“The writing stuff just has much faster reinforcement rates, and so it’s real addictive”

In REST I talk about how the most restorative forms of rest are active and skilled rather than passive or easy. This seems counterintuitive, but in fact people generally get a lot of satisfaction and psychological benefit from doing things that they can do well, and from activities that let them feel in control of their circumstances.

In many cases, these forms of active, skilled rest turn into substantial investments of time and energy. Scientists who become mountain-climbers, executives who run marathons, surgeons who become serious gardeners or weekend ranchers, all spend what look like inordinate and inefficient amounts of time engaged in “deep play,” in activities that don’t provide any return on investment. These are smart, ambitious, people who don’t have more hours in the day than the rest of us, and have a lot they want to achieve. So why spend time hanging off cliffs?

The answer, I argue, is that these activities provide many of the same psychological rewards and satisfactions as their work, but without the frustrations. At the same time, they’re psychologically restorative because they offer those rewards in new and refreshing contexts; because they offer opportunities for flow, mastery, and control; and because they often have some deeply personal or autobiographical dimension that connects them to family, or their homeland, or their younger selves.

Recently I came across a transcript of an interview with neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, who is famous both for his scientific work, and for his more popular writing (like Monkeyluv and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers). His explanation of how began writing, and how it differs from his science, offers a textbook example of deep play.

First, here’s his explanation of how he started writing (the paragraph breaks and emphasis are added by me):

I never took a literature class in college, or any English course or anything. And I was not particularly into writing, and it was not until after I finished college—right after, a week after graduation—I went off to Africa for a year and a half to begin to get my field work started, which I have been doing ever since for twenty-five years and it was fairly isolated site, where a lot of the time I was by myself. I would go 8 to 10 hours a day without speaking to anyone, I would get a mail drop about once every two weeks or so, there was no electricity, there was no radio, there was no anything, and I suddenly got unbelievably, frantically dependent on mail. So as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you.

So what would happen is, all I could afford at the time were like these one-page aerogram things that you could sort of get in these big stacks, and something vaguely interesting would happen every couple of days or so. So you would write to somebody about it, and then you would write to the next person about it, and you would realize that before the end of the day, you had just written 25 versions of it, each of which was a page and a half long.

And I think somehow the process that year, sort of the writing just got very intertwined with sort of all of the more emotional issues, and there was definitely a shift there. I mean, before that I was a very, sort of a very serious musician, and a year and a half out in the field completely wiped that out, and there was a transition during that time from music to writing.

HO [Hilton Obenzinger, Associate Director for Honors Writing]: So it was in some ways an emotional protection racket. I mean, you were able to keep yourself attached to the world that way.

RS: Yeah, with a weird sort of time delay. Yeah, it did sort of…if you sent enough letters to people they would feel guilty and eventually write back to you. That’s what the weird thing is. It’s a whole Peace Corps dynamic.

HO: Well, it’s interesting, though. Because, you said, the same incident you would write it several different times. It wouldn’t be identical?

RS: No, I would get incredibly bored with the damn thing and would thus started editing and make it more concise, and all of that, and you could sort of see it shrinking until it was half an aerogram, and then I would have to come up with something else to say. So I think just sort of in passing it kind of forced me to start editing.

So Sapolsky’s writing life starts out the in field, as is connected with his development as a scientist– not so much linked to his research, but rather with the development of his identity as a researcher, and his learning to deal with the challenges of fieldwork.

Later, Sapolsky reflects on the differences between doing science and popular writing:

I live up in San Francisco, so I spend two hours a day on Caltrain, so I do a big percentage of my writing there and the phone’s not going to ring and nobody’s going to come in to ask me for a med school recommendation, and conductors leave me alone or whatever so that’s, that’s where I do my writing. And it’s actually gotten amazingly addictive….

[A]nyone who does science, like nothing ever works when you’re doing science and when it works it takes two and a half years to find out that it’s worked. It’s a very different sort of metabolic rate than the writing stuff, where like you can find out in the course of an hour if this paragraph pleases you or not. It’s like teaching, sort of; it’s much faster. So, sort of, if you’re spending most of your time in the science, where it’s this very holding your breath process. The writing stuff just has much faster reinforcement rates, and so it’s real addictive.

This is a typical feature of deep play: its rewards are similar to those of your work, but they happen a lot faster, and are often clearer. With scientists who are rock-climbers, for example, climbing is “like” science in that it requires concentration, solving lots of problems, and constructing solutions that are more or less elegant and obvious; but it’s faster, and at the end of a few hours you’ve either definitely succeeded (made it to the top), or definitely not.

Likewise, cryptographers at Bletchley Park played lots of chess, even though you’d think that people who spent all their time starting at paper and solving problems might prefer something less cerebral, like binge drinking. But for them, chess was attractive because it was solvable: the rules were clear, the strategies for solving problems were more straightforward, and after an hour or so you either won or lost. It provided a break from code-breaking because it was kind of like code-breaking, but also in essential ways different.

When Sapolsky talks about how science has a “different sort of metabolic rate” than writing, and how the “faster reinforcement rates” you find in writing make it more addictive, he’s describing something very similar.

Here’s the point.  Finding your own deep play, and sticking to it, is an essential component of having a sustainable professional or creative life. Over the long run, you’ll be more creative, more productive, and have a better life. Your long run will also probably be longer: the people in REST who are still active and publishing in their 80s or 90s are the ones who have deep play. I know it’s popular to talk about how much we love our work, or to talk about how our work is also our hobby, or our work doesn’t feel like work. TAKE MY ADVICE ANYWAY.

Now I’ve got to go read Sapolsky’s books. But first it’s off to the gym.

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