Studying One’s Own Work for Imperfections

Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master, obsessively studied his past matches, looking for the slightest imperfection, but when it came time to play a chess game, he said he played by instinct, “by smell, by feel.” After Herb Stein finishes shooting a soap opera episode, he immediately goes home and reviews the rough cut. “I watch the whole thing,” Stein says, “and I just take notes. I’m looking really hard for my mistakes. I pretty much always want to find thirty mistakes, thirty things that I could have done better. If I can’t find thirty, then I’m not looking hard enough.” These mistakes are usually little things, so minor that nobody else would notice. But Stein knows that the only way to get it right the next time is to study what he got wrong this time. Tom Brady spends hours watching game tape every week, critically looking at each of his passing decisions, but when he’s standing in the pocket he knows that he can’t hesitate before making a throw. It’s not an accident that all of these experts have converged on such a similar method. They have figured out how to take advantage of their mental machinery, to steal as much wisdom as possible from their inevitable errors.

From Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.

6 Responses to Studying One’s Own Work for Imperfections

  1. Daniel Lock says:

    Ben,

    I’m not so sure we should, as this post implies, all become perfectionists looking back over our work for the tiniest of issues. Chess is often used as a metaphor for everything from business strategy (no relevance at all), to smarts (perhaps – for chess players), but has little relevance to most of us, especially your readers. If I followed this approach I’d never get out of bed in the morning.

    My own philosophy is “success not perfection” combined with a drive for continuous improvement and acceptance of the inherent uncertainty in life. Perhaps a better quote is from Churchill, as trite as it might be: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

    Dan

    • I really can’t take this seriously.

      “Steal as much wisdom as possible” is appropriately rich coming from Jonah Lehrer, plagiarist, the Thomas Friedman of pop psychology and neuroscience.

      The book’s Amazon blurb says that Jonah Lehrer “arms us with the tools” we need “to think harder (and smarter) about how we think” so that we may “determine when to use the different parts of the brain”.

      He should have been thinking harder and smarter before he disgraced his name, but hey, he’s making good money.

      Now Simon and Schuster will be publishing his forthcoming book, “The Book of Love.”

      That is fucking funny.

      Daniel Engber has written a great takedown at Slate of Lehrer’s latest load of nonsense & bullshit, and ends his essay with this this delicious JL quote:

      ““I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong, if only so that I can show myself I’m able to listen.”

      Seriously, he hasn’t learned a thing, but apparently, his ignorance pays.

  2. DaveJ says:

    Dan,

    How do you “continuously improve” if you don’t bring to conscious awareness your mistakes (and successes) and consider them? What these examples show is that by creating a larger set of “training data” they learn faster and better. It’s not about perfection, it’s about creating training examples that have full contextual relevance (it’s not the same when you view someone else’s mistakes, because you don’t have the full context).

    Dave

  3. Sue Ingram says:

    Great blog! And I know a guy who employs this exact approach and he is VERY GOOD at what he does. However, as a recovering perfectionist have to be very careful about conducting this exercise. If my mindset is good and positive then it is good – if I am down on myself for any reason, best avoided. Any tips on how perfectionists can over this sometimes crippling afflictions? Thanks!

    • Sue,
      I like what Tom Gilb describes in “Software Inspection”. He describes how to tune the “Imperfections” collection process. ie. you want an “Imperfections collection process” to be effective, it is all to easy for it to under perform. To tune the process, collect some rough and ready numbers to track performance, so it is easy to see what is working well.

      One tip that make a big difference, is if you can layer it, so that you have several “Imperfection collection” stages. Then you get a compound effect, this make the whole thing faster and easier to do, and improves the overall result. (See Jones 96 Software Defect Removal Efficiency)

      This topic has been around for a long while, so there is lots of good advice around.

      Eddy.

  4. I really can’t take this seriously.

    “Steal as much wisdom as possible” is appropriately rich coming from Jonah Lehrer, plagiarist, the Thomas Friedman of pop psychology and neuroscience.

    The book’s Amazon blurb says that Jonah Lehrer “arms us with the tools” we need “to think harder (and smarter) about how we think” so that we may “determine when to use the different parts of the brain”.

    He should have been thinking harder and smarter before he disgraced his name, but hey, he’s making good money.

    Now Simon and Schuster will be publishing his forthcoming book, “The Book of Love.”

    That is fucking funny.

    Daniel Engber has written a great takedown at Slate of Lehrer’s latest load of nonsense & bullshit, and ends his essay with this this delicious JL quote:

    ““I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong, if only so that I can show myself I’m able to listen.”

    Seriously, he hasn’t learned a thing, but apparently, his ignorance pays.

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