Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

01 FEBRUARY, 2013

Ambiverts, Problem-Finders, and the Surprising Secrets of Selling Your Ideas

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“It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart.”

Whether it’s “selling” your ideas, your writing, or yourself to a potential mate, the art of the sell is crucial to your fulfillment in life, both personal and professional. So argues Dan Pink in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (public library; UK) — a provocative anatomy of the art-science of “selling” in the broadest possible sense of the word, substantiated by ample research spanning psychology, behavioral economics, and the social sciences.

Pink, wary of the disagreeable twinges accompanying the claim that everyone should self-identify as a salesperson, preemptively counters in the introduction:

I’m convinced we’ve gotten it wrong.

This is a book about sales. But it is unlike any book about sales you have read (or ignored) before. That’s because selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred. Most of what we think we understand about selling is constructed atop a foundation of assumptions that have crumbled.

[…]

Selling, I’ve grown to understand, is more urgent, more important, and, in its own sweet way, more beautiful than we realize. The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are.

One of Pink’s most fascinating arguments echoes artist Chuck Close, who famously noted that “our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation.’” Pink cites the research of celebrated social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who in the 1960s recruited three dozen fourth-year art students for an experiment. They brought the young artists into a studio with two large tables. The first table displayed 27 eclectic objects that the school used in its drawing classes. The students were instructed to select one or more objects, then arrange a still life on the second table and draw it. What happened next reveals an essential pattern about how creativity works:

The young artists approached their task in two distinct ways. Some examined relatively few objects, outlined their idea swiftly, and moved quickly to draw their still life. Others took their time. They handled more objects, turned them this way and that, rearranged them several times, and needed much longer to complete the drawing. As Csikszentmihalyi saw it, the first group was trying to solve a problem: How can I produce a good drawing? The second was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?

As Csikszentmihalyi then assembled a group of art experts to evaluate the resulting works, he found that the problem-finders’ drawings had been ranked much higher in creativity than the problem-solvers’. Ten years later, the researchers tracked down these art students, who at that point were working for a living, and found that about half had left the art world, while the other half had gone on to become professional artists. That latter group was composed almost entirely of problem-finders. Another decade later, the researchers checked in again and discovered that the problem-finders were “significantly more successful — by the standards of the artistic community — than their peers.” Getzels concluded:

It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.

Pink summarizes:

The more compelling view of the nature of problems has enormous implications for the new world of selling. Today, both sales and non-sales selling depend more on the creative, heuristic, problem-finding skills of artists than on the reductive, algorithmic, problem-solving skills of technicians.

Another fascinating chapter reveals counterintuitive insights about the competitive advantages of introversion vs. extraversion. While new theories might extol the power of introverts over traditional exaltations of extraversion, the truth turns out to be quite different: Pink turns to the research of social psychologist Adam Grant, management professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater).

Grant measured where a sample of call center sales representatives fell on the introversion-extraversion spectrum, then correlated that with their actual sales figures. Unsurprisingly, Grant found that extraverts averaged $125 per hour in revenue, exceeding introverts’ $120. His most surprising finding, however, was that “ambiverts” — those who fell in the middle of the spectrum, “not too hot, not too cold” — performed best of all, with an hourly average of $155. The outliers who brought in an astounding $208 per hour scored a solid 4 on the 1-7 introversion-extraversion scale.

Pink synthesizes the findings into an everyday insight for the rest of us:

The best approach is for the people on the ends to emulate those in the center. As some have noted, introverts are ‘geared to inspect,’ while extraverts are ‘geared to respond.’ Selling of any sort — whether traditional sales or non-sales selling — requires a delicate balance of inspecting and responding. Ambiverts can find that balance. They know when to speak and when to shut up. Their wider repertoires allow them to achieve harmony with a broader range of people and a more varied set of circumstances. Ambiverts are the best movers because they’re the most skilled attuners.

Pink goes on to outline “the new ABCs of moving others” — attunement (“the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people an with the context you’re [sic] in”), buoyancy (a trifecta of “interrogative self-talk” that moves from making statements to asking questions, contagious “positivity,” and an optimistic “explanatory style” of explaining negative events to yourself), and clarity (“the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had”).

For a taste of what makes To Sell Is Human worth picking up, here are some familiar faces and favorite voices:

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31 JANUARY, 2013

Why We Write: Mary Karr on the Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word

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“Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”

Why do writers — great writers — write? Literary history has given us some timeless answers from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Joy Williams, and David Foster Wallace — but the question remains ever-open. That’s precisely what editor Meredith Maran sets out to address in the anthology Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library; UK), which features such literary all-stars as Jennifer Egan, James Fray, Susan Orlean, and Michael Lewis.

One of the volume’s sharpest contributions comes from memorist, essayist and poet Mary Karr, author of the humorous and harrowing memoir series The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009). With her signature blend of uncompromising honesty, wry wit, and exquisite self-awareness that somehow manages to keep from bleeding into the naggy self-consciousness chronic of writers, Karr faces the written word with equal parts faith and irreverence.

I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.

I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest. The easy times are intermittent. They can be five minutes long or five hours long, but they’re never very long. The hard times are not completely hard, but they can be pretty hard, and they can go on for weeks.

On remembering, despite the painful labor, to write with joy:

I usually get very sick after I finish a book. As soon as I put it down and my body lies down and there’s not that injection of adrenaline and cortisol, I get sick. I have a medium-shitty immune system so that doesn’t help. All of that said, writing feels like a privilege. Even though it’s very uncomfortable, I constantly feel very lucky.

On defeating the demons to access the gods of clarity:

When I went into a mental institution after I stopped drinking, my writing took a great leap forward — or at least people started paying a lot more for it. I was more clear and more openhearted, more self-aware, more suspicious of my own motives. I was more of a grown-up.

On the broken economics of the literary world, the myth of the rockstar-writer, and the choice of creative purpose over money:

I still don’t support myself as a writer. I support myself as a college professor. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the revenue from my books. The myth is that you make a lot of money when you publish a book. Unless you write a blockbuster, that’s pretty much untrue. Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income. I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. That’s what I still tell them now.

On the routine joy of unhinging oneself from the writing routine:

For me the best time is at the end of the day, when you’ve written and forgotten. You wrote longer than you expected to. You’ve been so absorbed in it that it got late. You unhitch yourself from the plow.

On the present state of book publishing, with a reminder that it’s only as dystopian as we make it:

Currently nobody really knows how to sell books. The whole system is changing, and nobody knows how to make money in this industry in any kind of reliable way. The industry has this blockbuster mentality that permits a shitty TV star to publish his shitty book and sell three million copies in hardcover, and then you never hear about it again. All the energy is focused on those blockbuster books because they have the most immediate, short-term return. People have been saying it’s the end of the novel since Hemingway. I don’t feel that dire about it. I think more people read than used to read. You have more people reading worse books, but they’re still reading books.

Karr ends with some synthesized wisdom for writers:

  • The quote I had tacked to my board while I was writing Lit is from Samuel Beckett, and it’s really helpful: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”
  • Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be.

Why We Write is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph via Poetry Foundation

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31 JANUARY, 2013

Love in the Age of Data: How One Woman Hacked Her Way to Happily Ever After

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Reverse-engineering the algorithms of romance, one picky data point at a time.

The question of how love works has bedeviled writers and scientists for centuries. But how do the dynamics of romance differ in the age of online dating? In Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match (public library; UK), digital strategist and journalist Amy Webb — one of the smartest people I know — takes us on her unexpected journey to true love, in which she sets out to “game the system, using math, data, and loopholes” to find the man of her dreams. If it sounds predictable and contrived, rest assured it’s anything but.

Amy writes in the introduction:

I realized that we’ve all been going about finding our matches the wrong way. Whether we’re dating in the real world or online, we’re relying too much now on hope and happenstance. And these days, algorithms, too. We don’t allow ourselves to think about what we really want in a partner, an then we don’t sell ourselves in order to get it.

After a series of bad dates following a major heartbreak, mathematically-driven Amy decided to take a quantitative approach to the playing field and started systematically recording various data points about her dates, revealing some important correlations. After one particularly bad date, she decided to formalize the exercise and wrote down everything that was important to her in a mate — from intellectual overlap to acceptable amount of body hair — eventually coming up with 72 attributes that she was going to demand in any future date. She then broke down these attributes into two tiers and developed a scoring system, assigning specific points to each. For 700 out of a maximum possible 1800, she’d agree to have an email exchange; for 900, she’d go on a date; for 1,500, she’d consider a long-term relationship.

But this, she soon realized, was only half the equation — it only illuminated what she was looking for in a mate. So Amy took the obvious data-driven next step: She set up 10 fake dating profiles, posing as 10 men with high scores on her rating system, and set about using the site as each of these different archetypes. She interacted with a total of 96 women, systematically noting their behaviors and responses, from the way they constructed their profiles to the language they used in interactions to how long they took in responding to messages, reverse-engineering what makes a successful, popular female profile that attracts the very kind of man Amy was looking for.

This allowed her to create a “super profile,” her very own custom “algorithm” of love. Once she looked at her data and set up a real profile for herself, it was a matter of time until she met Brian, fell in love, got married, and started a family — your ordinary happily-ever-after fairy tale ending, with an extraordinary side of quantitative and qualitative magic.

Amy writes:

Think about the way you’ve set up your Facebook profile. And if you don’t use Facebook, instead think about how you’ve described yourself to new people you’ve met recently. You list your favorite foods, bands, books. You talk about cities you want to visit. These aren’t meaningful data points; they’re stylized nuggets of information meant to personify ourselves in a formulaic way to others. A Facebook profile is in many ways an outfit we wear and the accessories and cologne we put with it: we’re hoping to project a particular image in order to socialize with (or avoid, in some cases) a particular group of people.

Dating sites and the algorithms they advertise purport to sort through our personalities, wants, and desires in order to connect us with our best possible matches. Which means that we’ve outsourced not just an introduction , but the consideration of whether or not that man or woman is really our ideal. We’re putting our blind trust in a system that’s meant to do the heavy lifting or figuring out what it is that we really want out of a mate, and what will truly make us happy. This job is being processed using information that we, ourselves, have entered into a computer system. Bad data in equals bad data out. Algorithms that dating sites have spent millions of dollars to refine aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just not as good as we want them to be, because they’re computing our half-truths and aspirational wishes.

One of the possible reasons for this imperfection, Amy points out, is a misalignment of motives. Dating sites make their money either through advertising or through subscriptions, and in either case they benefit from your coming back to the site again and again, spending as much time as possible looking for — but not finding — a mate. (If this sounds cynical, it isn’t any more so than the fundamental reality of the internet itself — it’s the same misalignment of publishers’ financial motives and the audience’s best interest that’s responsible for the web’s infestation of slideshows, pagination, and other vacant content aimed at maximizing pageviews while minimizing your reading experience and enjoyment of the content.)

Though some of the findings are dishearteningly prehistoric, reinforcing gender stereotypes and sexual archetypes — men prefer blondes and are turned off by powerful women, curly women are better off straightening their hair, and using light language bordering on the inane helps women attract more dates — the overall experiment offers some fascinating, and often counterintuitive, modern-day anthropological insights.

In the appendix, Amy shares some of the findings she arrived at in analyzing what makes a successful profile:

  • Use aspirational language; keep it positive and optimistic.
  • Sounding “writerly” doesn’t work in your favor.
  • Don’t recycle your resume on your dating profile.
  • Lead with your hobbies and activities.
  • Stay away from foreign words.
  • Keep your profile pithy, between 90 and 100 words — or about three sentences.
  • Use humor, but beware that sarcasm doesn’t translate well online and tends to come off as anger or aloofness.
  • Don’t talk about your job, especially if what you do is difficult to explain.

Sample Data, A Love Story with Amy’s entertaining, enlightening, infinitely heartening TEDx talk:

Ultimately, the point of Data, A Love Story isn’t to colonize romance by validating the rites of a Universal System where, in order to attain some regressive ideal of love, women dumb themselves down; rather, it is to demonstrate that it’s possible, with the right amount of intelligence, both technical, in reverse-engineering the system’s inner workings, and emotional, in being unafraid to want what one wants, to hack the system — any system — to serve one’s own ideal of love.

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