long feedback loops

By Lee Krasner

True story: I’m writing this in the gym locker room because it’s raining outside and I don’t feel like walking to my coworking space.

True story: all my weekdays are exactly the same. I wake up, get coffee, type on my laptop for a few hours, go to the gym/go for a run, hang out with a friend, and split a bottle of wine with S. I’m usually reading in by bed by 12 AM.

True story: it’s hard to continuously pay attention to the “right” things. It’s monotonous and it doesn’t feel good.

I’ve been thinking about how the middle of making things often feels like incoherence. You’re far enough away from the beginning that you’ve lost the flush of newness, but you’re also very far from the end. The work feels muddied, unfinished, and possibly very bad.

What everyone tells you: keep going. But it’s not so easy, because the progress is no longer linear. You’re no longer seeing improvement day by day or even week by week. Maybe you’ve plateaued. Maybe you’re in a cul-de-sac and you should quit?

I tweeted recently about the problem with short feedback loops, i.e. things that provide instant validation. The more addicted you are to quick feedback, the harder it is to commit to things that require longer feedback loops.

Brian Lui wrote an excellent blogpost about the danger of tight feedback loops:

Tight feedback loops are seductive because they give us the feeling of rapid improvement. This can be as addictive as any drug. And it’s true that in the early stages of learning a craft, tight feedback loops do help us improve quickly. When we’re getting the hang of things, we make major mistakes, so feedback helps us correct course.

But after achieving proficiency in a field, tight feedback loops are useless. That’s because initially, the learning environment is gentle. The path is well-travelled, there are easily accessible guides, things work according to common sense. As we become proficient, the environment becomes harsher, with noisier feedback. Improving is not as easy. At higher levels of skill, further progression depends on self-learning, on discovering or inventing new practices and knowledge. As skill increases, the gap between optimizing for metrics and optimizing for mastery widens.

He defines tight feedback loops as loops where “feedback about the results of your choices are both accurate and fast.” Tight feedback loops are often championed because they make it easy for you to learn from your mistakes. For example, let’s say I’m an adult learning how to run. If I’m otherwise athletic, it’ll be pretty straightforward for me to go from running 10 minute miles to, say, 8 minute miles. All I have to do is increase my weekly mileage and try to prevent injuries. However, if I want to go from someone who runs casually 4 days a week to someone who can run a sub-3 marathon, my feedback loop will likely go from pretty tight to much looser. As Brian writes, “At higher levels of skill, further progression depends on self-learning, on discovering or inventing new practices and knowledge. As skill increases, the gap between optimizing for metrics and optimizing for mastery widens.”

Mastery requires an ability to stick it out through loooong feedback loops. I was talking to Jackson about how we all know people who are addicted to getting really good at things, but move on as soon as they’ve achieved some level of competence. They love the high of constant stimulation, so once they see their progress plateau they quickly move onto something else. I think this is fine if you want to become a good generalist, but if there’s absolutely nothing in your life you’ve really committed to it’s probably a sign that you’re addicted to instant validation.

For me, editing has a much longer feedback loop than writing. I was telling a friend that I’ve gotten to the point where I’m scared I’ve lost objectivity: the actual work of writing is mostly finished, but there’s still revising to be done, and it’s getting hard to tell if the changes I’m making are actually making the book better. The changes have gotten more subtle, and so are the results. As a result, it’s easier to feel discouraged.

Freud has a great explanation for why the thrill of tight feedback loops never persists for that long: When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.

Mark Epstein:

Freud’s description of pleasure elucidates a basic Buddhist concept, namely, that the pursuit of pleasurable sensory experiences leads inevitably to a state of dissatisfaction, because it is in the nature of pleasure not to be sustainable.

Long feedback loops, by their very nature, cannot be pleasurable in the way short feedback loops are. Basically: the thrill will disappear. And that’s okay.

In the best case scenario, we create routines to hypnotize ourselves into repetition. We have loved ones and mentors who tell us to keep going, and help us figure out when we’re on the wrong track. We look for signs that we’re getting better, but we also understand that the process of getting really, really good at something sometimes just feels like a incoherent slog. If we’re lucky and resourceful and creative, we’ll eventually break through the membrane and find ourselves on the other side we’ve been clawing towards for so long.