Subtle variations on familiar themes

I was skimming through George Leonard’s little book Mastery the other night and ran across this quote:

… the essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in … the discovery of endless riches and subtle variations on familiar themes.

This is a theme I’ve written about several times before. For example, see the post Six quotes on digging deep. I often think about one of the quotes in that post. Richard Feynman said that

… nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough …

In the post God is in the details I talk about how that applies to statistics. Rote application of statistics is mind-numbingly dull, but statistics can be quite interesting when you dig down to the foundations.

When I was in new faculty orientation years ago I remember a chemistry professor exhorting us to volunteer to teach freshman courses. Most people want to teach the more advanced courses, but he said that some of his best inspiration came from teaching the most foundational courses.

Focusing on basics is hard work and few people want to do it. George Leonard describes this as America’s “anti-mastery” culture. Seth Godin uses the image of a starving woodpecker in his book The Dip.

A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty thousand times on one tree and get dinner.

Sometimes I feel like the woodpecker tapping on a thousand trees, staying busy but getting nowhere. But then I also think about a line from W. C. Fields:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.

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2 thoughts on “Subtle variations on familiar themes

  1. The problem with digging deeper is that you sometimes find so much down there, you’re just pecking at a thousand branches of a new tree. It is much more satisfying than the search for novelty, except when you can’t decide which of 20 new paths to take to go deeper.

  2. In the sports world, football teams love to experiment with the passing game, yet in most games the team with the most rushing yards wins. In the political realm, it’s shaking the most hands (although at times that’s shaking the most hands at fundraising events rather than house-to-house visits). In my work world, the quest for the newest bus route is neverending; however, putting bus schedules for existing bus routes in passenger shelters (OK, simply putting up passenger shelters where none exist), and improving on time performance on existing bus routes have consistently yielded higher ridership gains than creating new routes at lower cost. When you create a new route, there’s a great opportunity for community leaders – elected, appointed, or self-ordained – to come together for a celebration and / or ribbon cutting with an annual operating cost of several hundred thousand dollars. When you install a passenger shelter, there’s limited opportunity for a ribbon cutting ceremony that will attract dignitaries; however, there are an average of 20 additional boardings per day or 5,000 additional weekday boardings over the course of the year and improved comfort for all of the passengers who previously boarded a bus at that location, all at a one-time capital cost of several thousand dollars. The latter won’t make headlines in any newspaper while the former would. Perhaps this says more about our lack of understanding about what is newsworthy than it does about anything else.

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