Thursday, April 19, 2007

Paul Graham's Take on Judgements

Paul Graham has several interesting essays on his web pages. I just read a recent one entitled Two Kinds of Judgement. This short essay deals with the types of judgement we usually face in our daily lives and lots of what Graham writes applies to our scientific careers too. The gist of his message is that there are two different ways people judge you. The first, and rarer, type of judgement arises when people are really interested in judging you correctly. The correctness of the decision is important in this type of judgement and this means that we usually have some form of appeal system against a decision we perceive to be incorrect. We usually encounter this type of judgement when we submit a paper to journal, say.

A second much more common type of judgement does not have the goal of judging you correctly. As Graham writes:

It's not aimed at producing a correct estimate of any given individual, but at selecting a reasonably optimal set.

We meet this type of judgement whenever we submit a paper to a conference or workshop. Of course, we all feel that our work is worthy of selection when we submit it. (Indeed, as they say in Naples, "Even a cockroach is beautiful for its mum".) That is why we are usually not so good at accepting that our papers are not selected for presentation at an event. Here Graham's following words from his essay may be worth keeping in mind:

Our early training and our self-centeredness combine to make us believe that every judgement of us is about us. In fact most aren't. This is a rare case where being less self-centered will make people more confident. Once you realize how little most people judging you care about judging you accurately—once you realize that because of the normal distribution of most applicant pools, it matters least to judge accurately in precisely the cases where judgement has the most effect—you won't take rejection so personally.

And curiously enough, taking rejection less personally may help you to get rejected less often. If you think someone judging you will work hard to judge you correctly, you can afford to be passive. But the more you realize that most judgements are greatly influenced by random, extraneous factors—that most people judging you are more like a fickle novel buyer than a wise and perceptive magistrate—the more you realize you can do things to influence the outcome.

Indeed, we could all try to write better papers that sell our ideas---once we have them, that is. As Paul Halmos famously wrote in his automathography:

"I love to do research, I want to do research, I have to do research, and I hate to sit down and begin to do research---I always try to put it off just as long as I can. ....Isn't there something I can (must?) do first? Shouldn't I sharpen my pencils perhaps?"

Anyway, Paul Graham's essays are well worth reading while sharpening one's pencils. (Have you heard the scraping sound of my pencil sharpener for some time now?) Check out also his recent essay on the death of Microsoft. You might also enjoy looking at the web page for his new venture firm, Y combinator. Cool name, isn't it?

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