/ Here "inscrutable people" is not people who do the right or wrong thing by an external ideology, but do things for reasons only they can see as worth acting on at all at the time.
40/ How do you spot inscrutable people who are seeing things others aren't, and doing "the wrong thing" by any known calculus of motivations, but for the "right" reasons you can't see yet?
41/ You can score intentions along two dimensions: fogginess (it's not clear what exactly you want or why) and intensity (how badly you want it at gut level).
42/ Foggy intentions, intensely held, are necessary, but not sufficient, for developing an ability to routinely hit what others can't see. Clear intentions usually map to acknowledged targets.
43/ People who do this are often long-period obsessives, like Javert in Les Misérables. Their intentions are foggy but intensely held, and persist across multiple external incentive environments.
44/ We call such people "misguided" when their intentions are not foggy to others, and adequately account for all outcomes, leaving no room for surprises. This is the basis for a lot of psychology.
45/ It may be clear to a good psychologist that your actions/outcomes can be explained by unacknowledged resentments you are nursing, with no residual "genius" left to explain.
46/ If your intentions are foggy to you and partially or entirely inscrutable to others then you just might be doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and have a future as a revealed targeting genius.
47/ To develop your talent, you have to deal in promises and deliveries. You have to call your shots before you act and build trust that you'll hit known targets more often than others. You are customer-driven.
48/ To develop your targeting genius, you have to deal in surprises and addictions. You have to keep surprising people by acting through the fog of intention. You are product-driven.
49/ By repeatedly showing, through your actions, what is worth hitting, you create new meaning in the world. This is much more valuable than mere predictable utility.
50/ People will put a price on predictable utility, and itch to get into contracts with you. You will have a "market value" and people will have an "expected value" for their dealings with you.
51/ But meaning-making? That's in the economy of pricelessness. People will want relationships and life-long covenants with you, not mere transactions and contracts.
52/ They'll want to join your tribe, if you're inclined to lead one, and be a part of any bigger story you care to author. Not just opt-in to your customer list.
53/ Hitting targets others can't see is priceless. For hitting targets others can't hit, there is always Mastercard :)
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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr
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