Sub-Conscious Synthesis of Experiences

High functioning people tend to be very good at pattern recognition: they accumulate lots of experiences (pieces of pattern) and then synthesize them (whole pattern) into something meaningful or actionable.

Some people are particularly good at seeing patterns in lines of code. Others are good at seeing patterns in human behavior, or in architecture, or in the way tennis balls fly over the net.

Accumulating lots of random experiences isn’t enough. The experiences need to be concentrated / focused. An early-stage VC needs to have seen a lot of early stage tech companies, for example, not just companies in general. Second, once you have a bag full of concentrated experiences, you still need to make sense of them and spot patterns. Probably the most important skill in this respect is being able to identify experiences that are generalizable versus experiences are that are to be discounted as anomalous.

Here’s the complicating factor: at an elite level experience-synthesis happens sub-consciously. A pro tennis player has hit the ball so many times that he doesn’t actively think about moving his arm and smacking the ball with racket. A premier venture capitalist has seen so many companies that he can match in his head 10 elements of New Co X to 10 analogous elements in 10 other companies — but he won’t always be able to explain this process in words. A yay or nay response on an entrepreneur pitch gets explained as a “gut feeling.”

Perhaps the most famous example of sub-conscious synthesis is when radiologists look at x-rays and try to figure out whether a patient has cancer. Apparently, the best way to be able to reliably predict cancerous x-rays is to look at thousands of x-rays marked cancer or no-cancer. Over time, you develop an intuitive sense of what’s cancerous. There are no rules or formulas. You can’t always explain your reasoning. You just know.

Sub-conscious synthesis creates problems when trying to understand how the elites did something. We listen anxiously to venture capitalists explaining how they knew Yahoo and Google were going to be winners or to Lance Armstrong explaining how he won a race, but their comments are almost always banal and not very useful. Their level of synthesis (true experts) is so deep they cannot helpfully explain what’s going on in their head to others.

It’s why some of the best advice-givers tend themselves not to be in the top 1% of whatever it is they offer advice on.

It’s why the post-game analysis by the chubby broadcaster who was only a mediocre player in his day is nine times out of ten more rewarding than the post-game interview with the star player of the game.

9 comments on “Sub-Conscious Synthesis of Experiences
  • I think another name for sub-conscious synthesis is “implicit knowledge” — thought I’d mention it in case it helps people find more on the topic.

  • Good post today, Ben. Sub-concious synthesis is very similar to the way in which great leaders emerge from the pack of good leaders. Great leaders can’t always rely on data or politics to make decisions. Often they have to rely on that “gut feeling” and make the call. That’s judgment call is what separates great leaders from good leaders.

  • Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan…all struggled to relate to players of lesser ability. It’s hard to explain how to hit every shot, have eyes in the back of your head, or dunk from the free throw line.

    Of the three, Bird had the greatest success, coaching the Pacers to the NBA Finals, and much of that success can be attributed to his willingness to hire lesser teammates like Rick Carlisle to handle explaining the Xs and Os.

  • Good post, Ben.

    I know you’ve read these two books, but I couldn’t help but notice parallels with your post and The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Did these books come to your mind as well? Both are a little elementary, but they offer good insights on these processes.

  • Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
    Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
    Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
    Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
    Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

  • Well said, Ben. Though I do research, some of my best stock picks were the outcome of solid hunches. I wished I could do it more often (who doesn’t?) but couldn’t lay it down to a `process’. Was wondering far too long how to sharpen my `hunching’ skills. Now that you explain it so well I gather that it will always be a rush of impulse, I’d rather give up the effort 🙂

  • good point, Ben. try to ask your friend who’s young and naturally good with women about how how to interact with girls. they’ll probably say something like, “i dunno bro, just be cool”

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