Multiculturalism, Reading Books, and Dimensions of Excellence

The High Five - Edition #8

Hello all,

Welcome to another edition of ‘The High Five’. If you received this as a forward, I hope you will like this enough to subscribe to it.

In this edition, I write about an interesting podcast which talks about the impact of multiculturalism on creativity, a Twitter thread on reading, and the mental modes to view ‘Excellence’.

Podcast on multiculturalism and creativity: The Edge Effect

The United States accounts for about 5% of the world's population but has won about 60% of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded. Some of the greatest inventions took birth and shape in the US. Is there any correlation between this huge creativity in the country and the extraordinary diversity it has? Shankar Vedantam, from NPR - The Hidden Brain, explores it starting with an observation about scientists - in some instances, scientists of a certain nationality or ethnic background tend to form clusters in their field of work. So, a professor (Richard) conducted a research to find out if scientists who collaborate within the same group (coming from the same region, country etc.) produce better science output or whether scientists who have a wider network of collaborators produce better output. His scope of research was scientific research papers published by these scientists he studied. He found that papers authored by a group of scientists with diverse backgrounds tend to get better citations in science journals as the perspectives and quality of output tends to be richer.

Shankar then explores this concept in the field of creativity, with the example of a bagpipe player - Christina. Christina grew up in Galicia, a part of Spain where bagpipes are pretty much part of the culture and everyday life. As she grew older, Cristina began to experiment and started to play the music that wasn't embedded in the folkloric tradition. She started touring with bands, got popular and also got a nickname - the Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes. In her mid-20s, she moved to the US to pursue a mainstream musical career with the piano. A chance meeting with a composer who had an interest in her Galician music led to multiple opportunities. One thing led to another and one fine day she found herself in a room full of master musicians across the world, such as Yo-Yo Ma (world-renowned Cellist). In that session, she realized the power of the question: "What could musicians from many different cultures create when they come together?". And Yo-Yo answered that question as "Edge Effect" - the point in which two ecosystems meet. Apparently, in ecology, this edge effect is where the newest life-forms are created. She then joined Yo-Yo Ma's 'The Silk Road', an ensemble of musicians from diverse culture. And during that experience, she began to question why her two distinct identities - Cristina the bagpipe player, and Cristina the classical pianist need to be in two separate worlds. Working with Silk Road, she found the connections between the two worlds. The Silk Road musicians have discovered in music what Richard discovered in science - "interesting stuff happens when people from different groups come together, work together, collide". Shankar cites a couple of more examples in this podcast to illustrate this point.

Multiculturalism seems to be one of the key drivers of creativity. We often see that there is a lot of creativity in countries like the US, UK (hubs of tech advancements). These cultures are more multicultural than some of the Asian cultures. The creative talent in these countries could be because of the diverse perspectives and experiences that people there seem to be amassing. Even within India, cities with a lot of diversity, tend to become cosmopolitan. It is not because of the cosmopolitan nature that the cities like Mumbai, Bangalore became diverse, but it is the opposite. In these cities, people with diverse cultures congregated and hence the envelope of cosmopolitanism got pushed. Creativity is a microcosm of that. Even among Indian musicians, those who crossed the edges of their boundaries experimented more and became more successful and famous. This is not to say that traditionalists do not experience any creativity and fame. It is just that dimensions are different. When we work in a uni-cultured setup, we tend to doubt our own creativity levels, especially during situations when we cannot conjure up enough good ideas. It's a different story when good ideas flow. But there are always those moments when we get a bit stuck and deep inside, we are not fully happy with our ideas. We wonder if our creative spirit has dried up. May be in moments like those, we need to stretch our brainstorming exercise and involve someone far removed from our familiar environments.

Book reading: A Twitter Thread - 45 Lessons to become a better reader

I don't recall when and how I came across this wonderful thread on Twitter. But hey, it is Twitter and you discover a lot of things as people keep sharing stuff. When you come across interesting stuff, you just lap it up. This is a Twitter thread by Juvoni Beckford and it's about reading books. He shared 45 lessons on becoming a better reader. Juvoni seems to have read over 450 books in a span of 10 years. That's averaging 45 books per year, which is amazing. He views reading as a skill that could be developed, using tools that help us organise and amplify our reading. He stresses on creating systems and environments that really work for our personalities so that we can read more. In this thread, he also talks about the various lens we can use to compartmentalize our reading preferences. The lenses such as the medium of reading: which medium might fit better with which genre? which medium works better for what size of the book? He also offers some good advice note-taking, while reading. Do check it out. Thought-provoking indeed.

A perspective that reframed my thinking: Ways of looking at ‘Excellence’

This is an article I read on the blog of Scott Young, a writer. This piece is about the archetypes of ‘Excellence’. Excellence is such a very generically used word and we tend to see it through the universally defined meaning - “the best of the rest”. So, here he posits that there are different ways that something could be considered as great. And knowing those different ways has a bearing on how we approach ‘Excellence’ in our pursuits. Excellence is largely measured on a linear scale of objectivity. Excellence in studies (test scores), excellence in writing (no. of books published) etc. It's pretty straightforward as there are yardsticks developed to measure it. Another form of excellence is when there is no single yardstick to measure what is great. Scott calls it ‘Niche’, which is more abstract. Scott argues that if you need to understand in which field you are placing your pursuit and accordingly flex your approach to those pursuits. For Niches, he says, that components of greatness get amassed through creativity, exploration and experimentation. And hence it is difficult to rank the greatness in two pursuits which have their own dimensions. But if you zoom in from Niches to specific tasks where greatness can be clearly distinguished by ranking, measurement etc., then you will see that the field also is characterized by competition. The field of Sports is a great example. Excellence is defined by a measurement of accomplishment and every year, the frontiers are broken by new people. Whereas if your pursuit is playing in a field where greatness is perceived in an abstract manner (like arts), then competition doesn't matter. The quality of output itself is viewed in a new and separate dimension, without much of a comparative analysis of greatness. The world might still compare but there is no universal consensus on excellence.

When we choose our pursuits, it is important to be aware of the field in which we want to place our pursuit so that we develop strategies that align with the dimensions of greatness or excellence. If our pursuit is in a field where there is everything very objective and specific (and measurable), with less scope of abstraction, then they require attributes like efficiency, courage, stamina, etc. But if our pursuits are in niche areas then we need to understand that excellence lies in our appetite for experimentation, creativity, exploration and in our ability to stretch our imagination. It would be futile to give in to the world-dictated yardsticks of competition. Most of us have our pursuits in both dimensions - the objectively measured fields as well as the abstract fields. So it is very important for us to switch gears, mentally, in how we define ‘Excellence’ and how we approach it.

A quote that resonated with me this week: "What looks like talent is often careful preparation. What looks like skill is often persistent revision." - James Clear.

A question I pondered about this week: If much of what we do is predicated on an idea of ourselves that we’re trying to protect, then how do we do things that don’t let anyone decide definitively who we are?

This post was written while listening to songs from James Bond films.

Until we meet next weekend - have a wonderful time.