Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Upside of Down: Chapter 1

FAILURE IS FUNDAMENTAL: How a Brain Scientist and a Psychologist Helped Me Stop Procrastinating

A.K.A. How to Make Money by Rephrasing "Practice Makes Perfect" in David Brooksian Behaviorist Terms

Everyone is a behaviorist now. Brain science feels like it was designed for the modern bullshit artist - badly understood by the general public, full of sexy imaging technologies that are also ill understood, and built upon research studies that trigger that "Well, that makes perfect sense" understanding that has made Malcolm Gladwell so popular. That's definitely McArdle's angle - repackaging truisms and personal observations in the reassuring mantle of SCIENCE! But McArdle is a less talented hack than Gladwell, and this first chapter is a fine introduction to the meandering mindset of a woman who has never acknowledged that people with her background can only fail upwards.

The opening chapter is pretty conventional, something that might be disappointing to those of you hoping for a leap off the deep end a la the notorious The Social Animal by expert in humility David Brooks. We open with McArdle recounting stories from Peter Skillman and Jim Manzi that are already pretty well known in the business world. Peppered throughout are little science-y Bac-O-Bits about dopamine and sad little attempts at narrative writing ("...the distilled essence of a successful entrepreneur: lean and compact, with an intense dark gaze, and the hypomanic charm you find in so many business founders."). So far, pretty typical for books of this type.

McArdle manages to make it until page 7 before she turns the camera on herself:

Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one chapter, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven't seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.

That's the level of humor we're working with, folks. One saving grace: Unlike Jonah Goldberg (whose quote is prominently featured on the rear cover, I might add), McArdle does not consider herself a humorist so this particular form of torture will be sparing.

McArdle proceeds into a weird personal theory about kids who got As in English being afraid to fail, which makes little sense but serves as a segue into a section on mindset theory, the brainchild of Carol Dweck.

I'd never heard of Dweck, which is odd because aside from being another TED circuit celebrity, her research has also been badly misused by education "reformers," a group of assholes I've been monitoring for a few years. Like most lay writers, McArdle opts to map her own thesis onto the theory, declaring that a "fixed mindset" is actually fear of failure and thus leads to poor outcomes. I won't get into the actual research here, as there are a pair of very long posts (here and here) that go into more depth on mindset theory. Suffice it to say that, while McArdle's interpretation is far less mangled than that of the "reformers," it's still a little off course.

Well, I'll throw in one criticism of McArdle's interpretation: Longer term longitudinal studies of mindset suggest that "growth mindset" people don't actually outperform "fixed mindset" people unless they all start at the same point. That's going to become important in a few paragraphs.

Now we come upon what I imagine will be the first of many segments of this book that make me twitch. You know those "everyone gets a trophy" leagues that your angry relatives on Facebook are always ranting about even though none of them have actually seen one? Well, welcome to the next six pages. This is an opportunity for McArdle to complain about grade inflation, social promotion, elite nursery schools, and a bunch of other right-wing betes noir that really feel like they belong in another book. Yes, she ties them back to their thesis, but it still reads like it was written by one of McArdle's perpetually aggrieved uncles and she slipped it in to pad out the word count.

You know, that whole paragraph was obviously written with well-off families in mind - as was the whole book, really. Rich kids have a privilege to fail not bestowed upon poor kids. Wasn't it John Scalzi who said something to the effect that being poor means having to live with everything you did when you were a teenager? Yes, it was. You know why I'm so sure? Because McArdle quotes him. In the first chapter of a book on the glory of failure, she admits that this doesn't apply to a large swath of Americans who are never more than one or two mistakes away from oblivion.

How does McArdle address this? She doesn't. Two paragraphs later and we're talking about video games. Is she going to come back to this? Was she delusional enough that she thought she had addressed it? Is this that old cynical propagandist's ploy of bring up counterarguments at the beginning and relying on a friendly audience to forget by the end that you never dealt with them? That waits to be seen.

Hey, who wants to hear McArdle make a hash of video game history? You don't? Neither do I, but we're here and it's the end of the chapter, so let's get this over with. Here's McArdle's variation:

The early video games that my friends and I played in the 1980s - first in arcades, and then on home consoles like the Atari - were something like running a race where no one actually crosses the finish line. These games had dozens of levels, which almost no one ever actually completed. You started out with a certain number of lives, you got killed when you made a mistake, and even though many games featured opportunities to win bonus lives, eventually the tasks were just too hard...

...It's no surprise that almost no one ever completed a game - or that people who did complete them were serious nerds capable of monomaniacal dedication to exhaustive pattern repetition.

Ugh, there's that humor again. I'm gobsmacked that McArdle got something like this wrong. The point of an arcade game is to maximize your score, not to "complete" it. Almost all of those games were (theoretically) endless, so there was no way to finish them unless you count the kill screen as the end. And a lot of those games didn't give you more points or scoring opportunities at later levels, so being able to rack up a lot of points in those early levels was a big part of getting an enduring high score. I can state for a fact that this is true in Galaga, my current retro cabinet obsession, as the waves are worth the same maximum score at every wave with the sole exception of the non-boss ships that split into waves of three after a certain wave (and those are hard to predict).

Was that pointless? Yeah, but so is this whole section. McArdle proceeds to write some half-accurate folderol about battery back-up and educational games. Save files probably did change video games, but what could that possibly have to do with fear of failure? She doesn't even try to tie this back into her thesis. McArdle meanders a lot, and I can guess why. This is a pretty trim book, and I suspect that McArdle struggled to keep her page count up while she was writing it. The industry's insistence on arbitrary page and word count limits are a powerful incentive to leave everything in, even material that's not on point. I'll be surprised if this is the only time it happens.

And that's Chapter 1. Only nine more to go.

No comments:

Post a Comment