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Potemkin wisdoms, phronesis and Pixar: How wise sayings protect us from meaning

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TL;DR

This is an exploration of the difference between wisdom and practical wisdom (phronesis) triggered by this quote from a talk by Ed Catmull:

“Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use this statement, and not have to have the fear of changing behavior.”

The main lesson is: if we confuse understanding with repeating its summary, we hollow out its meaning and can no longer rely on it to inform what we do.  

It explains why adopting even great advice often does not result in success. It explains why most charismatic reforms fail when spread out more widely. It explains why adopting even Catmull’s advice may not make you into Pixar.

Why are advice books so often free of content?

Ed Catmull was an engineer suddenly put in charge of a company, so he did what engineers do. He went looking for a manual on how to run a business. In his words (slightly edited from transcript with punctuation inserted):

“I had to learn a lot about business quickly and I hadn’t gone to any school so I just read a lot of books and there were a few bits and pieces but I got to say, for the most part, I didn’t get a lot of traction with them.”

His solution:

“So I said, well maybe the problem is I just got to get to the essence of them. There’s a service that gets the summaries of business books so I tried that. And that was actually an amazing experience, because, in reading the essence of the books, I realized they were content-free.”

But maybe the problem was not in the business books themselves:

“What’s going on here? Is it the fact that the book doesn’t have any content, which is probably true in many cases, or is it that you can’t take some of these things and reduce them in a meaningful way?”

When it’s more important to say than to do

But Catmull was not interested in the nature of understanding. What bothered him was that the principles, once reduced to a slogan, made it impossible to determine practical success. Or rather, that you couldn’t tell who was actually good at something by the principles they espoused. It started in the film industry where the accepted wisdom was that ‘story is the most important thing’ about a film, but as Catmull discovered:

 “… every studio says the same thing. Everybody says the stories are the most important thing, even if the story was drivel. It might be true, in fact it is true, but it doesn’t affect behavior. …  It’s one of those things that is true and you agree it is true and you say it, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

He found the same thing in architecture when he worked on building projects. Everybody agrees that you should design buildings “inside out” but that applies to architects of great buildings as well as the ones of awful buildings.  On its own, this may be an observation many people have made – the Dilbert cartoon series is based precisely on the fact that we all recognize what people talking in empty phrases sound like. But Catmull’s formulation of it is very striking and less glib:

“The phrase [designing buildings inside out] is important to this community, it just does not have any effect on behavior.”

Early on in his talk Catmull asked what is more important “good ideas or good people”, this seems to point in the direction of ‘good ideas’ not being very important if they don’t help people do better things. But it also shows that ideas are tied to their expressions and those expressions play many more roles in their communities than communicating what the ideas are about. They tie their communities together through the ritualistic profession of creeds that signify belonging. It is more important that people ‘agree with’ or ‘proclaim’ the phrases than embody them through actions. (This, of course, has a long history in religious reform. Or educational reform. I recently gave a talk exploring how the term ‘pedagogy first’ is mostly absent of meaning on which actions can be based.)

Compressing ideas renders them meaningless

None of this will be news to anybody who has ever worked for a big institution (University, corporation, Government department). Catmull expressed this very starkly in what I would consider a key quote from his whole talk:

“Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use this statement, and not have to have the fear of changing behavior.”

This can even be used very strategically. In my research on personalisation I ‘discovered’ that people were quite strategically looking through all the things they were already doing and trying to label them as ‘personalisation’. Often, in conversations about how to apply new methods, more time is spent on ‘labeling’ different activities than thinking about what to do. Catmull’s experience is the same:

“I see this over and over again. I can summarize some of these things, but the real issue is what do we do?”

But this is not just an issue with ideas being diluted through institutionalisation. It is a cry for help about the very possibility of making ideas mean anything at all. What good are great ideas if nobody can do anything with them. Many of the ideas “we all agree with” are expressions of genuine ‘wisdom’ but by the process of spreading them, we hollow out their content. And what we end up is wisdom painted on top of an empty box. We even have a story about this: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

Potemkin village, Potemkin wisdom

But an even better story than the one about a naked Emperor is the one about General Potemkin and his villages.

I grew up in a communist dictatorship and calling something a Potemkin’s village was  common when reflecting  on the propaganda of the regime. The phrase referred to a Russian general who created fake facades on buildings in villages so that the visiting Empress would think that they were prosperous and all was well in her realm. These facades could be moved from village to village, so as the Empress and her retinue travelled around, they could appreciate the quality of her government.

Pithy summaries of great ideas are like facades of beautiful buildings. They first appear as expressions of joy at the greatness of the structure inside. But unless we actually go in, walk through the rooms and corridors, or even better, live in them for a while, the greatness of the building is just an assumption. But we don’t always have the time to go in all the great buildings we see, and we definitely don’t have the time to live in them. So, when our own building is crumbling inside and out, we find it much easier to just paint the outside of it. Then anybody walking by will think it’s a great building and maybe we’ll even convince ourselves that the building is great.

Thus we create Potemkin’s wisdoms. Slogans we take from from one situation to another and paint them over whatever is actually happening. Unlike Potemkin, we don’t do it to deceive the Empress. From the outside, we see the beauty of the building, the truth of the idea. We want to embody that truth, so we paint it on top of what we do and admire it from afar. We are deceiving ourselves. But after a while the reality shines through the peeling paint and we go out looking for a new facade. This is the cycle of the hidden utopia.

The fundamental paradox of understanding

The reason this resonated with me to the point of tracking down the transcript of the talk is that this is a topic that I’ve been grappling with for almost 30 years. I’ve been returning to the question of understanding complex issues through summaries ever since I heard the Czech philosopher Peter Rezek ask why did philosophers write these long books when we can then just talk about them in what is essentially aphorisms? Rezek’s answer (if I remember it correctly) was that we need to read the complete books, but he also wanted to explore the underlying tension.

The tension is that we (and this is me, not Rezek, speaking) can only really access the content of great books retroactively through reductions our mind creates in the process of understanding. Of course, the process of reading the book also changes the conceptual landscape of our mind against which any understanding is viewed. But when we try to recall that understanding and employ it in further thinking, we draw on those aphorisms and hope that the accompanying change in landscape contains all the important components to fill the pithy phrase back up with meaning. But often that is not that case. The time of use what was understood and the time of applying that understanding are far removed. But even if they were not, the understanding was always partial to begin with.

We also need to distinguish between understanding as the ability to draw the same inferences as the author of a text versus understanding as a moment of enlightenment. Enlightenment is a single event, but understanding is a process. We are often almost ecstatically aware of the moment at which we finally ‘got’ something. But the tedious process of developing the kind of understanding we might actually do something useful with happens largely under the radar of our consciousness. We see understanding and explanation in charismatic terms but the actual achievement of it is a matter of routine.

Wisdom contra Phronesis

And then, Catmull adds the dimension of ‘understanding as a social obligation’. This is very much reminiscent of the pragmatist notion of truth. We only signal understanding through action in front of our peers. And by far the easiest action is that of repeating an accepted Shibboleth. Elezier Yudkowski has aptly called the sort of thing that happens in school guessing the teacher’s password.   When Catmull says “this phrase is important to the community,” he is talking about such a password. But, then, he observes, “it has no impact on behavior”. What he is after is what the ancient Greeks called “phronesis”, a practical wisdom. The sort of wisdom one can only gain through experience informed by knowledge. But this kind of knowledge cannot be expressed through a summary. Or perhaps not even communicated at all.

The Greeks helpfully differentiate between sophia (wisdom), phronesis (practical wisdom), episteme (knowledge) and techne (skill, craft) – although this was a lot more complicated with many more distinctions floating about. So if we are after the sort of judgment that comes from phronesis and has to be acquired rather than taught, what of the other forms of knowledge? Do they play no role at all? We certainly want people to know things (episteme) and be able to do things (techne), but do we really need them to be wise (sophia)? What if wisdom is only the ability to make pronouncements that are essentially empty of content on which one could base behavior?

In that case, wisdom is a ritualistic social function. We need wise people to tell us things like ‘measure once, cut twice’ or ‘paralysis through analysis’ to show us what we are as a community. And because these pearls of wisdom fit any situation in one way or another, it is not difficult to find them profoundly true without thinking about their emptiness. They give us the same sense of instantly gratifying insight that horoscopes and star signs do. When we read a description of our star sign, it can give us an almost euphoric sense of recognition of ourselves as being part of a bigger universe. In the same way, reading a wise saying, or a business book, can give us a glimpse of that sense of oneness with the world that gnostics or yogis must feel. We get to feel wise, in the know, with it – we finally got it.

And it is this feeling that Catmull warns against. In the preface to his book, he says:

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

This might be the very definition of phronesis – acknowledgement of the fact that understanding is a process without an end. And that it has an emotional dimension. Understanding is not a question of insight but a matter of practical never-ending work. We can use wisdom – such as ‘understanding is a process’ as a catalyst for the actual work that’s necessary. But on its own, it’s just an ornament that we put on something to make it look better than it is.

Practical wisdom in the face of the complexity of understanding

But is it enough to read Catmull’s book or listen to his talk? We can follow his advice step by step and still fail in our aims. What happens to his wisdom (phronesis) when applied to his own pronouncements? Do they have any content at all when divorced from their original context? I’ve spent over 2000 words so far exploring their implications and I’m barely scratching the surface. We can say ‘what he says makes sense’ but it is actually us making it sense out of his words and our situation.

The problem is that our intuitions about meaning are wrong. When we reflect on language (metacognition), our reflections take the form of that builds on a schema that very closely resembles a dictionary. In a physical sense, a dictionary puts meanings next to the words that express it. As if words were just little pointers to meaning. At its most schematic, this schema takes on the shape of one to one correspondence: fromage = cheese, dog = [picture of dog]. In certain contexts, we can acknowledge homophony or polysemy: dog = 1. animal, 2. food. At its most sophisticated, we imagine the right-hand side of a dictionary as an encyclopedia.

But that is not how words are used. We do not just put them next to each other and easily combine their meanings. For instance, when we apply adjectives to nouns, we don’t just add up the two meanings as we do with 1 + 1 = 2. Yellow cheese and yellow dog will seem superficially the same – ‘yellow’ + thing = yellow thing. But that is only at the highest level of abstraction. If we actually want language to communicate something somebody can draw some useful inferences from, a lot more has to happen. The yellow of cheese is very different from the yellow of the Sun or a crayon. Also, it is an expected color. But the yellow of a dog is an unusual colour. We can call it blond or something but we do not expect it to be the same as that of cheese. If we see the words ‘yellow dog’ we may expect a picture of an animal or an animal that has been covered with yellow paint. Also, when we cut a block of cheese in half, we expect the color to be more or less uniform throughout. The vet performing a surgery on a ‘yellow’ dog (whether blond or painted) would be extremely surprised to find the dog to be yellow on the inside.

What does this have to do with anything? Only that, if applying the simple label of ‘yellow’ to simple nouns like ‘cheese’ or ‘dog’ is this complicated, how can we expect to simply apply complicated labels like ‘we acknowledge we will always have problems’ to complicated institutions like ‘Pixar’ or ‘Coca Cola’ or ‘Bob’s Bodega’?

Because of the complexity of meaning making, people understand the same words applied to the same situations differently. This is such a fundamental fact of everyday life as to be considered trivial. So obvious that it barely deserves a mention. But if it is so obvious, why is it completely absent from our basic schema of meaning and understanding? Why don’t we add this to our consideration when we say things like ‘people need to be more considerate’? Our common reaction on hearing something like that is to agree. But instead we should be asking “what do you mean?”  What does a ‘considerate person’ look like in your head? What are your schemas and scenarios? In the same way we might ask somebody “what do you mean by ‘yellow dog’?”

But, of course, most of the time we cannot. Conversation would be impossible. Indeed, life would be impossible if we couldn’t rely rough schematic understandings. Instead, we make sense of things as we go along. Sometimes we do ask for clarification, but usually we look for cues, or just nod along and hope it will all make sense in the end. With very complex meanings – such as famous principles – we often just assume an underlying structure that was never there – like the Empress looking at a facade of an empty building.

When I say ‘understanding is a process’ and ‘knowledge is social’, I mean exactly that. We build up meanings as we go along, make assumptions, ask questions, hope somebody else knows what that means, and so on. That is exactly what happens when somebody reads a book like Camull’s – they start building images that they then share with others and hope to come to some sort of understanding. And part of that understanding will be ‘Catmull ran Pixar, his words will make us more like Pixar’ and ‘Catmull only ever ran Pixar, what does he know about my neck of the woods’ and ‘I just want this meeting to be over so I can go get lunch’.

Catmull himself was aware of the problem and instituted processes at Pixar that tried to break up the routines of meaning making and trigger less schematic reflection. But what happens if somebody who is not Catmull – doesn’t have his style, his conviction, his understanding of what he actually means – in short his ‘charisma’? We are back to Dilbert! All through history, charismatic reforms have failed when applied across larger numbers of peoples and institutions. The followers of St Francis of Assissi soon start acquiring possessions in his name. Revolutionary leaders fighting to overthrow oppression soon become the oppressors. Teachers fired up by philosophies of empowering the child soon start spending most of their time taking attendance and marking homework.

Unfortunately, it’s even more complicated than just people misunderstanding the wisdom of those imbued with the virtue of phronesis. We cannot even be sure that those who have the requisite practical wisdom even understand it themselves. They may be telling us about it but may be misdescribing their own understanding by applying idiosyncratic interpretations to common schemas. Or sometimes they’re just saying stuff to justify something that happened mostly outside their control.

I once heard an executive bragging that he turned around a failing company by making everybody count the number of paperclips they were using. This, according to him, got everybody to focus on costs and led to a turn around in the company’s balance sheet. On the surface, this is a plausible story, and we even have common sense wisdom in the form of ‘look after the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves’. But on second’s reflection, it is utterly implausible. He and lots of others most likely did a lot of other things and the stupid counting of paper clips just got in the way. We can imagine another executive coming in and saying ‘focus on what’s important’ or as the folk wisdom has it ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. Just like Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple.

So we should be skeptical of Catmull’s sine qua nons in his talk and in his book. Lots of successful and creative companies succeeded doing exactly the opposite of what he recommends. But even if his prescriptions may only work sometimes, his description of what happens, when we brandish slogans as shields, is still the best we got. His solution is to be a sort of every day philosopher, and he’s not the only one to advocate for this – Richard Rorty and John Elliott are two others I can think of. But practical philosophy is too easily confused with professional philosophy – thinking pretty thoughts and expressing them in pretty words.

However, just declaring ‘everyone should be a practical philosopher’ is not enough. Philosophers may ask questions like ‘what do you mean by that’, but because most of the time, they have those same intuitions about meaning as something you find in a dictionary, these questions lead nowhere. The philosopher’s love of wisdom is often the love of a lexicographer enamoured of putting words next to their definitions. These sorts of questions only have value if what we seek is phronesis and not sophia. Practical wisdom, judgement in the context of actual collective endeavour. Unsatisfactorily, it is a process without an outcome. It can never end in a dictionary entry which can at best capture it frozen in time. And, if that is that we end up with, then all we have is a phrase we can carry around with us as a shield to protect us from actually changing what we do. Or to close with Catmull’s words:

“Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use this statement, and not have to have the fear of changing behavior.”

Background

Many years ago I heard John Siracusa on a podcast say something like “nothing hides problem like success” when talking about issues with Apple’s software when the company was hitting $1 billion in market value. It immediately made sense to me. It is hard to try to give advice to people who are successful at something. But recently I had the urge to track down the origin of the quote and after a bit of searching I discovered that John got it from Pixar’s then President Ed Catmull’s 2009 talk at Stanford. I watched it and realised that it is relevant much more broadly than just as a source of one pithy phrase. In fact, it had at least 2 important insights.

  1. Success hides problems
  2. When powerful ideas are encapsulated in pithy sayings, they lose their power to change behavior

I went looking for the first but it’s the second one that was the inspiration to write the above.

Postscript

I found it interesting that the summary of Catmull’s talk published by Stanford where he gave this talk skirted the first and completely ignored the second insight. But without the second, the first one is meaningless. It will just sit there being numbly repeated by all, nodding along with its wisdom and doing nothing about it.

I had a quick look at Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc, and he elaborates on the second point in chapter 3 with more examples and metaphors. The metaphor I found most apt is the one of a suitcase but I only read it after I finished this post so it was too late  to work it.

“Imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads. The handle is “Trust the Process” or “Story Is King”—a pithy statement that seems, on the face of it, to stand for so much more. The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle. Too often, we grab the handle and—without realizing it—walk off without the suitcase. What’s more, we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.”