Prospecting Vs. Judging

The Myers Briggs test is a personality test that is based on categorising people into four sets of binaries. For example, introversion or extraversion is one group, and then it does this three more times to cover four different aspects of personality in total. Although it doesn’t have much authority in the world of serious psychology because it’s not repeatable (i.e. you can do the test once and it’ll class you as an ENTP, do it again and you’ll be a completely different INFJ. In fact, the only personality signifiers that hold weight in psychology due to repeatability are “the big five”) it’s still very popular. I think the reason for this popularity is that it gives us insight into different ways in which people think, allowing us to see the world in a way that would otherwise go unnoticed to us.

That’s not to say we’re not capable of seeing things from the other person’s perspective, it’s just that we tend to favour looking at things from one world view to the other if possible. However, I also think that a given situation will affect which side you choose to take within that specific time frame. For example, you might be drawn towards the extraverted side when you’ve not socialised for a while and want your fix (which has now been termed “ambiversion” – you show signs of both). I think that this is ultimately the downfall of the test and why the test isn’t repeatable.

Today I’d like to examine the 4th category of the Myers Briggs test: categorising into either ‘judging’ or ‘prospecting’. I think this category is perhaps the most obvious example of how we need be capable of reacting to the world as either a ‘judger’ or ‘prospector’, depending on the situation. If we weren’t capable of doing both, we wouldn’t be able to function in the world. Let’s just look at both categories quickly before jumping in.

Judging is the strategy of making plans, and then carrying that plan out, to achieve a goal. Prospecting is the strategy of ‘going with the flow’, being present in the current situation and reacting to it in a way that moves you towards the desired outcome. I’m definitely predominantly a ‘judger’ and have tended towards tasks that prefer this strategy throughout my life. But I’m always interested in people who prefer the “prospecting” side of things.

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize in Economics for work in this area, describing his findings in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  If anyone has read the book, the ‘prospecting’ strategy can be loosely thought of as what Kahneman described as “System 1”, and the ‘judging’ strategy can be loosely thought of as “System 2.” Let’s have a look at each strategy in a bit more detail, and see when each one is applicable.

 

Prospecting

There’s just one problem with people who structure their life predominantly on planning, and Mike Tyson summed it up with surprising eloquence.

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

You might have the best-laid plans, but they only work in an environment that either doesn’t change, or if it does change: it won’t influence the outcome of the plan. If either of those conditions isn’t true, ‘judging’ strategy is useless. The plan will become obsolete before you even start to carry it out. In situations like sports, complex board games (like chess, where there are 8,902 different possible board positions after only 2 moves), and even everyday normal conversations – where you don’t know which way the conversation is going to go – you need a different strategy. There’s no possible way we can play enough games of chess so that we can have a plan for each situation, or have a plan for every possible conversation. So what can we do?

In Thinking, Fast And Slow, Kahneman described the strategy of heuristics to deal with a constantly changing environment. Heuristics can be seen as quick “rules of thumb” or “common sense” – basically they’re rules to follow that can be applicable to either a general situation (although the specifics may differ), or a by reacting to only certain sub-section of the environment (that will have the most impact) and then ignore the rest (which may still have an impact, but a lesser one). In real life, this is applied by trusting yourself to recognise the important factors in the current environment, and then to make a good snap decision based on having dealt successfully with a familiar situation in the past. The computer program Deep Blue used a heuristic-like strategy – by comparing a library of previous chess games to the game it was playing, finding all relevant (based on board similarity) examples in the library and picking the move that had the best outcome out of the given examples – to be the first computer to beat the chess Grand-Master, Kasparov, in 1996. The trick here is to know what aspects of the board are important: this is the spine of the algorithm that searches for relevant examples.

Another element of sports is to ingrain a specific movement until it almost becomes unconscious: an unconscious competence. This way, when the time comes, we do it automatically. There is no planning, just unconscious reaction.  Writing about the philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, it was said (in the introduction to “Meditations”):

“But Marcus Aurelius knows that what the heart is full of, the man will do. ‘Such as thy thoughts and ordinary cogitations are’, he says, ‘such will thy mind be in time’. And every page of the book shows us that he knew thought was sure to issue in act. He drills his soul, as it were, in right principles, so that when the time comes, it may be guided by them. To wait until the emergency is to be too late”

 

Finally, one strategy to work in a prospecting-regime is just to be quick-witted. This works better for some than others (and I’m jealous of those who it works well for!)

In the work-place, there are multiple methodologies that work from a prospecting strategy. The most popular one is the software engineering methodology, Agile, which has become popular in the last 10 years. Agile has become so popular because customer requirements change frequently, but sometimes it takes a long time to write the code to create functions that satisfy those requirements. To overcome these issues, Agile methodology is an interesting hybrid between a prospecting mindset and a judging mindset. It works from a set of principles designed to get the code written as quickly as possible during periods known as ‘sprints’. During each sprint, the code structure is planned and then written based on the requirements (this is the judging bit). After each sprint, the code is compared to requirements and another small sprint is planned based on a reaction to the new environment (this is the prospecting bit).

 

Judging

Some tasks, however, are just too complex to be undertaken by a prospecting strategy, especially those in project engineering that take many years. Countless companies have gone bankrupt by not planning well enough in the beginning phases, only to find out half-way down the line that there was a critical element they overlooked, which means that sub-components designed by different departments aren’t compatible (one example from a countless number), causing them to scrap the whole project and start again. By the time they’re half-way finished through the second iteration: the project is years late and the company has run out of money.

Of course, we can’t plan for things that we can’t see we don’t know (unknown unknowns), but we can do many other things that may bring possible complications to the surface and thus we can plan for them accordingly. The first step of solving a problem is realising there’s a problem.

A popular engineering methodology that uses the “judging”/planning mindset is Systems Engineering: where the emphasis is placed on the beginning stages of a project, in which requirements are clearly set and then planned on how to fulfil them, with each department involved. In this way, and basing the planning on aspects that were covered in previous successful projects, unknown unknowns can be minimised through a number of different micro-strategies and mid-project problems can be mitigated.

 

Final words

I could write more about different ways the “judging” strategy is useful, and the different ways we can use it, but many books have already been written about it (countless systems engineering handbooks, or project management training books, for example) and, really, I think it’s the less interesting of the two. I feel that the “prospecting” mindset is usually overlooked, especially among engineers like myself. I think engineers who are used to planning don’t recognise the skill involved in being a proficient “prospector”, as a result, we tend to underestimate the skills needed in those departments: for example, technical sales, where a lot of work is done in conversation and understanding quickly how to react to different environments… which is why I find the prospecting perspective so interesting! Ultimately, though, we need to understand and be proficient at both mindsets, and then apply them accordingly to each situation.

The Psychological Effect of Moving From Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompentence

This blog post relies on you knowing what the 4 stages of competence are. There are loads articles written about this model, so I’m not going to do it here. You can try the Wikipedia page if you don’t know what it is.

Moving from unconscious incompetence (UI) to conscious incompetence (CI) is a sign that you’re starting to grasp the full extent of work needed to gain mastery in a skill. It’s a good thing: you now understand what needs to be worked on and developed so that you can gain mastery. However, I’ve realised that there’s something else that happens to me – and a lot of other people – when we step from UI to CI.

When we move from UI to CI, we get complacent. I’ve seen this happen time and time again with people who understand certain domains of skill to an adequate level. Take professional sports, for example. The newcomers look at table tennis and think, “I can totally hit that ball with that paddle (yeh, guys, it’s called a paddle not a bat, fyi) like those dudes on TV”. They’re excited to try something new and they have self-belief that they can gain mastery if they work hard. The guys who have already established themselves look at these newcomers derisively, knowing that the newcomer has vastly underestimated the work needed to achieve mastery. “You think you can become the best?”, they ask in their heads. “Ha. No chance.”

Fast forward to having spent 100 hours in that domain, and now the newcomer is 10x more skilful, but they’re 10x more complacent. They haven’t progressed as quickly as they expected they would and they now realise the extent of the work needed. It’s like they’re going backwards, psychologically: the more hours they put in, the less confident they become with their belief of gaining mastery.

That complacency sends them into a downward spiral. They become demotivated to do any more training, so they stop training, and then they stop getting better. Then they’ll probably tell themselves, “I wasn’t cut out to do this.”

It’s deeply ironic to think that they stop becoming more skilled in an area because they gained enough skill in that area to comprehend what it takes to succeed.

There are a lot of different psychological effects that exhibit themselves in different flavours from this transitional cause. Imposter syndrome is one being thrown around by a lot of people starting their first jobs at the moment. The Dunning-Kruger effect is another. But what can we do about it?

Obviously, you should talk to an expert, not some engineer writing a blog who has a casual interest in psychology. But if you were to ask some engineer writing a blog who has a casual interest in psychology, I would say a good strategy is the combination of two things: 1. being aware of how far you’ve already come and celebrating that, 2. a bit of self-aware self-delusion. Hear me out.

 

Awareness of how far you’ve come

You’ve got to stage two of four along the competency track. You realise now just how much better the experts are than you. But at least you realise that now.

Being aware of your awareness is something to celebrate. You can see what areas you need to develop more clearly and you understand the issues better. You’ve come a long way in being able to clearly see the remaining barriers that still stand in your way: before you were blind to them, now you can see them. The first stage in solving a problem is to understand that you have a problem, so this is a great first step. It’s always good to recognise this and congratulate yourself.

I also wonder how many happiness strategies are frowned upon because they’re not virtuous: i.e. list ways that you’re better than someone. You might not be as good as Federer in tennis, but at least you can beat your neighbour. You’ve come far enough to beat him (even if he’s 87 and plays with a walking stick in one hand and a racket in the other). It’s probably not good to consistently look for people who you’re better than in a certain skill, but maybe it’s more healthy than consistently comparing yourself to the greats/how far you still have to go. I’d say: do it, but only infrequently… and keep it to yourself.

 

Self-aware self-delusion

Okay, so I made this sound a little bit dramatic. Really, though, this strategy is just visualisation: visualising the result you want and imagining what it would be like to have already achieved it. I haven’t read the book The Secret, but I’ve heard that this idea is what the book is about. From what I’ve heard about the book, it sounds like it takes this strategy too far by saying, “use this strategy and all your dreams come true”: ignoring competency and other problems which would require different strategies to apply in parallel, which puts me off the book. Visualisation is one thing we need to do in conjunction with a number of other useful strategies. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. But I digress.

There will be times when you’re not that good at something: when you try something new. At the moment, I’m in the middle of writing a short story. My writing is far from that of Hemingway. What helps me is imagining my name next to the likes of J.K. Rowling. I try not to lose sight of what I want to do: to have a short story that people will actually want to read as much as Harry Potter. I can see all the areas where my story is bad: poor pacing, I get too science-y/technical in a lot of places (= boring for 90% of people), sentence construction is just weak etc. But I try to ignore all that for the majority of the time, do my best at just tweaking the most immediate issue, then imagine that the rest is gold. Or at least it can be. Because the prospect of how far I still have yet to go – for me – is paralysing.

Being aware of the 4 stages of competence allows us to articulate our complacency: it gives us a model to understand what’s going on and why we feel paralysed. Finally, we can take one step further back. By realising that I’m aware of the 4 stages… I can choose what to do about it. And then if I choose to actively ignore it and pretend that I’m a great writer, I can live in my happy delusional bubble to help ride out the bumpy, demotivating transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.

 

 

These are all just my own strategies for trying to stay motivated. But I know there are others! What do you guys do? & What do you think of mine?