On Professional Deformation

And all other kinds of deformities

Kings in check. Photo by Piotr Makowski

Air Drag — The Only Viscous Force?

When I was younger, and I was sitting in the car, I used to look out of my window and try to keep track of all of the number plates in the 3x3-grid vicinity. If I was really focused, I would also track the delta of these cars over a period of time, say one stretch of the highway to the next. I got weirdly good at this — spending countless hours in commute focusing on where which family was going at what time of the day — and bifurcated their travel in terms of work or leisure.

Why didn’t I focus on certain, more specific, characteristics like the car color or make? I can’t for the life of me recall — maybe it had mostly to do with the fact that I never cared for vehicles (depreciating assets) or I pessimistically assumed those were interchangeable and number plates weren’t, like some twisted real-life GTA Auto Repairs. Imagine my absolute disgust when I came across Bond’s 007 Aston Martin, which featured revolving number plates. That would have messed me up in my adolescence.

The thing is I still do this to this day, but in different ways. Professional Deformation is

“a tendency to look at things from one's profession or special expertise, rather than from a broader or humane perspective.”

From an OSINT perspective, I generally have an idea of how many closed-circuit cameras are present when I enter a restaurant. Chess helps when you’re trying to formulate arguments or figure out the next best legal move in the current position — min-max search of the game space (life?). I would regularly utilize Dijkstra's algorithm to path-find the most efficient route to-and-from class, organizing my entire morning schedule based on the New York MTA, already accounting for their propensity for tardiness. Everything is turned into a game of probability, chance, and risk.

Everyone succumbs to this distortion, but STEM-related fields often skew these metrics. Take this age-old programmer joke:

A programmer is going to the grocery store and his wife tells him, "Buy a gallon of milk, and if there are eggs, buy a dozen." So the programmer goes, buys everything, and drives back to his house. Upon arrival, his wife angrily asks him, "Why did you get 13 gallons of milk?" The programmer says, "There were eggs!"

This can essentially be distilled into an if-conditional statement, where;

buy("milk", 1)                       // buying 1 gallon of milk if (grocery_store.contains("eggs") { // the store has eggs!   buy("milk", 12)                    // 12 gallons of milk... }

Be more succinct, or at least less verbose?

Kenneth E. Iverson’s “Notation as a Tool of Thought”, touches on how an expanded vocabulary assists you in brainstorming. Domain-Specific Language (DSL) is important in getting your point across as quickly and efficiently as possible, but this comes as an expensive cost — O(NlogN) — to the people around you.

A Curse of The Tetris Effect

Not wanting to stray too far from the topic, I’d also like to play devil’s advocate:

There might be multiple benefits of this concise point-of-view, but you end up restricting your vision, like a horse with blinders — your entire field of vision is limited to only what is in front of you.

“We also use it to apologize when being rude without meaning it.”

Soft skills are important, especially outside of the work-place, and you can’t approach everything from a logistical standpoint — carrying over these traits to your personal life affects the people around you. Unfortunately, our lives don’t always have one singular answer. This is usually where psychopathy starts seeping in.

A Total Res(e)t

Life is impossible to calculate: at the end, when it matters most, a person will always make decisions emotionally, and applying your ultra-logical inhumane field of study to life is just a coping mechanism. I don’t see anything wrong with this —

Logic solicits cognitive effort, whereas emotion is automatic. 

Life is chaotic, and maybe trying to find reason in chaos is the only way we deal with the trauma of our past, but many greats have failed.

For the religious person, the world is god-fearing.
For the mathematical person, the world is analytical.
But the difference is the religious world allows for humanity, the math doesn’t.
The poet's world is not mutually exclusive to the human world.

How do you combat the Déformation professionnelle? Looking at the bigger picture helps, especially in consulting. One way I expand my view is through The Wiki Game, where

The game, at its most basic, presents players with a Challenge: that is a Start Article and Goal Article that must be connected via clicking article links, during a given Round.

Different game modes require players to connect articles the fastest, with the fewest clicks, or other combinations and variations.

There’s an infinite possibility space of game paths that can be taken - paths that weave through topics that span the entirety of Wikipedia itself - and the winning connections can vary from intelligent, to surprising, to simply clever and fun.

Degrees of separation-style knowledge quests? Count me in.

Also just read voraciously and eclectically, not just Hacker News (or your occupational equivalent of the renowned aggregator/ discussion portal).


Addendum

Below are some more professional deformations which I sourced online which were eerily/ sadly relatable:

  1. Always in bug-fixing, problem-solving mode instead of just listening

  2. Not being able to pick up on hints, ever, or otherwise be able to work with incomplete information. If I don't have all the arguments to a function in my brain, I just ignore it until the rest falls into place. Sometimes people specifically leave those out, so I'm lost until it's too late

  3. Constantly having to come up with analogies to explain highly technical concepts to my non-technical co-workers

  4. Annoyed that I can't automate all the boring parts of my life in the same way I can do (and I always do) in a computer

  5. I keep a lot of things sorted. For example, my wallet's money is always sorted

  6. Whenever I pay for something in cash, I'm trying to make it so that the change I get back requires the least notes or is simpler

  7. Answering questions fairly literally: “Would you like to go to the fine art museum with me and 4 of my friends on Friday night?” “No, I would not like that.”

  8. A/B testing: ask close friends the same question phrased differently

  9. Constantly skimming text. I always find myself resisting the urge to skim through blocks of text as I would through code while looking for bugs

  10. Gym sets are done in powers of 2

  11. Tail-call optimization: Mundane work like washing the dishes are similar to shell pipes. I get data, process it, another step, repeat.

  12. Branch prediction when chatting on IM's, especially with people who type slowly. Prompt them with a question and prepare a response based on their answer. Note: doesn’t work all the time.

  13. Not holding grudges and not worrying about things that I can not change often seem like mental garbage collection techniques to me

  14. Premature Optimization: uhh.

  15. Path-Finding Optimization II for commuting

  16. Birthday Paradox: when I'm searching for matching socks in the morning

  17. Casting: The opposite for shirts… I have way too many monochrome shirts…

  18. Better to ask forgiveness than permission: self-explanatory

  19. I use the scientific method quite consciously all the time. Form a hypothesis, try to come up with some relevant experiments, perform them, notice that they (usually) disconfirm the hypothesis, repeat until the hypothesis is not disconfirmed. A hacky Reductio ad Absurdum

  20. non-blocking I/O: iPhone on perpetual Do Not Disturb

  21. Reverse engineering anything I can get my hands on

  22. For instance, assume nothing, trust but verify, be strict in what you send but forgiving in what you receive, and so on. Or more politely — “Delegate completely, verify periodically - and slowly build up trust when good results are repeatedly shown.”