For the past week, I’ve been transitioning from working on the nuts and bolts of research to writing up a manuscript. And, as I’ve done it, I’ve slowly come to appreciate Paul Graham’s model of makers’ vs. managers’ schedules.
Studying and doing bench research is manager’s schedule. You have a certain number of tasks you need to get done. Many are quite brain-intenstive, some are more mechanical and mindless. But what they share in common is that they’re all single, self-contained tasks, you can take a free half hour, get something done, and check it off a list. All you need to be maximally productive is the free time and energy.
Writing a manuscript is a more creative endeavor. You need to hold the whole problem in your head before you can get anything meaningful done. So, you can’t work in block of a half hour – you’d barely have grasped the problem before time’s up. Real work gets done in long uninterrupted blocks, and when you’ve got one of those, it’s amazing how productive you become.
It’s a weird place to be in after being on the “manager’s schedule” for so long. Time no longer compounds arithmetically. It’s not so important how much total time you have, the real measure of your wealth is the amount of uninterrupted time you can string together. Even in an otherwise free day, interruption and distractions are killers.
Given that there are always errands to be done and emails to write, last week I tried to intersperse them throughout the day as a “study break” and as a result struggled to make much progress. My breakthrough was to condense all my errands and fun stuff into the middle of the day (when I am least focused and productive) and then use the long stretches of freed up time in the morning and at night to do actual work. A good 80% of the actual useful writing results came in the two days that I implemented this schedule.
This way of arranging one’s day is common in writers and coders but rare elsewhere, including among research professors. One wonders how much creative output we’re foregoing by following the norm of expecting constant availability from 9-5.
A few months ago I was talking to some divinity school students, many of whom were on track to being ordained Methodist ministers. I’m always interested in how institutions work, and so I asked them what a successful “career path” looks like in this very un-worldy calling. Amusingly, it turns out the first step after div school looks a lot like applying to any other job. You indicate your interest to a board, and they look at your div school grades, your letters of recommendation, and you go in for an interview. You’re placed at an initial posting, as the years go by you’re evaluated by how well your congregation’s doing, both by size and finances. Inevitably, political matters like how well you play with the church leadership and perhaps any interesting theological publications you’ve put out can also influence your standing. If you do well, you get progressively assigned to larger churches closer to the centers of influence.
And that’s when I realized that nobody goes to Methodist heaven.
Fear not, we intend to be equal-opportunity here! In fact, let’s go nondemoninational and talk about megachurches, which have increasingly become a fixture of the church ecosystem as smaller churches hollow out . These churches can hail from any denomination, or often none at all. There are many reasons for their growth. They’re large enough that you can connect with lots of people in your demographic, which can be a big draw. They’re also often well-run in general. Both the business functions and the production aspect of worship services scale really well, and so the few megachurches I’ve been to have all had excellent sound systems, audiovisual aids, and graphic design. This model has been successful enough that decent-sized cities often have multiple competing megachurches, each with its own spread of services, demographics…and message.
And therein lies the problem. Different amenities are just noise – interchangeable nice-to-haves that don’t much relate to the content of the religion. I’d expect mega-mosques and mega-pagodas in the same city to have similar offerings. Market forces will lead similar groups to trend towards similar practices – towards, say, deciding that having a daycare during services is worthwhile but doing Bingo night doesn’t bring in enough new parishioners to make it worth the cost.
But if market forces can mold churches towards particular amenities, they can mold teaching as well. If people are deciding between different churches, all things being equal they’ll look for a church whose preaching resonates with them, one that they find congenial. In other words, pap. 
It’s important to realize that none of this necessarily involves any ill will on anyone’s part. Normal devout people can disagree in all good faith. The problem lies in having a selection mechanism over this normal range of variation in beliefs. If the market rewards populist preaching with bigger congregations, greater revenues, and heightened influence, then it will be the preachers who preach the popular fare – again, in all good faith – who get outsized influence over the content of the religion. From the next generation, raised with the popular interpretation of the religion, the most palatable preachers among them gets additional weight. Round and round we go, and at the other end of this process: market-optimized pap. And because this process doesn’t require ill intent, “examine in your conscience whether it’s true” and other ways to internally guard against mendacity won’t work. As long as people do vary, there’s enough grist for the mill.
The same considerations apply to the Methodist selection process as well. The grades and politicking aren’t the problem – they may not be ideal criteria for advancement but at least they’re reasonably random. The problem is measuring success in part by how popular and well-received your sermons are and how your congregation grows. Once the market-optimization process starts, your principled beliefs will be worn down to pablum in a few centuries.
One defense against this line of reasoning is to claim that people’s preferences are, if examined, deeply aligned with theological truth. If we can just encourage people to introspect a little, then “what sells” will inevitably correlate with what’s true. Yet this explanation doesn’t hold water on several levels. First, introspection is hard and most decisions about what churches to attend will not be made by outstandingly introspective individuals. So while you can encourage individuals to introspect, it’s impossible to do this for enough people to change the selective landscape. Second, the long record of history shows a broad flowering of many mutually contradictory religions. Popular religions do have some common moral themes and mythic tropes, but they contradict each other in nearly every other theological point. The truth does not contradict itself. So at least most people who have pursued intuitively pleasing theology have been badly mistaken. Finally, the entire claim that people’s intuitions are good theology-detectors is flimsy. If you believe in a God who created the universe, you believe in a God who created quantum mechanics. And you expect His theology to be intuitive and appealing?
Imagine for a moment that we conducted science the way we conduct theology. Every week, we gather at the lecture-hall of one prominent scientist or other who gives a talk on his theories and is supported by donations from attendees. Anything that’s too counterintuitive or has too much math would meet with empty pews. Forget quantum mechanics, I don’t think we’d even have moved past geocentrism! 
What’s needed is a counterbalancing force, not accountable to the people, and charged with maintaining the integrity of the faith. While the elders of a church can theoretically serve this role, it makes it more difficult when they themselves are drawn from the pastors who won the populist competition. To put it puckishly, if you don’t have an Inquisition, get ready to lose your church.
In fact, many people, some of which were even not named Torquemada, recognized that mere intuition would lead people astray, and have attempted to grapple with this problem. In typically sensible fashion, CS Lewis advocated sticking with a parish church (one whose congregants were drawn from a single district) rather than indulging in church-shopping that can fuel competition between churches. If everyone simply went to the local church and never changed their allegiance, then pastors could feel free to preach their interpretation of scripture without worrying about how popular their message would be. He has his demonic Screwtape inquire of an underling:
You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient [that is, a human that the underling is supposed to be tempting] has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches…
The search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy [that is, God] wants him to be a pupil. What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going.
Another fascinating essay addresses the problem a different way. The author dispenses with primitivism (“The current institution-of-the-Church has been corrupted, oh hey I rediscovered the tenets of the original pure Church”) and sola scriptura (“Don’t rely on old teachings, interpret the scriptures yourself and go with that interpretation”)  as both being absurdly vulnerable to motivated cognition. He then argues – with some impressive Biblical citations – that since the Christian Church was founded by Jesus, who considered the institution a pretty big deal, it’s reasonable to expect that it has a sort of holy oversight that protects it from falling into major errors. It’s not that individual humans in the church won’t err – humans are human – but that given the importance of its mission, the institution of the Church itself is protected from falling into heresy. This is a fascinating argument in favor of If Christian Then Catholic (or Orthodox, I suppose), but it does have one interesting conclusion, which he didn’t draw. If this were the case, you could actually experimentally derive additional bits of theological information! All you need to do is stir up political fights within the Church and see which faction’s interpretation of scripture wins. It would be pretty awesome if the pope started appointing a Chief Experimental Theologian whose job was exactly to set up these sorts of experiments and publish the results. “Blessed are the troublemakers!”
But let’s not rag on Catholics too much. They have, I think, made one of the best attempts at taking a stab at this question. Namely, they’ve arrived at a doctrine called the Communion of Saints. In its more pure-theology aspect this doctrine states that the Church exists outside of time – it’s the community of all Christians including those who died before and the spirits of Christians in purgatory or Heaven. This is why it makes sense to pray for the intercessions of saints in heaven; because they have the backing of an omnipotent deity, they can act throughout time, including right here, right now. But this doctrine has another aspect as well, which is to bind all Christians together by the thread of a common Christianity. A 3rd century monk is as Christian as you, as is your descendant praying in a cathedral on Mars in the 25th century. If your beliefs start to differ from either of them, Bayesian reasoning suggests that you are probably the odd one out, the one who’s drifting into heresy – you’re probably not the enlightened one who finally, at last, found something that everyone else has overlooked. Now, it’s not obvious that this doctrine actually constrains belief that much in practice, and certainly even Catholics have had a lot of doctrinal drift through the centuries. But it’s a very cool idea – the late Romans developed something that looks like Aumann agreement millennia ahead of schedule – and it’s a way to enforce some restriction on doctrinal drift by pointing out that changing beliefs over generations actually is a potential problem and something to be reasonably skeptical about.
Overall, though, this is a really tough problem. It’s really on the order of “What do you do if the Church has been hijacked by demons?” Only in this case, the demons aren’t the dudes with the horns but rather impersonal, hostile optimization processes. And I haven’t come across any really solid exorcism strategies out there. There are a few stabs at ideas, like Lewis’s approach to tamping down selection pressure, and doctrines that enforce Aumann agreement across space and time. But it’s not enough, and worse yet it doesn’t seem like a problem that most religious folk even recognize.
And although this can be turned into a religion-bashing argument, it has disturbing implications for atheists as well. Values matter to everyone. And the fundamental question that these thoughts raise is: how do you ensure that future generations will continue to hold values you consider worthwhile? Besides the winds of popularity, what’s perpetuating your values, keeping them from drifting? If you don’t have a good answer, get ready to lose them.
 In fact, the survival of churches in recent decades have been directly proportional to their size; even among megachurches the biggest have gotten bigger, and even among small churches the smallest have withered away fastest. “For he that has, to him shall be given: and he that has not, from him shall be taken even that which he has.”
 Interestingly when I discussed these concerns with several smart Christian friends, they all instantly seized on the same example of erroneous popular preaching – the Prosperity Gospel. Briefly, this doctrine says that financial well-being is one of the blessings bestowed on devout Christians – if you’re faithful, pray really hard, and donate generously, wealth will be your reward. That this heresy, among all the many popular heresies out there, was universally called out for ridicule, was remarkable. It reminded me of how some atheists use religion as the canonical example of irrationality, even when there are much greater irrationalities in the world.
This whole business smelt of politics to me, and I suspect that the reason the Prosperity Gospel is a popular hobbyhorse among my demographic is that it’s so crass, so very very lower-middle-class – the same differentiating impulse that makes just-barely-middle-class people assiduously avoid Dunkin Donuts in favor of Starbucks, or a young teenager vehemently disparage kids’ stuff. It would be much more awkward for them to call out heresies that are popular and high status among educated folks, such as liberation theology or moralistic therapeutic deism.
 TED talks are pretty much set up along these lines, with exactly the results that we predict.
 I have been informed that this is interpretation, while popular, is not really the true meaning of sola scriptura. The real version makes a much weaker claim – namely that scripture alone is theoretically sufficient to bring a reasonable man unto salvation, and that Church Fathers, tradition, and so on are not strictly necessary. In practice, the content of these authoritative traditions is pretty good and following them is usually the smart thing to do – real sola scriptura looks a lot more like pre-Vatican II Catholicism than modern Protestantism.
By analogy, you can believe that physics can theoretically be rederived from experimental evidence alone but should probably still be mostly reading textbooks and journal articles rather than setting up a lab in your basement to rederive c. In the once-in-a-generation case where an experiment disproves the textbooks, you should go with the evidence – but keep in mind that experimental error and crackpots are much more common than revolutionary discoveries.
This version is significantly less silly and I would only note that it still relies on individual rationality to determine how much to rely on teaching vs. independent thought. In lacking any guidelines except community oversight, it’s still quite vulnerable to decay through pernicious signaling games or just sheer human pride.
I recently read Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Aside from providing interesting insights into the life of one of the Founding Fathers, this book was an unexpectedly interesting set of thoughts on what makes someone successful. Franklin, more than most famous people, feels remarkably very human-scaled. He was not born with unique, unapproachable gifts, though he was a talented writer. He was born to a moderately prosperous middle-class family, and was never brought up with the intention or ambition of rising to great office or weighty responsibilities. Rather, throughout his life his highest principles were simply to improve himself, be useful in society, and be somewhat well-liked and locally influential. It’s clear that even if he hadn’t happened to live during interesting times, he was destined to succeed at those goals, and it’s worth figuring out why.
One of Franklin’s gifts, and arguably the key to his success, was his rare combination of gregariousness and unquenchable intellectual curiosity. On one hand, he was a consummate networker. He made friends easily with people from every walk of life, and was particularly adept at creating sizable groups of like-minded friends. On the other hand, he combined this with what we would now regard as a nerdy interest in meticulous self-improvement and scientific curiosity. At one point in his life, he decided to cultivate a set of 13 virtues in himself. The way he went about this was to pick one virtue to work on every day, and record on an ivory board how many times he failed to exercise that virtue on that day. He was basically doing self-tracking over 200 years before the Quantified Self movement got off the ground.
- Time to sync this to my Google account!
This combination of charisma and eagerness to play with new ideas contributed to a lot of his successes. By the time he started his own printing shop in Philadelphia, he’d already gathered together a large network of talented young tradesmen. But instead of making this a mere social club, a place to blow off steam, Franklin was able to organize these people around his intellectual endeavors. This group helped him found the first lending library in America, as well as the first firefighting cooperative. It was also a base that helped him create a university (UPenn) as well as the Pennsylvania militia.
By dint of these skills and his diligence, he was able to retire at age 40, a testament both to his own abilities and the amount of upward mobility possible in colonial America. He spent some time following scientific pursuits, including his famous electricity experiments. But after a while he felt drawn towards politics, which he’d often flirted with in his pamphleteering but which he’d never made a full time profession.
What struck me most reading about this aspect of his life is the extent to which Franklin’s entry into politics could be seen as a terrible personal mistake. History textbooks mention Franklin almost exclusively as a statesman playing a starring role in the drafting of the Declaration, while throwing in a few anecdotes around Poor Richard and flying kites unsafely. But his presence at the Continental Congress was at the twilight of his political career, which had by then consumed almost half his life – and his role at that point in his life was more like a mascot than as a power broker. During his first 25 years in politics, his energies were instead spent representing middle-class tradesmen in a futile fight against the ruling Penn family, first in the Pennsylvania legislature and then in London. This zero-sum battle consumed much of his efforts and emotional energies, and is now but a footnote in history. Although he did continue to network and experiment as before, it’s hard not to think of what he could have accomplished if he turned his energies in a direction other than direct politics. And on a personal level, his political years were those in which he strayed farthest from his normal equanimity and let his ties to his family fray.
As for his role in the history books, his prominence in the events of the Revolution were largely preordained by his being a prominent citizen, as well as by his being in London at the beginnings of the crisis and thus being the rebels’ natural representative. Being sent as an emissary to France was a natural posting for cosmopolitan with his gregarious nature. He performed each of these roles well, particularly in performing some tricky diplomacy in negotiating a favorable peace treaty in Paris, but this work was a logical extension of his previous achievements and talents, not an independent high point.
Some takeaways from all this:
- Being the most talented user of a new technology can bring huge rewards even if you don’t try to become Google. By the time he was setting up his own printing shop, Franklin was, Isaacson says, “undoubtedly the best writer in America.” In an age where printing was still a relatively new technology, his ability to both write well and own the infrastructure for mass distribution pushed him to great success both as a publisher and a writer. His talents as a writer were later to prove instrumental in his political endeavors as well. Whether this observation should lead you to learn blogging, programming, or gene sequencing is left as an exercise for the reader.
- Cool ideas and social effectiveness is a winning formula. Franklin’s ideas led to his social circles becoming much more than social clubs; his leadership skills enabled him to put his ideas into action. Having a balance of both is ideal; alternatively associating with someone who complements your thought/social action balance also seems useful.
- Politics really is the mind-killer. Even for someone of Franklin’s stature, going into politics was arguably a mistake; it certainly would have been a mistake if not for the events of the Revolution. Both in terms of creating global good, and in terms of enhancing his prominence, he would have been just as well served, and much happier to boot, had he continued to follow his scientific or popular-press pursuits instead of investing his time in politics. But both his principled beliefs and his personal friends and enemies encouraged him to engage further in politics, and so even a man of his even temper and ironic detachment became obsessed with politics, to his detriment.
One of the projects I’ve taken on this year has been to read biographies of impressive people-so far I’ve covered Benjamin Franklin, Richard Feynman, and Otto von Bismarck. I’ll share some impressions in future posts before we delve into that it’s a reasonable question to ask, what good is reading biographies?
It is certainly true that famous people became famous for many factors. Some of them are innate, like being born with great mathematical genius or into a reasonably prosperous family. Others are entirely out of the person’s control – like being alive at the right place and time to make a historic contribution. If that’s all there is to it, then reading biographies nothing more than an enjoyable hobby – a combination of very local history and a little hero worship or wish fulfillment.
But what I hope to get out of the project is a few things. One is to get a better sense of what a successful life trajectory looks like. We often have the impression that successful people became successful through a path that is as obvious as hindsight. But in fact, successful people’s lives are as unpredictable to them as anyone else’s, with many reversals of fortune as well as triumphs. Reading a detailed account of someone’s life – instead of a streamlined version that one might find on Wikipedia – might help better understand just how much randomness is in everyone’s lives.
In addition, I hope to get a better understanding of the kinds of habits, and especially the kinds of mental habits or internal narratives, that these successful people held. The psych literature has shown that many measures of personality traits, such as the OCEAN pentad, are fairly stable over a lifetime and indeed significantly genetically influenced. But habits of thought are a powerful way to determine how these predilections are translated into real-life actions. We may not be able to change the hand of cards were dealt, but we can play that hand more effectively.
In some future posts, I’ll go through these biographies one by one, pointing out some interesting facts and potential take away points.