It’s an Art and a Science: Or We’re Not in the Fourth Grade Anymore

Art-Sci“Well, it’s as much an art as a science.” You’ve said it. I’ve said it. We’ve all said it at one time or another, usually to deflect some misguided wish for certainty, simplicity, or immediacy. Beyond the verbal hand-waving, however, there is a deeper truth. The professions we choose are, ultimately, all human endeavors and as such come with the all the mystery and ambiguity of human instincts, emotions, visions and even intellect. The whole truth is the “Art and Science” phrase is said as much to comfort ourselves in what we don’t know or completely understand as it is to suggest an elevated status conferred by access to some secret wisdom.

Hand-waving does little to relieve anxiety either in the receiver or the waver. As such, if we’re going to use the phrase, we should probably do a little work to better understand its implications as that is the path beyond the unsatisfactory deflection. Fortunately, there are two very useful books to help jump start our thinking.

The first is Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning economist. It’s an examination of how we make decisions. I turn to this book first to help break through the notion that we are ever entirely logical in our decision making. Mr. Kahneman asserts that when we are considering information, we actually have two processes that kick into gear as we digest the input. The first, so poetically called System One, rapidly assesses the situation, with a freewheeling free association and intuition that does not rely on the light of cold logic. This system is the seat of our most deeply held beliefs whether in an omnipotent, inscrutable God, or the scientific method or both. It doesn’t have the time for or interest in deliberate articulation or ordered assessment. It’s that annoying kid in the fourth grade who always had their hand up first, bouncing in their seat to get the teacher’s attention and then invariably giving, at best, a half correct answer. This is not how we think of our most adult, rational selves. However, because of its rapidity, it gets the first crack at any decision we make. That proto-decision, according to our current understanding, is then handed off to System Two which is much more recognizable as the mature, disciplined, effective decision maker we hold up as the ultimate model of adult leadership and sobriety.

Good enough. Any craziness that pops out of System One is groomed and trimmed and appropriately redirected and a sane, sustainable reality emerges. Well, not so much. Turns out that pillar of society, System Two, is oriented less towards rational assessment and improvement of System One results and more towards simple justification. System Two is that goob in the fourth grade who thought the other kid was the smartest thing in the world and always ended up at the school nurse after trying to recreate Kid 1’s vision of reality. That may overstate the case a bit, but the phrase “confirmation bias” is becoming common place enough that we all should know we see first what we want to see even in the most rational of communities. Look it up if you haven’t heard it.

So cast out of our rational Eden, left to wonder in the wild frontiers of human emotion, belief, and barely controlled self-interest, what’s a person to do? That’s where the second book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way to Mastery by Janna Malamud Smith comes in. If it is true that what we do is both an art and a science, then it’s probably worth examining the work an artist does to master their medium. This is even more important for those of us that come out of a more technical and scientific training where the artistic side of human endeavor does not receive a lot of attention.

Given its subject, Ms. Smith’s book is less susceptible to a rationalist summary, but in fine System One mode, I’ll charge ahead anyway. Mastery requires time, focus, and repetition, none of which are System One strengths (well maybe uninformed repetition is). As such the process of mastery opens the artist of oil paints or bits and bytes up to a number of forces that can subvert its pursuit. These include self-doubt, lack of recognition, and shame. We’ve all experienced the self-questioning when starting out after some stretch goal. “Am I up to this?” “Why do I think I can succeed at this?” As we progress down the path, further questions arise if our efforts are received with a shrug of the shoulder, the spoken or unspoken “meh…” from those whose opinions matter to us. And we will all, on the path to mastery, experience failure and shortcomings, a falling short of our own or other’s expectations, with the consequent shame and defensiveness that can come flooding in. These are all highly personal costs to pay for mastery and can shape both our desire to pursue it and how we end up expressing it. Is that weird brusque super-programmer just a jerk, or someone so bruised and marked by his or her pursuit of technical mastery that they can’t bear the exposure inherent in normal human exchanges? Probably a bit of both.

Ms. Smith doesn’t just leave us with the shards and shrapnel of a master’s journey. In the second half of the book she lays out some approaches for ameliorating and bridging over the challenges inherent in developing mastery. These include creative solitude, identity, and ruthlessness. They can easily be interpreted as the “great artists are horrible jerks” school of thought, but Ms. Smith reaches for a deeper sense of the role these attributes play in creating an environment in which mastery can emerge. She also delves into how any artist (again, I think of oils or bits and bytes) will have to employ them and manage their fall out.
If we want to dress ourselves, even a little bit, in the clothes of an artist, and do not want to frustrate ourselves and others, we must then commit to the kind of journey of mastery that any artist or craftsman must commit to. Technorati and scientists we may be, but we are certainly also human. We rise to elevated status in our fields, not by leaving behind that humanity, with all the ambiguity and uncertainty it implies, but rather by recognizing it, leveraging it, and, finally, embracing it.

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