Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Success Master Skills: Can Entropy be Good?

In the previous posts about entropy in human achievement (here, here, here), I have portrayed entropy as a villain: as the seeping disorder that destabilizes our plans, and often our lives. I’ve urged that we become aware of the sources of entropy in our lives and that we take measures to control the process. The less “noise” we allow into our lives, the more we can focus on what really matters to us. We not only free up time, but we allow the brain the time it needs to slowly iterate through our subject matter, producing more and better outputs the longer we fixate on a particular task.

So, are there any areas where entropy is good in our lives? Any ways in which we should be (gasp!) adding entropy? Is there such a thing as “Productive Entropy?”

Of course. Perhaps my favorite book of the year, Tim Hurson’s Think Better: An Innovator's Guide to Productive Thinking describes the methods of “convergent/divergent” thinking. In the ”divergent” phase, we add entropy: we open our minds to all sorts of solutions, alternatives, fantasies, questions, etc in search for the proper frameworks of problems and solutions. Then, Hurson leads us to the “convergent thinking” zone, in which we carefully sift and sort through the ideas we have discovered, in a sense, removing entropy to find the “gold” in the ideas.

There are times when entropy (disruption, variety, surprise, distraction, shocks of one kind or another) is crucial to the unfolding of our existence. There is the well-known story about the discovery of Penicillin, accidentally, because a culture of bacteria had mysteriously died in the presence of certain mold. There was also the hugely disruptive “failure” of the Michelson-Morley experiment which failed to detect an “ether wind”, thus leading to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and a revolution in physics.

In terms of bettering our own lives, adding entropy allows a re-ordering of knowledge, of experience, of implications and possibilities, often leading to positive outcomes. For instance,whenever a client’s ”normal” supplier is unavailable, a new supplier might be able to step in. A blind date might lead to romance and marriage, A Paradigm Shift (for instance, from electro-mechanical relays to transistors) can open whole Universes of opportunity. Author Clayton Christensen goes so far as to describe an “innovator’s dilemma” because of the continual encroachment of new methods and technologies moves up the value chain, disrupting business models as it goes. One of the first books I reviewed on this site, Carr's How to Attract Good Luck
is, in essence, a manual for selectively adding “productive entropy” into one’s life. As Carr describes it, the concept of luck could be deconstructed to mean “chance meeting the prepared mind combined with a positive, adventurous outlook and a willingness to be flexible”.

In an upcoming post, I’ll describe some methods to add “productive entropy” .

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