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Is intellectual work better construed as exploration or performance?

by ioannes_shade 1 min read25th Jan 20192 comments


Cross-posted to the EA Forum.

I notice I rely on two metaphors of intellectual work:

1. intellectual work as exploration – intellectual work is an expedition through unknown territory (a la Meru, a la Amundsen & the South Pole). It's unclear whether the expedition will be successful; the explorers band together to function as one unit & support each other; the value of the work is largely "in the moment" / "because it's there", the success of the exploration is mostly determined by objective criteria.

Examples: Andrew Wiles spending six years in secrecy to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, Distill's essays on machine learning, Robert Caro's books, Donne Martin's data science portfolio (clearly a labor of love)

2. intellectual work as performance – intellectual work is a performative act with an audience (a la Black Swan, a la Super Bowl halftime shows). It's not clear that any given performance will succeed, but there will always be a "best performance"; performers tend to compete & form factions; the value of the work accrues afterward / the work itself is instrumental; the success of the performance is mostly determined by subjective criteria.

Examples: journal impact factors, any social science result that's published but fails to replicate, academic dogfights on Twitter, TED talks

Clearly both metaphors do work – I'm wondering which is better to cultivate on the margin.

My intuition is that it's better to lean on the image of intellectual work as exploration; curious what folks here think.

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A duality of both at once. By stripping away intention to "looking good" and going for demonstrations of genuine exploration, the best performance will be produced.

With an intention to have tight feedback loops. If that can be demonstrated, that's a big step towards both goals.