Dilbert - memory


Creativity itself might be a direct by-product of failure. That is the rather orthogonal argument by Dilbert’s Scott Adams in his post “Creativity and Memory”…

  • I have an astonishingly bad memory. On the plus side, I’m more creative than most civilians. I think the two are connected…I’m good at remembering concepts, systems, ideas, and generally how things flow and fit together. But I don’t have a trace of photographic memory in which one can remember exact conversations, phone numbers, names, and other matters of objective fact. I also can’t remember directions to a new place until I’ve been there a hundred times. It’s inconvenient as hell. In school, I could force myself to remember topics for tests, but it only lasted as long as the test…The way I perceive the act of creativity while it happens in me is as a process of forgetting, not a process of creating. The mind is not capable of having zero thoughts, so when you flush whatever is in your head at the moment it creates a sort of vacuum that sucks in a new thought. In my case, that process of forgetting and then sucking in a new thought happens continuously. My memory isn’t ‘sticky,’ so what comes in slides right back out in a nanosecond. Sometimes a new thought is worth writing down, which I either do right away or lose it forever. Usually the new idea is random garbage and it passes quickly, making room for the next idea. My mind feels like a slot machine that I can’t stop pulling. Sometimes the diamonds line up, but not often.”

Scott’s hypothesis rings true with two data points in the Lynn household. First of all, his piece describes me pretty accurately as well. I have always struggled to keep track of specifics. That is one of the reasons why I got into the computer industry in the first place as they were so good at memory. I an obsessive ‘jot it down’ person (which I am doing right now having read this piece but expecting to post on it later). My colleagues as Microsoft used to call me an ‘Idea Hamster’ (reference a wheel that just keeps spinning and spinning).

This balance didn’t always work in my favour in my career at Microsoft where much more of the ’Business Review’ is more like a savant’s Trivial Pursuit game of executives trying to catch the other out by asking the most esoteric questions possible to ‘test’ each other’s in depth ‘knowledge of the business’. While there is a case to be made for the notion that people who know their businesses well will know lots of the detail. But knowing *all* of the detail is a not only a fool’s errand, but a bit of a waste of resources. After all, they have computers for that stuff who do a pretty good job and storing and retrieving facts.

Another dividend to my weak memory for esoterica is my insatiable drive for simplification. If it is too complex I either can understand it or can keep track of all of the pieces. As a result, I am constantly stripping away non-essentials to get to the core. Colin Powell says “Great leaders are great simplifiers.” If this is the case, then a bit of a thick skull is a leg up.

The other data point is my wife Lori. She can remember 3 hours of opera score and yet forget a movie she saw last month. We joke that she simply doesn’t store any memories of films in order to keep cerebral buffer space freed up for the heavy demands of her opera career.

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