Excellence honed by self-criticism: the insights of Daniel Kahneman

| May 17, 2012 | Reply

“Think of, and look at, your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it you are lost.” – Samuel Butler

“The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.”  – Fyodor Dostoevsky

At Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis celebrates the distinguished career of Daniel Kahneman, whose most recent book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, comes to mind at least several times every day, ever since I started reading it (I’ve posted several times on the book already, and it is so filled with challenging and often counter-intuitive observations that I will likely mention it dozens more times.

Here’s one snippet from Lewis’ article. The topic is the unrelenting intensity of Kahneman’s self-criticism, a technique Kahneman employs to a borderline-sadistic extent, though it has admittedly served him well:

He was working on a book, he said. It would be both intellectual memoir and an attempt to teach people how to think. As he was the world’s leading authority on his subject, and a lot of people would pay hard cash to learn how to think, this sounded promising enough to me. He disagreed: he was certain his book would end in miserable failure. He wasn’t even sure that he should be writing a book, and it was probably just a vanity project for a washed-up old man, an unfinished task he would use to convince himself that he still had something to do, right up until the moment he died. Twenty minutes into meeting the world’s most distinguished living psychologist I found myself in the strange position of trying to buck up his spirits. But there was no point: his spirits did not want bucking up. Having spent maybe 15 minutes discussing just how bad his book was going to be, we moved on to a more depressing subject. He was working, equally unhappily, on a paper about human intuition—when people should trust their gut and when they should not—with a fellow scholar of human decision-making named Gary Klein. Klein, as it happened, was the leader of a school of thought that stressed the power of human intuition, and disagreed with the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Kahneman said that he did this as often as he could: seek out people who had attacked or criticized him and persuade them to collaborate with him. He not only tortured himself, in other words, but invited his enemies to help him to do it. “Most people after they win the Nobel Prize just want to go play golf,” said Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology at Princeton and a disciple of Amos Tversky’s. “Danny’s busy trying to disprove his own theories that led to the prize. It’s beautiful, really.” . . .

Now, if you think the above is extreme, read on.  If only I would be so determined to see my own thought-process like an outsider sees it, to this extent:

Then, after I left him, he sat down and reviewed his own work. The mere fact that he had abandoned it probably raised the likelihood that he would now embrace it: after all, finding merit in the thing would now prove him wrong, and he seemed to take pleasure in doing that. Sure enough, when he looked at his manuscript his feelings about it changed again. That’s when he did the thing that I find not just peculiar and unusual but possibly unique in the history of human literary suffering. He called a young psychologist he knew well and asked him to find four experts in the field of judgment and decision-making, and offer them $2,000 each to read his book and tell him if he should quit writing it. “I wanted to know, basically, whether it would destroy my reputation,” he says. He wanted his reviewers to remain anonymous, so they might trash his book without fear of retribution. The endlessly self-questioning author was now paying people to write nasty reviews of his work. The reviews came in, but they were glowing. “By this time it got so ridiculous to quit again,” he says, “I just finished it.”

I urge you to visit Lewis’ fine article. More importantly, if you haven’t done so yet, I urge you to invest the time to read Thinking, Fast and Slow.. Michael Lewis is spot on when he describes Kahneman’s work and persona (I haven’t met Kahneman, but his gentle manner and his stunning ability to get to the point and then to offer real-world applications, shine through, chapter after chapter. I’ve rarely read a book so bursting with useful ideas for understanding one’s self and others, for learning to really understand those things we think we are certain about. And Kahneman’s book is far more than this too–it is a book with ideas for helping you to avoid many types of cognitive traps that would cost you dearly. It is a book for all of those who are students of the human mind, even on their off-hours.

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Category: Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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