The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

How to avoid making an idiot of yourself

Intelligence* — as far as I can tell — is a variable, not a constant. It fluctuates, the same way a healthy person’s heart-rate varies over time. Graph it, and it looks like this:

Sine Wave of intelligence over time

It wouldn’t be a steady sine-wave like the one above. It might be a square wave, a sawtooth wave, a triangle wave, or, most likely, some kind of combo frankenwave. But sine waves are easy to draw and will get the point across. And the point is that even when there’s nothing drastic going on, it has a natural rhythm. So let’s look at that wave again:

Sine Wave with magnifying glass

Call that a day. Let’s zoom in:

Sine Wave climbing

That’s an hour. It looks about the same, because what we were initially looking at was a compound wave.

At any given moment, we’re somewhere on this sinuous curve. And where we are on the curve when we make important decisions is, well, important.

For example: what effect does our place on the curve have on our creative output?

Let’s say we make something. Maybe it’s an essay, like this one. Maybe it’s a drawing. Here we are when we make it:

A dot

We put it out into the world. Oops. A little later, we see it in context:

Dot in context

For this example, the scale of our graph doesn’t matter. It could be a day, a week, a month, a year; the result would be the same.

If we’d had the perspective we have now, we might not have been in such a hurry to publish the essay or post the tweetstorm. We might, instead, have done a bit more editing. But we didn’t have the perspective we have now. At the time, it just looked like this:

Here-now dot

It’s like graphing quadratics:

Graphing quadratics

If we act — if we say, do, make, or publish things — when we’re at rock bottom, there’s a good chance we’ll regret it once we’re further up the curve. We need some kind of checksum. We need perspective, and here are two ways to get it.

Option 1: Wait

If we wait long enough, we can use dead-reckoning to see if we’re going up or going down. If we get out our slide-rules and compasses, sharpen our pencils, and end up with something that looks like this:

Dot in context (climbing)

… then let’s not trumpet about it just yet. But if it looks like this:

Dot in context (falling)

Then we think, Hot diggity! I was really onto something! And we pursue the idea further, and try to get back to the place we got it from.

Option 2: Get feedback

Everybody has a sine wave like this. Everybody has ups and downs[1]. But not all of these sine waves are in phase: when I’m having a bummer, somebody else is probably having a moment of inspiration, and vice versa.

"Me" & "Them" sine waves, out of phase

If we make something that stinks and show it to them, there’s a good chance that they’ll be higher on the curve than we are; rarely do the waves synchronize so perfectly that we hit rock bottom simultaneously. Thus, the world will be saved from the products of our worst moments. With this single checksum, we’ve gone from this:

Sine wave with dots and average line

To this:

Sine wave with dots and average line & low-cut

Quite an improvement to the average quality of our output. But add more advisors and look what happens:

Phase-shifted sine waves with high average line

If we show stuff to enough people, at any given point someone is going to be doing better than us, and be able to point out problems we’ve overlooked. It’s much easier to have someone point Waldo out than to find him yourself.

There’s one thing I still want to mention: Mentors. They look like this:

Mentor and student sine waves on graph

They can raise my entire sine wave, by pointing to points that aren’t even on the map[2]:

Mentor and student sine waves on graph with idea and edit

So I try to get feedback from a dozen or so people before going public. Or, barring that, I sleep on it and work on something else in the meantime. If it’s worth publishing, it will be worth publishing tomorrow.

That’s the One Weird Trick for not Making an Idiot of Yourself, discovered by a stay-at-home blogger in B.C., Canada.


  1. Cue Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines theme song. ↩︎

  2. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is where the sine wave metaphor breaks down. ↩︎