What Mendel tells us about thinking

Find quietude. Observe whatever is around you. If it seems banal, discover it to be fascinating and mysterious. Ignore distractions, otherwise known as ‘everybody else’. Ask simple questions that puzzle you. Be patient in pondering them.

That is how I imagine Gregor Mendel might answer us today if we asked him: How  — I mean how! — did you achieve your stunning intellectual breakthroughs, on which we today base our understanding of biology?

Put differently: Let’s pretend that Gregor Mendel were alive today instead of in the 19th century, and that he were not an Augustinian monk in the former Austrian Empire but a wired and connected, über-productive modern man with an iPhone, a Twitter account, cable television, a job with bosses who email him on the weekend, etc etc.

Would this modern Mendel be able to achieve his own breakthrough in those circumstances?

So far in my rather long-running thread about the greatest thinkers in history, I’ve featured mostly philosophers and historians, with the odd scientist and even one yogi. But it occurred to me that Mendel belongs into that pantheon — not only for his thought but also for his thinking. I think he offers us a timely life-style lesson, an insight that fits the Zeitgeist of our hectic age.

So: First, a brief recap of his breakthrough. Then my interpretation how his life style and thought process made that breakthrough possible (and why ours might make such breakthroughs harder).

1) Mendelian genetics

Mendel was an Augustinian monk in what used to the Austrian Empire (and what is now the Czech Republic). He had an open and inquisitive mind and, as a monk, wasn’t all that busy, so he had plenty of spare time. He liked to breed bees. Then he began breeding peas. That’s right. Peas.

Peas intrigued him. (Would they intrigue you? What else does not intrigue you?) He found peas interesting because they had flowers that were either white or purple and never anything else. (Would you find that interesting?)

Mendel contemplated what peas could therefore teach him about how parents pass on traits to their offspring, ie what we would call genetics.

At the time, conventional wisdom held that the traits of parents are somehow mixed in their children. If parents were paint buckets, say, then a yellow dad and a blue mom would make a green baby bucket, and so on. (It’s interesting that nobody spotted how implausible this was: After several generations every bucket, ie every living thing, would have to end up mud-brown. Every creature would look the same. Instead, nature is constantly getting more colorfol, more diverse, with more and stranger new species.)

So Mendel, in the late 1850s and early 1860s, started playing with his peas. Pea plants fertilize themselves, so Mendel cut off the stamens of some so that they could no longer do that. Then he used a little brush and fertilized the castrated pea plant with pollen from some other pea plant. He thereby had total control over who was dad and who was mom.

He was now able to cross-breed the peas with purple flowers and the peas with white flowers. So he did. Then he waited.

Surprise #1:

Already in the next generation, Mendel could rule out the prevailing “paint-bucket-mixing” theory. No baby pea plants had lighter purple (or striped or dotted) flowers. Instead they all had purple flowers.

So he took those new purple-flowered pea plants and cross-bred them again. And again, he waited.

Surprise #2:

In the next generation, most pea plants again had purple flowers. But some now had white flowers. Wow! How did that happen?

Moreover, the ratio in this generation between purple and white flowers was exactly 3:1. Hmm.

Mendel kept doing these experiments, and kept thinking, and then inferred the simple but shocking conclusion:

  1. Each parent had to be contributing its version of a given trait (white vs purple, say) to the offspring.
  2. Each baby thus had to have both versions of every trait, but showed in its own appearance only one version, which had to be dominant.
  3. The other (“recessive“) version, however, did not go away, and when these pea plants had sex again, they shuffled the two versions and randomly passed one on to their offspring (with the other coming from the other parent), so that their baby again had two versions.

This looks as follows:

In the second generation, every pea plant has a purple (red, in this picture) and a white version, one from each parent, but since the purple is dominant, every flower looks purple.

In the next generation,

  • one fourth will have a purple from dad and a purple from mom (and look purple),
  • one fourth will have a purple from dad and a white from mom (and still look purple),
  • one fourth will have a white from dad and a purple from mom (and still look purple), and
  • one fourth will have a white from dad and a white from mom (and look white).

The rest, you might say, is history. With all our amazing breakthroughs in biology in the 20th century, we merely elaborated on his insights, in the process explaining the mechanism of evolution (Darwin, coming up with that idea at the same exact time, had no knowledge of Mendel’s breakthrough.)

In today’s language, Mendel

  • showed the difference between genotype and phenotype. (Your genotype might be white/purple, for example, but your phenotype would be purple.)
  • understood the basic idea of meiosis (the division of a cell into two haploid gametes — a sperm cell or egg with half of the mother cell’s chromosomes, randomly chosen),
  • described how two gametes then merge sexually to form a diploid zygote (ie, a cell with all chromosome paired up again, one member of each pair coming from each parent),
  • explained how some versions of the gene pairs, called alleles (such as purple or white), are expressed and some not, even as those not expressed can re-emerge in the phenotype in the next generation.

DNA, RNA, ribosomes and all that were merely detail.

2) How was it possible?

Let’s make ourselves aware, first, of what it must have been like for Mendel during these years (this is purely conjecture):

  • He got up.
  • He prayed.
  • Had breakfast.
  • Went into the garden.
  • Looked at the pea flowers for a long time.
  • Watered them.
  • Took a break.
  • Watched the peas some more.
  • Thought about them.
  • Dozed off for a nap.
  • Woke up and had an idea, still inchoate in his mind.
  • Went to bed.
  • Thought about it some more….

You get the idea. Not exactly stressful. Few interruptions. Lots of waiting (how long is one generation of peas anyway?).

He was, we would say, switched off. He was not multi-tasking, he did not have adrenaline coursing through his veins as he answered a text message while watching a video stream while writing a Powerpoint …

Compare his time with his pea plants to Einstein‘s time at the Bern patent office, where he was utterly underemployed and could easily have been bored, but instead did thought experiments and had his “miracle year”.

Or compare it to Isaac Newton‘s time after had to leave the action of Cambridge (because plague broke out) and returned to the isolation of his family farm with nothing to do except watch apples drop from trees….

Or compare it to the time when Gautama Siddhartha (aka the Buddha) withdrew from all action and sat, just sat, under a tree, with the birds pooping on his head until there was a pile of guano on his hair, with his flesh melting from his bones because he was too deep in concentration to eat…..

Lesson #1:

Good stuff can happen during downtime (even if you didn’t volunteer for it).

Corollary: Can good stuff happen during uptime? You may have to take time out to be creative.

Lesson #2:

Be amazed.

Corollary: Don’t assume the things and people in your daily life are boring.

Lesson #3:

Turn the devices off.

Corollary: Distraction not only kills people, it also kills thought.

Lesson #4:

Be patient.

Corollary: You can’t breed peas in internet time. Nor novels, scripts, songs, paintings…

Lesson #5:

Look for the simple.

Corollary: The more bewildering the complexity observed, the simpler the solution.

(See also: Gordian knot.)

Lesson #6:

It doesn’t have to be complete to be original.

Corollary: It took us a century to explain the process Mendel grasped; an idea is good even if it “merely” starts something.

(See also: Incompleteness theorem. Mr Crotchety’s favorite — need I say more?)

Lesson #7:

Don’t expect the world to get it right away.

Corollary: If it took us a century to understand Mendel’s breakthrough, we might take a while even for yours. 😉

Managing creativity: Let no side win

Ed Catmull

One of my favorite sessions at our “innovation summit” this week in Berkeley was a talk between Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, and my friend and colleague Martin Giles, who took my former beat (“Silicon Valley”) a year ago.

Ed had a soulful, unpretentious, I-got-nothing-to-prove credibility, and Martin did a great job drawing him out but otherwise not interrupting or interfering (that, in essence, is a moderator’s job).

As in any real, good conversation, the chat meandered and is hard to summarize. But the heart of it was about how to “manage” creative types so that they stay creative. Managing creativity, of course, is sort of an oxymoron. But that’s what Pixar, with its unbroken record of box-office successes, seems to be doing.

So, how?

It comes down to many, many extremely subtle gestures and techniques. For example:

Commerce vs art

There is a tension between “commercial” success and “artistic” purity, and Catmull believes that the leader’s job is to ensure that “no side wins”. The tension, in other words, is part of the secret sauce.

Geniuses or teams?

Pixar tries to “protect each film-maker’s vision”, by putting the brain daddy of each project in charge of a team. But Catmull realizes that the notion of one single, over-arching genius idea is “a myth”, and that Pixar’s films are really thousands of ideas, and thousands of problems solved. For that, you need a team.

So everything depends on how well that team functions. Catmull sees one of his main roles as observing teams, and intervening when they are dysfunctional. If the leader loses the confidence of his team, Catmull replaces the leader. He would get rid of a genius, if that genius could not work in a team, he said.

Criticism and power

But even when a team does work, and the leader stays in charge, that director must get honest and hard feedback from his peers. How does one do that? (Finding tough but constructive criticism is also one of the hardest challenges for a writer.)

You put the director in meetings of his peers, but you ensure that nobody has more power than he does. In other words, people may suggest or critique, but cannot order him to make any changes. It is up to the director to absorb the comments and to incorporate or address them in the film. (Again, this is also, in my opinion, the way a writer should relate to his “editor”.)

If the group does this well, Catmull will invite others to make the meetings bigger, so that the newcomers can observe the good dynamic and spread it to other teams and Pixar’s wider culture.

However, he then pays extra attention to see if the original group of critics starts performing, which would kill the magic.

If the group critiques badly — which usually means that they are being too polite — Catmull will take individuals aside and confront them: Why did you not say what you really meant? He calls bullshit on them. So people know that their credibility is on the line.

From fear to context

There was no silver bullet, no single secret or list of “ten steps”. There never is in real life. Instead, the conversation offered a fascinating glimpse into our new, modern work culture.

In the past, workers clocked in and had managers look over them with the tools of power. Bosses ruled with fear, implicit or explicit.

In a creative economy — and Pixar, like The Economist, represents it in the extreme — that would never work. You cannot frighten or threaten people into creativity.

Instead, all you can do is choose people well — for their talent and their teamwork — and then set and maintain a certain context that allows their creativity to come out.

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Original + unique = some failure

Neil Simon

Neil Simon

Interesting two-punch quotes about success and failure, the topic of my forthcoming book, in today’s New York Times.

The “quotation of the week” is by Neil Simon, one of the most successful playwrights, whose play Brighton Beach Memoirs nonetheless turned out to be one of the biggest flops in Broadway history and closed after one week:

I’m dumbfounded. After all these years, I still don’t get how Broadway works, or what to make of our culture.


Jeffrey Katzenberg

Elsewhere in the paper, they interview Jeffrey Katzenberg, a very successful film producer, formerly at Walt Disney (Shrek, etc) and now at his own DreamWorks Animation:

In order to succeed at the high end of the movie business, you must be original and unique. Now if you were putting an equation up on the white board and you wrote “original + unique = what?” Then the answer would have to be “risky.” And if you said, “risky = what?” The answer would be “some failure.” It has to, by definition, just sort of in the most fundamental way.

Obviously, this applies not just to film-making or Broadway but also to (ahem) writing–a blog, an article in The Economist, a book. And to war (Hannibal and Scipio). And to love. And to science. And to …. life.

Kipling’s impostors are hiding in plain view, as it were.

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The fun theory of life

As a dad, I have learned that the only (or at least best) way to get my children to do anything at all–to brush their teeth, eat their greens, jump into bed–is to turn the loathsome activity in question into … fun.

Perhaps the greens must become attacking naughties with shrill voices that want to fly into the mouth but keep missing and splattering. Suddenly, the little mouths are wide open, practically lunging for those mischievous little greens.

And as a former and frequently relapsing kid myself, I have learned that the only (or at least the best) way to get myself into a creative and productive mode is also to turn the loathsome activity in question (setting up interviews, doing research….) into … fun.

So I am delighted to see, and fully endorse, this research project that tries to elevate fun to a design principle. It appears to be a Volkswagen-funded undertaking in Sweden

dedicated to the idea that something as simple as happiness is the absolute easiest way to get people to change.

Video 1: How to get people to use the stairs

Video 2: How to get people to throw their trash into the bin

Thought experiment: Extensions

So now I am thinking: What else could be made fun with proper, more humane design?

  • doing taxes?
  • doing jury duty?
  • going to the doctor?
  • being at the airport?
  • Recycling?
  • Conserving (water, energy …)?

I refuse to exclude anything. It’s all a matter of how much one is willing to imagine. My kids are teaching me to raise the bar.

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Become creative: Leave the country!

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky

William Maddux

William Maddux

I’ve posted quite a bit about creativity, which fascinates me, but it had never occurred to me, until now, that living abroad could enhance it!

So it does, according to two psychologists: William Maddux and Adam Galinsky.

A colleague of mine wrote about their research in The Economist, and others have reported on it before.

Living abroad (as opposed to just traveling, say) makes people more open to new experiences, among other things, Maddux and Galinsky found. That in turn makes people more creative.

I’m thrilled to hear this, of course, because I have been a permanent expat almost all my life.

Other expats:

Indeed, let me add one more:

Hannibal: born in Tunisia; grew up in Spain; succeeded in France, Switzerland and Italy; failed in Tunisia; worked in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Armenia; killed himself in Turkey. Other expats may skip the last step.

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The closing-Tube-door method of writing


About ten years ago, when I was still living in London and already writing for The Economist, I got in the habit of visualizing a specific scene whenever I was preparing to write something (ie, most of the time). And I still do it today.

In this mental scene, I am saying goodbye to somebody I know and like, somebody who would not bullshit me–my wife, for instance. She has boarded her train in the London Tube (“subway”, to you New Yorkers), and just as that famous Tube voice says Mind the Gap and I pull back on the platform, she says: ‘Oh, and what’s your next piece about?’

As the doors close, I shout one single mouthful of words into the train. A few words. That’s all there is time for. Then I watch the train pull away, and I imagine her facial expression as she looks through the pane.

  • Intrigued? Good.
  • Thoughtful? Good.
  • Outraged? Good, if that’s the kind of story it is.
  • Smirking? Good, if that’s the kind of story it is.

But what if the reaction on her face is:

  • Ho-hum. Not good.
  • Bored. No go.
  • Squinting. Ouch, I must have shouted out a cliché.
  • Disgusted.

Often, I iterate story ideas in real conversations, of course. But there isn’t enough time to do that with the thousands of half-formed story ideas that teem inside my head at any given moment. And conversation has a drawback: You have time. Time to explain… and explain… and explain. The writer needs the opposite: to be constrained into one short phrase only.

So the big surprise is that this mental exercise alone usually does the trick. That ‘trick’ being:

To find something in the everything around me that is worth telling, because somebody will react to it.

Our nomenclature

At The Economist, we have a ‘flytitle’, ‘title’, and ‘rubric’ above every piece, and sometimes a ‘dateline’. In this article, for instance, these are:

The Filipina sisterhood [flytitle]

An anthropology of happiness [title]

Dec 20th 2001 | HONG KONG [dateline]

Out of misery, some extraordinary lessons [rubric]

ONCE a week, on Sundays, Hong Kong becomes a different city. Thousands of Filipina women throng into… [text]

I chose this example because it’s one that worked. Spoken through closing Tube doors, this trio of flytitle, title and rubric would have done the trick. I would know that I’m ready to start writing the pice.

The rubric, Out of misery, some extraordinary lessons, actually came from the editor of that piece, Ann Wroe (usually our Obituary writer, and one of our best). She had taken whatever phrase I had put there, probably a grammatically complete sentence, and chopped it into this open-ended, verbless and … inescapable line. (Notice the alluringly modest some)

So that’s what I do, day in and day out, I think of rubrics and titles. The world is full of things and events and people and sensual inputs. Those are not yet stories. To become stories, they have to fall into place in a way that is interesting. And an essence has to emerge out of them. That becomes the rubric.

The rubric is not a summary (that’s where I used to get it wrong for a long time). It can, but need not be, a thesis, bluntly put. It can be a question, inviting the reader to go on a journey of discovery. Or anything else. The best ones are Haikus, full of attitude. I thought this one, for instance, worked okay, although it bordered on gimmicky:


What a lot of wheatgrass

Jun 30th 2005 | SAN FRANCISCO

Psst, there is news about Google, but don’t tell

IT IS hard to know whether to be impressed, suspicious or amused…..

Really, all it does is to inform you that I’m about to ‘take the piss’, as the Brits would say, on the general subject of Google. If you expect serious analysis after this, it’s your own fault.

Anyway. I happen to believe that this rubric-shouting through closing Tube doors works for all writing at all length. Short blog posts, long essays, even entire books. If you don’t know what that center of gravity is toward which you want your readers to be pulled, you’re not ready yet.

Which makes me wonder, of course, whether I have found the title and rubric of my forthcoming book (which I happen to care about more than about any article I’ve ever written.) You may recall that I recently sent the manuscript to my editor at Riverhead, and that for all sorts of reasons, having to do with the American marketplace, I do not yet know the title and subtitle. It will be determined by the editor, “in consultation” with me. And so I wait.

Lots of Tube doors opening and closing in my mind. Mind the Gap.

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Humor, education and creativity

You probably remember the old chestnut of Philosophy 101, Metaphysics: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, did it make a sound?

Well, enjoy Ken Robinson’s twist on it, 14:40 minutes into the talk at the end of this post:

If a man speaks his mind in a forest, and no woman hears it, is he still wrong?

The talk is another great example of the British humor that I love and am often surrounded by at The Economist. But humor is best with substance, as a vehicle that delivers a serious point more memorably.

Does Robinson have such a point? Yes. It is:

Schools kill creativity.

As he says,

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’re never going to be original.

But we–first in our schools, then in our companies–stigmatize “mistakes”. We do, don’t we? Even on this blog, I am sometimes so worried about saying something stupid that I end up saying nothing at all. As Robinson says, we “educate people out of creativity.”

Well, let’s stop doing that, certainly here on The Hannibal Blog. Watch the whole thing:

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Can a storyteller make stuff up?

Truman Capote making stuff up

Truman Capote making stuff up

The book manuscript that I’ve just sent off to my editor at Riverhead happens to fall into the genre of “creative non-fiction.” It is a story built on actual lives–ancient ones and modern ones–that illustrate various themes around the great mystery of success and failure in life, including yours and mine.

The job of creative non-fiction, as Ira Glass would agree, is to make true stories riveting and small stories grand. It is, in short, simply good story-telling.

Still, you would have to lack all sense of irony not to smirk at that phrase. Creative non-fiction. Say what?

Creative means making stuff up. Non-fiction means not making stuff up. The very notion would seem to be an oxymoron. Or perhaps not?

Herodotus and Thucydides walk into a bar….

This particular question happens to be the oldest controversy in non-fiction writing. Recall that Herodotus believed in embellishing history to make it more palatable and (ironically) realistic, whereas Thucydides took him to task for telling lies and promised to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But even Thucydides then found that he had to “make stuff up” to get at the actual truth, because if he had used only, for instance, dialogue that he himself had actually overheard (while taking notes), he would have painted the wrong picture of the Peloponnesian War altogether.

By the time, we get to the era in which my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived, Polybius is the one who tries to stick to just the facts (but again doesn’t quite manage), whereas Livy is the one who says ‘Oh Heck’ and just tells a good yarn. By the time we get to Plutarch, we essentially throw out the rule book and just enjoy–even as we, paradoxically, come away with the impression that we have finally gotten closer to the truth of the characters involved. And so the controversy bubbles on, down the ages.

… and Truman Capote serves them a drink

Jean Ku, a friend of ours, just passed on a fascinating essay on the topic by her writing teacher, David Schweidel, the author of two books. Schweidel begins his history of creative non-fiction more recently. One strand, which Schweidel calls reportage, started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued with Tom Wolfe and The New Journalism. The other is memoir.

So what makes reportage creative non-fiction? Schweidel thinks that

Creative nonfiction, I’d say, attempts to convey the feeling as well as the facts. Clearly, Truman Capote does a lot of work to convey feeling.

It does this by using the techniques of fiction, which are

  • dramatized action
  • dialogue
  • the point of view of a participant
  • the presentation of specific details, … such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, ….

And what makes memoirs creative non-fiction? Well, the fact that they

are works of memory. Memory is selective, self-serving, often mistaken. People lie to make themselves look better. Sometimes people lie to make themselves look worse… Or simply misremember. Most readers understand that story-tellers, especially when they’re telling stories about themselves, take such liberties. In the words of Grace Paley: “Any story told twice is fiction.”

And so, concludes Schweidel,

In theory, creative nonfiction has to be an oxymoron. Creative means made up, and nonfiction means not made up. Hence, oxymoron. In practice, though, creative nonfiction is a redundancy. Why? Because virtually every work of nonfiction is creative.

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Creativity vs effort

Thousand-fold failure

Edison, a thousand-fold failure

I recently mentioned the role that impudence played in liberating Einstein’s prodigious imagination and creativity. Well, it helps to have tenure when you’re impudent.

I bring this up because I am re-reading a paper by Gustavo Manso at MIT’s Sloan School about Motivating Innovation. It’s a little bit too geeky to make it into my book, but aspects of it rhyme with my thesis that success and failure–in this case failure–are Impostors.

Gustavo Manso

Gustavo Manso

Let’s define, for the moment, innovation as success. Innovation, says, Manso

is the result of the exploration of untested approaches that are likely to fail, and failure is usually associated with low wages and termination.

So, to enourage innovation and thus success,

the optimal compensation scheme that motivates exploration exhibits substantial tolerance (or even reward) for early failure and and reward for long-term success.

Examples: Academic tenure, debtor-friendly bankruptcy laws, golden parachutes in business. If the professor, entrepreneur or boss fails, he still gets paid.

This is a controversial topic, given the current anti-CEO tenor (which I share, as would my great uncle). But it helps to understand Manso’s distinction between things that “merely” require effort and things that require creativity.

A for effort

Whenever the main ingredient is effort, pay-for-performance might be the best form of compensation. More effort = more money. Manso points to a study in the Phillipines which found that agricultural workers paid at piece-rates burn up more calories than others paid fixed salaries. Studies of workers installing windshields on cars and Canadian tree planters had similar results.

A+ for “failure”

As soon as the main ingredient becomes creativity, Manso says, pay-for-performance seems to hurt, rather than help. In Academia, for instance, tenure is important:

Knowing they will not lose their jobs, these researchers are willing to take risks on research directions that are likely to fail, but may lead to breakthroughs.

Who might personify this sort of failure-driven success? Manso starts with a quote from Thomas Edison:

Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousands of things that won’t work.

Amy Tan on praise and criticism

Just a little bit more from Amy Tan, from this interview with her. The topic is close to home for me as a writer, as for anybody who tries to be creative and thereby takes the risk of humiliation. (Isn’t that what creation is?)

As a writer or creative type, you need good and honest feedback to see whether you are/are not connecting with other minds. But it gets complicated:

“The question for me is, “How am I affected by praise?” I am more fearful of praise these days because I don’t want to depend upon it. In the world of book publishing, there is never a comfortable balance point where you either have enough praise or enough criticism. If you get this kind of review then you worry about what’s going to happen with the next. So there’s never any comfort point.
On the other hand, I welcome criticism when I’m writing my books. I want to become better and better as a writer. I go to a writer’s group every week. We read our work aloud. They’re old friends, and they treat me as an equal in the group, meaning they tear my stuff apart like anybody else’s.