Sunday, May 9, 2010

Checklists, complexity and patterns

If anyone keeping up with this blog hasn't heard already, my life is about to go through a big change. (I'm leaving CERN and Switzerland to go back to California, where I'll study at UC Santa Cruz.)

Standing on the brink of another transition (which I am thrilled about) I've been thinking quite a lot about what I want my future life to look like. And it occurs to me that, while defining what makes a daily routine “good,” a career “good,” a friendship, a book, or even a glass of wine “good” might prove elusive, there are useful things to look for, that will give you a strong indication of its quality. A kind of “checklist of goodness.”

I've been thinking about this because, after reading Atul Gawande's essay “The Checklist”, I'm convinced of their power. I've made many lists for the things I need to do before I leave Switzerland and move back to California. I've made a check list of what I want in my apartment in Santa Cruz that I will (I hope) share with my brother. I have even gone so far as to make a mental checklist of the things to me that indicate a “good day.” Let's turn this checklist from mental to actual, shall we?

Sufficient sleep; sufficient water; time to exercise a little, read a little and think or write a little; fresh good food (including two hot meals, I guess I'm sort of high maintenance); some satisfying work; and some social contact.

People talk about a “perfect day,” a concept which I've also been thinking about and have concluded is downright evil. The strive for perfection is paralyzing. “Perfect is the enemy of good” as Voltaire so astutely noted.

So what makes things inherently good? This is a pretty interesting question. We often have a gut reaction to things. You taste a wine or meet a person and think, “I like it,” “I like them,” “I dislike it,” “I dislike them.” If you never venture beyond reacting to things and people, that's not a terrible problem. But it is useful to examine things a little closer to understand why.

What you like anyway is more appreciated because you can see it more clearly. And appreciation is the mother of enjoyment.

What you dislike, once you understand why, becomes less frustrating. You are better able to navigate the issue as you think and talk about it. You make better decisions as you decide what to do with it or, in some cases, with them.

Want to know where these thoughts stem from? A book I've begun listening to. A book on wine no less. Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer. The author makes a powerfully persuasive argument for things that seem to indicate goodness. I quote:

“Inevitably, one comes to the essence of the matter: What constitutes quality in wine? How do you go about distinguishing between what tastes good to you and what is genuinely good? It's not as difficult as it may appear, nor as arbitrary as it sounds. In anything where matters of taste are important there is no one idea, but there can be standards.”

He goes on to say that, for wine, complexity is the single most important standard. He says that humans (and animals too research indicates) find complexity fascinating, possibly because this keeps us surprised and engaged. However, a certain harmony, the existence of patterns, a sort of cohesion, is required otherwise we find the complexity jarring and eventually irritating. Now, I find this idea fascinating. This is why we love studying science, reading Russian novels or seeing patterns repeat in plants and flowers.

Beyond that, he speaks of other needed qualities: balance, proportion, and “finesse” or fine-ness (the quality most elusive of definition, so we'll save that for another time). I put it to you, these are not just needed for good wine, these qualities, this checklist, are what makes anything good. Architecture. Fashion. Literature. A great dinner. Our day and, yes, our life.

Now, speaking of exquisite, balanced, fine, well-proportioned food, the Japanese do quite an amazing job. Mark Bittman (who I am adopting as a food fairy god-uncle) has inspired me with his column in this week's NYTimes. This is to be the afternoon's experiment.

(Photo above found here.)

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