Sunday, June 15, 2008

Intuition, Experience, and the value of getting Pwned

The following is to be taken mostly proverbially. Names have been changed, primarily to protect my bruised ego.

There are few things that I hate more than looking stupid or incompetent. At the same time I like trying new things (and this rarely happens without falling flat on your face a couple of dozen times). As a result, I usually do not advertise that I do something before I haven't gotten some confidence in at least not being significantly worse than average.

So tonight, I had my first free evening in a few weeks. I decided I'd go follow one of my not-publicly-advertised hobbies. I found a place to go, and thought that I was good enough to play.

I got pwned, and it wasn't pretty.

There are many different ways of competing and losing. Whenever this happens, it happens with a certain "delta" -- the skill gap between you and your opponent(s). Small deltas usually trigger a reaction of "get up, try again" in me.

Tonight, the delta between me and the weakest competitor was such a gulf that - within minutes - it was clear that I should practice a few more years before I contemplate coming back. I will not even describe what the delta between me and the stronger competitors was.

Getting knocked down has one great benefit: After you have been knocked down and realized that there is no sense in getting up quickly, you have a few minutes of extraordinary calm to contemplate the situation - your skill level, your competitors' skill level, the value of experience and intuition.

No matter how much work you put into something, and no matter how much talent you have, intuition and experience have tremendous value. And they are nigh-impossible to teach, and to accumulate quickly.

What is intuition ? What is its relation to experience ?

Intuition is what one bases decisions on when knowledge fails. In any field, there are situations where decisions have to be made with very imperfect and incomplete information. Intuition is what we rely on when we don't know anything.

Intuition is usually based on experience - but whereas one can easily talk about "experiences" (they can be recalled usually), talking about the reasoning behind an intuition is often difficult. If one believes in the theory of two brain hemispheres, intuition lives deeply in the nonverbal part of your brain.

When I teach classes, or do collaborative code audits, or when I do some sorts of math, I end up in situations where I have a "feeling" about how things "should" be. This feeling is both tremendously useful and horribly frustrating for students and coworkers. The difficulty of verbalizing all the bits that feed an intuition makes it difficult to follow.

If someone has sufficient experience in a field, some of the things he does seem like magic. My competitors this evening clearly did things I had never seen before, and did so quite well.

Perhabs a skill can be described as a simple real-valued function.

Your innate talent and your work investment influence the slope, and the value of the function at a particular point tells you your current direct "knowledge" of a field. Intuition must then be something that is based on the accumulated area under the curve.

In many situations, it might be possible to catch up with someone experienced on a particular topic in a limited timeframe - but catching up with the value of your "function" is only half the game. You'll have to outperform someone for quite a while before your accumulated "area" exceeds his.

Anyhow, the one thing that I tell myself to get over this is that I was the youngest man in the room by a gap of about 10 years. So I'd like to tell myself that, given that extra 10 years, I could actually compete.

There's one caveat though: There were several women that were younger than me, and the delta to them was no less than to any of the men.

I apologize for the excessive vagueness of this post.


Ken Buchanan said...

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called "Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking" that explores intuition. He gets into how experience can make it powerful -- as you observed -- and how in some cases intuition can fail spectacularly.

Troff said...

Sounds like someone's been playing chess.

Keith Myers said...

Halvar, Guitar Hero isn't for everyone. LOL -kM

D said...

Women are usually better at singing karaoke! :-)