Don't estimate your creative intelligence by your critical intelligence

by PhilGoetz1 min read5th Feb 201520 comments



When I criticize, I'm a genius. I can go through a book of highly-referenced scientific articles and find errors in each of them. Boy, I feel smart. How are these famous people so dumb?

But when I write, I suddenly become stupid. I sometimes spend half a day writing something and then realize at the end, or worse, after posting, that what it says simplifies to something trivial, or that I've made several unsupported assumptions, or claimed things I didn't really know were true. Or I post something, then have to go back every ten minutes to fix some point that I realize is not quite right, sometimes to the point where the whole thing falls apart.

If someone writes an article or expresses an idea that you find mistakes in, that doesn't make you smarter than that person. If you create an equally-ambitious article or idea that no one else finds mistakes in, then you can start congratulating yourself.

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Immensely harder to build something without a flaw than to find a flaw.

Also, I'll note that the criticisms we level while we review some work in privacy are not reviewed in their turn by anyone else. There should be some humility in your "gotcha" if it has never faced criticism of it's own.

On the other hand, if you're a very good critic, it becomes very hard to create something, as you see flaw after flaw after flaw, multiplying faster than you can fix them. I find it very hard.

I think there's something to that archtype of writers as drinkers. Got to shut off that critic if you want to get anything completed.

Maps and territories. A noisy signal can still be understood, and the marginal cost of suppressing noise can become steep. Even mathematical proofs are often first communicated in a logically correct but "noisy" form, and simplified later.

I struggle with over-qualifying, to the point where my writing takes too long or is too hard for other people to understand. I actually wonder if prolific writers are selected for a certain lack of guilt, whereas I often feel like a scrupulous person, almost guilty for not addressing every little subtlety.

The collapse into the trivial is usually good news! The trivial is just the accurately concise, which depends on the power of your background knowledge. I'm a huge fan of SlateStarCodex, but sometimes I reach the end of a 10,000 word essay and wonder "Why did he just say APPLY META-LEVEL RATIONALITY CONCEPT TO TOPIC X?", but that's only trivial if you share the right background, while his audience is very broad.

There is an old joke about an art critic, who was accused of how he dares to criticize the art of others when he himself is unable to produce any art. The answer: "I cannot lay eggs, but I can still tell if an egg is rotten".

“If P = NP, then the world would be a profoundly different place than we usually assume it to be. There would be no special value in ‘creative leaps,’ no fundamental gap between solving a problem and recognizing the solution once it’s found. Everyone who could appreciate a symphony would be Mozart; everyone who could follow a step-by-step argument would be Gauss; everyone who could recognize a good investment strategy would be Warren Buffett.” -Scott Aaronson

Good writers are not necessarily good critics. Just a different skill. You can be smart at one and dumb at the other.

I personally don't think it's a matter of skill. I think everyone is better at criticizing than at creating. It's just easier.

Sounds like a P vs NP thing. Easy to recognise whether something is good than to discover something good.

Actually, there are three tasks, not two. There's recognizing whether something has flaws, recognizing whether something is good, and creating something good.

You're also comparing criticizing others with creating yourself. If you compared criticizing yourself, you might find it's the same quality as your writing.

I'm not sure what that means. If I write an article and find no errors in it, am I a great writer, or a lousy critic?

It's hard to know. If others found problems, then you're a bad self-critic. If others didn't find problems, you're a good writer, but we don't know about your critic abilities.

What I meant was really along the lines of comparing how good your self-criticism is of stuff you've written a long time ago with your criticism of others. If you're better at criticising others (my guess), then you could try to account for that deficit when comparing that to your writing ability. I don't know how far that will get you.

I agree that it can't be compared directly.

Writing is often taught by showing examples of bad or mediocre writing and asking the students to critique and improve on it. Similarly, in writing workshops you learn by having others critique your work, but also by critiquing the work of others. This would suggest that these are at least partially the same skill: I know that on occasions when I've read someone else's text and pointed out things that could be improved in it, I afterwards end up also being more aware of those things when writing something of my own.

It's easy to make mistakes, so it's easy to find flaws in other people's work.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Seems like you're criticizing your own writing rather than writing. Are you a perfectionist?

Sometimes, though not usually, the only options are perfection and being wrong. But I don't think I have any unusual writing blocks, including perfectionism.