PLA: Big Ideas from Three Big Minds

March 16, 2014

The Big Ideas lecture series at PLA 2014 continued March 14 with short talks by a trio of authors who offered unique perspectives on the upside of failure, the ways in which we outsmart ourselves, and the evolution of communication technologies.


Megan McArdle, correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast and author of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, started her humorous talk by telling the audience how she became a writer: She failed her way into it.

After losing a series of jobs after college, McArdle decided to earn an MBA. Bad luck struck again when a post-graduate school job prospect fell apart after the 2008 market crash. Living with her parents and hurting for cash, McArdle decided to start a blog that detailed her business school curriculum. The blog took off. She was soon freelancing for major publications, which led to a full-time job at The Economist. The rest is history.

McArdle stressed how important early career failures were to her current success. “Failure hurts, but it can work,” she said. “It’s nature’s way of saying, ‘That’s not working! Stop!’”

Fear of failure often prevents innovation and experimentation, especially with writers. “Most writers hate writing,” she said, laughing. “We love the part before and the part after, though. We procrastinate. Why? It’s because of what we learned about writing. Growing up, we read only the best work by great authors, never the worst.” McArdle explained how high expectations made setting pen to paper difficult. “As long as you haven’t written it, it’s still perfect in your mind. You have to give yourself permission to suck. You have to experiment to bring it all together.”

She complemented her personal anecdotes with the story of an older Kentuckian who for years ran a roadside diner and served the best fried chicken around. When the diner was shut down to make room for a highway, the owner traveled the United States, hoping to meet a restaurateur willing to buy his famous chicken recipe. After extensive searching, the persistent Colonel Sanders finally found an interested party in Utah, and Kentucky Fried Chicken was born.

Not so smart after all

David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb, began his segment by telling the audience that his wife is a librarian. “So I’m familiar with your complaints and grievances,” he said, garnering big laughs from the crowd. “I also know that what you do is great and amazing.” 

McRaney’s talk looked at how confirmation and hindsight biases and heuristics affect how we interpret events in our lives. “We have a tendency to take difficult things and reduce them to something simple,” he said. “We believe we can predict what will happen–even though we are wrong."

This attempt to find patterns and meanings in "randomness and chaos" can have dangerous repercussions. McRaney detailed how, during World War II, German airplanes carpet-bombed London in random patterns. Nevertheless, people wrongly interpreted the random clusters of bombings. They became convinced that patterns did exist and that German spies must be living in areas of the city that weren’t hit. This led to many innocent people to be falsely accused of treason.

“We are unaware of how unaware we are,” he said. “We are the unreliable narrators of our lives.” How can we stop doing this? McRaney said we can’t. We’re hard-wired to interpret the world these ways. We can learn to live with it, however. To explain, McRaney told a funny story about a test conducted at a mental hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

A doctor brought together three men, each of whom believed he was Jesus Christ. The doctor hoped the men’s conditions would cease after being confronted with other “Jesuses.” The exact opposite happened. The men fought and held tightly to their identities. The doctor asked them how could they all be the same man, and they each had a reason.

The first patient believed the others were robots. The second claimed the others were possibly lesser gods but certainly not Jesus. The third said the others were obviously insane. The three men eventually became close friends and moved in with one another. They never denied their holiness, though; they simply chose not talk about it anymore.

Communication revolution

The session concluded with words from Clive Thompson, a science and technology writer for the New York Times and Wired and author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. Thompson delivered a fascinating slide show that detailed the history of modern communication, its rapid advancements, and how the ubiquity of communication technologies has led to an evolution of media literacy skills.

Thompson opened by recounting how Joseph Stalin removed images of political enemies from official Communist Party photos after having them imprisoned or executed. It was brilliant, unprecedented propaganda. The Soviet masses weren’t accustomed to such subterfuge, allowing Stalin to erase and rewrite the past with impunity. Such deceit is impossible today, Thompson explained. Image altering programs like Photoshop are commonplace now, creating a generation of people who can quickly spot media manipulation.

Thompson continued with brief analyses of the evolution of paper, video, data, and gaming as means of communication. Lower production costs, a greater ease of use, and increased availability have transformed how we use these communication methods. We’re more connected to the world now than in any other time in history. But can we use these tools for personal growth and self-reflection? Thompson says yes.

For centuries, paper was a hot commodity. Its use was rare. As production costs decreased, paper products became more commonly used and changed how we communicate. Books, newspapers, and letter writing grew in popularity, and a playful, personal, more relaxed communication form emerged, allowing people to finally express themselves more easily. Thompson cites the invention of the sticky note as the pinnacle of paper’s evolution. The small, inexpensive pieces of paper with adhesive strips across their backs were perfect for capturing quick thoughts and ideas. They allowed people to "talk" to themselves and quickly organize ideas.

Thompson expects all our communication methods will enter a sticky note phase. This evolution will further increase our connectivity with both the world and ourselves.