Saturday, February 28, 2015

Resistance to Averageness

Before reading the article, I actually believe that technology is the determinant of healthcare quality. Healthcare is something that we have no ability to improve dramatically unless we have access to higher level of technology or  medicines. But the truth turns out to be the opposite. And I started wondering, for patients with Cystic Fibrosis, what exactly makes the difference between 80 percent of normal breath level and 100 percent, or even better.

I guess the key is the resistance to averageness. In the last paragraph the author writes, "When the stakes are our lives and the lives of our children, we expect averageness to be resisted. And so I push to make myself the best." When everyone is satisfied with 80 per cent of normal level for patients, Don Berwick pushed the patients in an "aggressive" way in order to keep their lungs as open as possible. That's why he cares about the difference between 99.95 percent and 99.5 percent at the circumstances with or without one-day treatment, which would lead to a huge difference in a long term. 

It reminds me of something called "illusory superiority", which represents a common cognitive fallacy people have -- I am above average people. For example, in the survey made by College Board, they asked students who take SAT to rate their own performance, 70% of students rate themselves above median. This applies to every aspect of skills or performance such as health, driving skills, memory or IQ. The fallacy that people are above average makes people feel good when they actually perform average, or maybe they're really better than average. However, few people would look up to see how much higher they could reach rather than comparing themselves to the "majority" to get the satisfaction and feeling of superiority. This is what Berwick is doing and what makes him unique.

So it raises the question that we might ask ourselves. Perfection is not easy to get. And sometimes we don't know about our limitations. As we've discussed before, it would be better if we could set a reachable goal to an extent that we can possibly reach by doing some efforts, instead of setting a ridiculously high one to discourage ourselves. But sometimes it needs the enthusiasm to pursue perfection in order to accomplish something others have never thought of. How could we find out our limitations? How could we define perfection? How could we avoid being prey to illusory superiority?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Procrastination and Deferred Gratification - Reading or Writing

On Friday Nicole and I had a good talk.  I thought we got a little bit further into ideas that I wanted to see us discuss.  I will review some of that conversation below.  But first I want to note that I know this is a busy time for you, about 1/3 of the way into the semester.  In addition, last Thursday was the Chinese New Year, a time for celebration.  Even with that, however, I was a bit surprised that it was only Nicole and me, so I wondered about the following.  Were some of the previous conversations not quite working for you?  You are all so polite, I wonder if you'll gave an honest response to that question.  Please do.  Also, if you have thoughts on how we should proceed in the future when you miss the discussion from the prior week, please include that in your comment.  I'm not sure how to get you caught up.  But I will try here.  I told Nicole I'd write the post this week because I didn't think it was fair to ask her to connect our discussion with what we should talk about next and I didn't see how David or Yuchen could write this post after not being there on Friday.

After some chit chat we began by trying to identify time when the learning seemed to be working well and what the mood was when that happened.  I think we got a little further on the identifying when things worked, part of which was about identifying times where the stress is too much and makes things unpleasant.  Nicole does not like to feel rushed.  So she likes to begin on assignments quite early and give herself plenty of time to do research online to get enough background on the subject she is studying.   If she is forced to do things at the last moment, that is uncomfortable for her.
We were able to talk about good stress and bad stress.  And example of bad stress was a team project where some of the team members skipped the team meeting, as it happened this was the guys on the team, the girls were more diligent about doing the work.  So their share of the work was allocated to the guys in their absence and it was unclear whether they'd complete the work or not (and if they did it whether they would do it well).  That, as I said is bad stress.  It is uncertainty about which you can't exercise very much control.  You just have to hope for the best.

Good stress is when you face a challenge that is a little beyond your current capabilities.  Nicole said this happens regularly in her psychology class.  Her assignments push her to learn things that she didn't know before.  She doesn't rush to do this.  Rather she develops a plan of what to read to get the requisite background and she spends as much time as she needs to feel she is understand the research in this area.  It seemed that this time when Nicole was gaining understanding was a time of joy for Nicole.  I observed that she must be a confident learner, because not everyone knows that they can master something they don't understand.  Many other students, with less confidence, put off the task till the deadline.  The result from this delay is that they learn less, and perhaps they don't learn at all.

The discussion triggered thought of this essay by James Surowiecki called Later, which I encourage you to read.  It is a very well written piece and has many ideas that should be useful to us.  One of those is the planning fallacy and that we humans tend to underestimate how long a task will take to complete.  Another is the divided self and that each of us is not of one mind in what we should be doing with our time.  There are several related ideas also articulated that I think are relevant to our discussion.

A notion that is somewhat opposite of procrastination, not mentioned in the piece, is deferred gratification.  It means something like not caving into temptation now but doing the responsible thing instead.  The article then talks about various ways of achieving deferred gratification.  One way is called binding, where constraints are imposed up front to prevent the temptation from materializing.  It occurs to me that you over program yourselves (here I'm talking about how many credit hours you are taking plus your commitments to extra curricular activities) as a form of binding.  Free time, which is unconstrained, then might challenge you too much and temptation would win out then.

The thing is being busy is not the same as being in flow.  You can be working hard yet still be very self-aware.  The higher state of flow may only be reached if you allow yourself to discover things that you didn't anticipate ahead of time.  The process of discovery, however, is open ended.  It is unclear when or if it will happen.  It is also unclear, once it begins, how long it will take to follow till its conclusion.

Finally, let me bring in this other idea of reading or writing. What I mean here is whether somebody else is directing your learning (reading) or if you are directing it (writing).  In what I said about about how Nicole goes about her research plan, the instructor is giving direction on the topic, but she subsequently gives direction by planning the research to read to give her understanding.  Yet she is content with making that plan once and sticking with it.  We talked briefly about a concept called rolling plans, where after a period of time when proceeding according to the plan, the plan is then revised to reflect what has been learned in the interim and then current realities.  I suspect the three of you plan quite a bit about the work you will do.

While I do plan too, I'm much more into serendipity in my reading when I'm writing a piece, say for my regular blog.  I will have an initial idea and start writing, then a thought occurs that I didn't have at the beginning so I will research it and begin to read what that search provides.  Then that becomes the universe for a bit and the writing moves into the background.  When I return to the writing I now have a different plan for it based on what I've learned in the process.  The piece I end up with is rarely anticipated at the outset except in the most broad stroke terms.

You may recall that at the beginning of our class in the fall I argued for a dual path approach to the learning - as both a reader and a writer.  I don't know that the message sunk it at all at the time I articulated it.  Perhaps it is a little more meaningful now.  Anyway, I wonder if you see yourself that way or not.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Flow and hyperfocus.

During our conversation on Friday, we continued to talk about flows, and try to get a further grip of when would we call a situation a flow. We were to talk about our experiences doing certain tasks, such as my machine problems (MPs) for Computer Engineering or Nicole's psychology research papers. During the conversation, I explained my process of solving the MPs, mainly coding and debugging a certain script that I have to write down in a certain language. I described the process to take 3~16 hours long, varying on how smoothly I can script the MPs. When I told people (except Yuchen) that I stayed on the computer for 16 hours straight for the task, professor asked me if I was in a flow while I was on it. My answer was 'no'. I certainly did not have flow while I was on the MPs (for the fact that I do not like Computer Engineering too much..), but I explained it to be a part of my nature that I had to end a certain thing when I have started it. Professor was quite surprised by the fact that I was staying in front of the computer debugging the script for 16 hours without flow. 

This led me to something that I was thinking about for the past few days after our discussion, and as a result, I conclude that there is a term which could explain this straight 16 hour MP. It is not flow, but I found the term to be 'hyperfocus.' To introduce the terms and to see the difference, I will link 'flow' and 'hyperfocus' here. If you go into the link and compare the definitions, flow is similar to hyperfocus, but the word 'flow' has somewhat more glowing meaning to it. 

"In some circumstances both flow and hyperfocus can be an aid to achievement, but in other circumstance or situations, the same focus and behavior could be a liability, distracting from the task at hand."
- from 'hyperfocus', Wikipedia.

So, even though both terms have almost the same concept, flow makes people feel joy, and even rapture on a certain level, while the hyperfocus makes people focus on a more narrow vision, making people to be 'stereotypical'. 

I would like to share my working conditions for the MPs, which I believe I become  'hyperfocused' for most of the times during the tasks. As I have introduced to you already, Computer Engineering is not my greatest fields that I can perform. I learned this by taking the early ECE courses, which I had to prepare more than others to follow up the courses. After learning that I was not really exceptional at this field and discovering that I also did not have special interests, the things I learned in the engineering courses became mind numbing. Of course, it does not mean that I do not learn anything. However, it's just that I am not as much interested on doing the tasks for engineering courses as other subjects that I am interested in, such as econ. Although, I had to get them done before the deadline to get the grades that I needed to graduate. 

I find, in conclusion, the type of task to be important for the flow/hyperfocus to occur during the task. If one has sincere interest in the task, it would be easier for him to find the flow, or the joy of doing the task while being absorbed in it. However, like my MPs, if the task is a must which does not inspire you, continued 16 hours in front of the task would not cause the flow, but instead would get you into a hyperfocused situation.

I would like to hear your opinion about the concept of hyperflow, and would like to see if there might be some other things that would be the cause the distinction of the flow/hyperfocus upon the tasks that one has to do.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Inquiry Loop

Last week, we talked about the idea about inquiry based on John Dewey's philosophy: learning always starts with the question of the learner, then we investigate solutions; create new knowledge as we gather information,discuss our experiences and reflect our new-found knowledge. Based on the previous process, we will come up with a new question and we will enter another inquiry loop. After that discussion, Professor Arvan asked us where this loop happens in our study or in which course we have this loop.
I would say that this loop does not happen in most of my classes and I think just like creativity, we do not spend all of our time doing things with creativity. However, it does happen to us once in a while and we should  grasp it.
Then it leads to the question: what leads us to the loop . For me, I want to use my example of taking a statistics class called survival test last semester. At first, I did not know anything about that class and I chose it since it is the only advanced statistic class that fits my schedule to graduate in May. So my original question for this class was what survival test is? Because I did not want to spend my time on this class and learnt nothing. My professor's teaching style did help me a lot in this class. At the first class he told us the three most important topics will be covered is Kaplan-Maeier estimator, log-rank test and Cox regression. Also, he told us why we need these three methods at the first class. So during the further study, I was like the man with a map and whenever I got lost, what I needed to do is to look at the map: the original questions, to find my direction.  In my opinion, these questions are the entrance to the loop and whenever I got lost, I could go back to where we began instead of jumping out of the loop.
The next question will be how do we know we are in the loop. In my experience, my loop does not work in a perfect circle, usually when I am on the second step: investigate the solution, I may go to different directions. First is memorizing and it happens a lot in my education experiences. When I get bored with the question or I could not feel the desire to look into the question deeply, I would choose the easier solution: memorizing. Compared with understanding, memorizing is always a easier choice but it will not help us continue the loop, instead memorizing does not require us to create new knowledge. We will end up jumping out of the loop, not to say repeating the loop. The second is to create the new knowledge but the definition of the new knowledge here is not for the human beings but for ourselves. In other words, we can master the knowledge we do not know before and for me, that  is the sign of getting into the loop.
Yes, someone may argue that understanding the new knowledge happens almost in every class in every semester. However, first, I would say that knowing new things does not mean that we understand the knowledge, especially in the college level. Second, the final question is how to repeat the loop rather than finishing a circle that means the original question during our discussion: be in the flow.I am not the person that can force myself into the repeating loop, so according to my experience, it is closely related to the professor's teaching style. My survival test professor, Dave Zhao treats teaching as building houses. He does not speed up the class unless he is sure that at least 50% of students in class understand the content, which does build a solid foundation for us in the further study. In addition, he also likes to give us a little bit challenging question for us, so we always have questions in hand to go on the loop.
If there is one more question for this topic, I think it would be how to continue the loop when the class is over. In the the survival test class, I did finish a personal project with what I learnt to solve a problem my friend had in his intern: how to quantitatively analyze the credit risk of P2P lending in China. So, for me, I guess when I can apply what I learnt to realize my career goal, I tend to continue the loop. We may have a further discussion on this question this week.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Different Candies

Last discussion we talked a lot about extrinsic motivations, especially for students in Korea and China. From what I observed back to China, there are students motivated by these high expectations from teachers and parents and study really hard. Without enough sleep and enough relaxation, students are extremely nervous about their grades. And the state of keeping working hard collapses when they go to college. While some might just want to give up and quit this game. One of my friends in China started learning painting when she was little and achieved a lot of rewards. Despite her desire of studying art-related major, her parents still sent her to the U.K. to study accounting, which she really hates. The reason is that many people tend to consider one specific way as the only way to have a good life in the future. Not everyone likes M&Ms. Others may prefer peanut butter cups or snickers as their snacks. And in terms of students, not everyone likes doing Maths. With different talents and interests, people really shouldn’t try to find the “best” choice because that can never work for every individual. So maybe this time we could talk about different choices and “different candies”.

People can always find things they enjoy doing alone. For me, I actually sing a lot when I’m alone, not only in the shower. For this interest I don't need any audience or partner with me. Actually if there’s someone besides me I don’t sing like I do when I’m alone. Singing makes me relaxed, especially when I play guitar, I could sing along with it. Or I can just sing without any instrumental. All of those come from intrinsic interest, rather than any motivation given by others. Besides that, I actually do some song recordings every week and share it online because I’m a host for a radio show. However, when I listen to the recordings, it sounds a little bit strange to me because I feel like listening to other’s voices, not mine. And later on, I found that when I record as I sing, it’s more difficult for me to get in flow to really enjoyed singing itself. I become nervous and make mistakes. Because I know there will be audiences listening to my recordings so that I try harder to sing perfectly but that never happens. In fact, my voice becomes tense and dry when I’m worried about my performance. The only way for me to do better is pretending there’s no recording at all. I keep working on it and now I feel pretty comfortable when I click the recording bottom and sing.

From this experience, I realized the difference between two. When I sing just because I want to, that is not something I need to practice or develop skills. No matter how bad singer I am I could still enjoy the moment. While when there’s  audience, some extrinsic motivations require me to practice more, to memorize the lyrics, and take it seriously. At first it only turned singing into a hard work. But later, I tried to improve my skills more and make myself relaxed, it became better and easier for me. Singing would still be my interest in the future. But I definitely enjoy singing alone without any pressure. Of course I have a better understanding about myself, such as the deficit in performing in front of others. But I know It is not just for singing, also like making presentation for a big audience.

Every individual has some particular candy they like. I don’t think there is a “best” one for everyone. In contrast, whether something is right for me seems more important to me and I’m willing to work hard for it. That’s why sometimes I feel confused about why there are so many students over program themselves too much and think about jobs and interns from the moment they enter the college. It feels like there is a prototype for an excellent student: He or she should be involved in professional RSOs’s executive board, get three or four interns during college and keep a high GPA. While many students over program themselves and give up the chances for them to learn or experience something they’re really interested in. And some students just can’t handle all of these and struggle for a long time. Finding a personal plan rather than following the prototype might be better for students to learn, explore and take risks. College life shouldn’t be the same for everyone.