Random shocks: local optimums and getting unstuck

It’s a snow day. And I was feeling stuck…until I saw Matty Healy’s Instagram stories that included Brian Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies:

The cards

Here’s a podcast that describes the deck and Brian’s Eno’s philosophy of inserting shocks to spark creativity:

Here’s the link.

It talks about computer algorithms and the concept of local optimums. A local optimum is the best solution to a problem within a small neighborhood of possible solutions. A global optimum is the best overall solution. Here’s a visual representation:

How does it work? Sometimes the best answers are not the ones that come to mind. You might get stuck. So what you do is try different inputs and see what comes of them. Through testing and observing the results in a model, you can find the best possible solution. It is a way of getting unstuck.

Think of yourself in a room. You want to go outside so you try the normal way, by opening the door. But the door is snowed in and you can’t get out. So you try the window. Or an air conditioning vent. Or you climb to the roof. Or you cut a hole in the wall. Or you dig a tunnel to the street. They’re all possible solutions to the problem of getting out of the building. And the one that works best might not be obvious to you. Necessity becomes the mother of invention.

Brian Eno’s cards work in the same way. Well, they were actually an fusion of two similar projects; one by Eno and another by Peter Schmitt that were developed concurrently. The deck is composed of 55 cards that each have a constraint written on them. You’d pick a card and you had to work according to that constraint. They said things like:

  • Use an old idea.
  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
  • Only one element of each kind.
  • What would your closest friend do?
  • What to increase? What to reduce?
  • Are there sections? Consider transitions.
  • Try faking it!
  • Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
  • Ask your body.
  • Work at a different speed.
  • Gardening not Architecture.

The phrases on the cards were drawn from past experiences in which intuition, not intellect, led to a solution. The cards were meant to trigger intuitive responses. The constraints act like snow on the door, forcing you to test out other, less conventional methods.

Not everybody liked Eno’s unconventional approach. Skilled musicians like their niches and tricks. We call these “comfort zones.” But who wants to buy a new album of stuff they’ve already heard? For that matter, who wants to watch a movie that’s just a retread of something they’ve already seen that was done better? See Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, for example. Or don’t. I didn’t finish it.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Eno’s produced works are nothing if not innovative. And many of his inspired works, like his collaboration with Bowie’s band on “Heroes,” are iconic.

In every day life, we can easily fall into expected patterns. Tying your left shoe before a right one. Applying conditioner to your hair before you wash your face in the shower. Turning on the news every night at 6 p.m. We do these things because we’ve come to an optimal solution through trial and error that works. We’ve found our door solution. It’s tried and true. It gets so we don’t even think about these things anymore. We just do them. In neurological terms, this frees up our precious pre-frontal cortex to solve unique problems as they arise. But it can also make us lazy.

A disruptive shock in the form of a constraint or an obstacle, however, can force you to have to come up with new ways of doing things out of necessity. And when pressed to find a new solution, you might just have found one that was better than the one you thought was the best and then never questioned. You crawl out the window and you realize it works even better than the door at getting you on your way. Poof! A breakthrough.

2020 was nothing if not a shock to most. As the world’s precious order ground to a halt, people had to solve problems they never had to deal with before. Some, because of circumstance or agility, faired better. Others, because of circumstance or inability to change, faired worse.

In my case, I’d been living through a very long period of disruptions that forced me to solve problems in novel ways. Mental illness and medication, separation and divorce, three massive economic recessions (the early 2000’s tech bubble, the 2008 mortgage lending crisis, the 2020 Covid crisis), the autism diagnosis, a car explosion, a car crash, my house flooding the day I moved in, a suicide attempt, repeated physical illness, moving to NYC. They all required me to be vigilant. Maybe hyper vigilant. But these constraints also forced me to be agile and learn to trust my intuition when presented with a new wrinkle.

So when Covid hit, I buckled in and dealt with the circumstances as best I could, solving problems left and right and not waiting for anyone to come and save me. I’ve become my own hero.

I know that it can all be taken away tomorrow, and for that, I try to live every day in the present. Sometimes fatigue or illness prevents me from being present (I am currently sick and didn’t know it was Wednesday yesterday). But for the most part, I treat every day like it was a halcyon day.

I also keep an eye on the horizon. Future wrinkles will keep coming. I hear a lot of people wishing things would go back to the way they were pre-Covid. They’re still waiting for things to normalize. But things were never normal. They just weren’t paying attention. And because they weren’t, it made the shocks of 2020 all the more difficult to endure. They’re angry and petulant and sclerotic.

I didn’t ask for most of the constraints put on my life. But they helped me to become who I am. Covid, like every plague before it, will diminish. And the snow will melt. But new shocks are bound to come. Most people will go back to using the door and won’t learn the lessons this time has presented us. They’ll continue to get stuck.

I, for my part, don’t want to have wasted these valuable lessons. I just have to keep working on honing my intuition, paying attention and putting myself in the best position possible to deal with the shocks as they come. The rest is out of my hands.

I’m going to keep stealing time, just for one day.

P.S.: If you’re curious about local vs. global optima, look up “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Robert M. Sapolsky talks about game theory in his book Behave. I’ve listened to the audiobook version many times and I keep getting rewarded with new insight.

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