Help, I'm a Platonist!
April 21, 2011 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I am passionately in love with ideas, but I feel pretty tepid about real things. Can this be reversed?

Ever see the zeFrank video about "brain crack"? That's me.

I love the ideas of things, but never get very attached to the final product when it comes to exist in physical reality. The idealized versions of things (art, music, writing, cooking, etc.) stay so flawless in my mind compared to the individual incarnations of them. As a result, I find myself very unmotivated to create things or follow through with plans, because I am so disappointed when I finish them. The feeling of diminishing returns leaves me asking, "Why bother?"

Are there cognitive approaches, meditation techniques, work exercises, physical practices, or magic berries which might reverse my inclination, away from the perfect-yet-unreal, and help me fall back in love with the flawed-but-real world?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Religion & Philosophy (5 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm. I can identify somewhat, though I'd describe it differently. For me it's less that I'm uninterested in the "real world" as opposed to the "ideal world" as much as it is that I like thinking about projects and concepts a lot more than the grunt work of actually doing them. My ideal situation is where I can think up a project and even plan out the execution... and then have someone else do it for me. Which can translate into a lack of motivation or follow-through pretty easily, if I let it.

If this sounds remotely similar to what you're experiencing, than I'd suggest that you might be able to work around this by making yourself look at how the details fit into the big picture. Sure, this-right-here is boring as hell, but you aren't doing it for this-right-here, you're doing it as one small part of a larger project. That project needn't even be just the individual project you're working on, e.g. "This paper sucks, but I need it for class, and I need this class for my degree." Perspective can be everything.
posted by valkyryn at 2:32 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hmmm... I guess I should clarify a bit -- I don't have problems putting in the work itself. The problem is when I'm finished, I don't feel like it was worth it.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 3:21 PM on April 21, 2011

Best answer: I've struggled with this to some extent, too. I sometimes feel like I've thought something through enough part way through the project and resent taking it all the way when I already know what I'll say about the project to people when it's done. But the thing I've learned that takes me through the process is that the artifact itself is hugely important for communicating what something means. Because the thing that lives in your head is abstract, no one is really understanding it in the same way you are. This is why design process strategies (eg Ideo-style stuff) all advocate for exporting your ideas into drawings as fast as possible. Just talking about stuff abstractly is a poor way to get your point across, even though it seems like it's working a lot of the time. But in the end, having the actual thing made is radically more effective.

The other angle is that even though the process of making the thing concrete makes it less like your vision, the vision was never actually real if you can't make it. The real thing is always better precisely because it's real! Your work has responded to the practicalities of your medium, and that makes it a super valuable contribution and something that you can share with other people. In my world at least, ideas are worth a hell of a lot less than real things and that value structure means that everyone understands the challenges of working with real stuff and strongly values people who follow through in that arena and produce things.

I work mostly in code, and have always loved Fred Brooks' writing about programming. I can't find my copy of Mythical Man Month at the moment, so I've pieced this together from a few different web sources so it might not be 100% right, but hopefully you'll get the idea from this pair of quotes:
Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.

Yet the program construct, unlike the poet's words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separately from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.
And on the properties of creative media:
In many creative activities the medium of execution is intractable. Lumber splits; paints smear; electrical circuits ring. These physical limitations of the medium constrain the ideas that may be expressed, and they also create unexpected difficulties in the implementation.

Computer programming, however, creates with an exceedingly tractable medium. The programmer builds from pure thought-stuff: concepts and very flexible representations thereof. Because the medium is tractable, we expect few difficulties in implementation; hence our pervasive optimism. Because our ideas are faulty, we have bugs; hence our optimism is unjustified.
In some ways, he's lauding the fact that programming lets us live really closely to our ideas so we don't suffer so much from the indignities of intractable media. But in my view, it's not nearly as tractable as we think it is. Code trains us to think in a certain way and channels our energy in certain directions, in much the same way that other media have particular affordances. And it's by working with those affordances, instead of against them, that we both make the output more like the ideas and have more impact with the things we make.
posted by heresiarch at 4:04 PM on April 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Wow, heresiarch, great answer.

My short (also a programmer) point of view: I get a huge amount of satisfaction from creation when I see the utility and value that my creation provides to other people.

The sense of innate wrongness from the Platonic ideal remains, mind you. It's still broken and crufty and unsatisfying, viewed in opposition to the perfect ideal.

This duality may be unique to coding/CS as a field. The emotional experience of coding is quite similar to canvas painting, or more specifically long-form plotted prose. The end result, however, is approachable by others, and for me, that makes all the difference.

overeducated_alligator, if you have never tried, but are otherwise artistically inclined, you may enjoy it.
posted by Exonym at 7:33 PM on April 21, 2011

Best answer: I understand exactly where you're coming from. I mentioned this to a friend once, who is a biology guy, and he said something along the lines of:

The basis of all evolution of the history of the organism comes from the organism's capacity to make mistakes. Evolution only happens because mutation happens, which is making-mistakes in the process of duplicating chromosomal DNA; if duplication was always perfect, then there would be no change. In other words: the long-term evolution, progress, change of biological organisms only happens because, at a minute level, mistakes are happening.

If you think of each project as having a flawless idea in your head, that you 'just' need to make an physical incarnation of, then of course you're always going to make mistakes. That's the myth of the genius creator; the artiste who, with great attention to detail and their high degree of skill, is able to do exactly what they wanted, how they wanted, and create a masterpiece in that fashion.

Instead, you should think of your own self as a series of carefully controlled 'mistakes' -- you are only yourself because of these mistakes are valuable. I don't mean this in a "learn from our past mistakes!" kind of a way, but rather that it's very very important that your realized incarnation and the original idea are different. If they weren't, and everything you do is executed flawlessly, then in the short term, you'd be happy. In the long run, you would never move, or progress, or change anywhere. You'd be stuck in a endless loop and repeat yourself.

And whether this is always true or not, I think it's a really productive way to think. It reduces that special kind of paralysis that stems from having high expectations, by placing importance on the process rather than on the goal itself. It's what's helped me so far.
posted by suedehead at 10:08 PM on April 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

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